Facing an onslaught of indignation and qualms even from his inner circle, President Donald Trump claimed Thursday to be unhappy his rally crowd broke into chants of “send her back” as he denigrated a Democratic lawmaker he’d previously said should leave the US.
“I was not happy with it. I disagree with it,” Trump said at the White House a day after the rally, when a crowded arena in North Carolina began the thundering chant as he assailed Rep. Ilhan Omar, a freshman Minnesota Democrat who was born in Somalia.
“I didn’t say that,” he went on, “they did.”
Trump’s apparent disavowal came after expressions of concern from Republicans and outright outrage from Democrats, who accused the President of stoking racist sentiments among his white working class base. He also heard from close allies and aides – including his daughter, Ivanka – concerned the chant could come to define another dark and racially divisive campaign.
It’s the latest in a multi-day controversy involving Trump and a foursome of first-term congresswomen of color, who Trump has repeatedly denigrated as he works to paint them as the new face of the Democratic Party.
Speaking to reporters, Trump claimed to have attempted to stop the chant Wednesday night by resuming his speech – “I started speaking very quickly,” he said – an assertion refuted by video of the event. Trump waited 13 seconds before speaking as the crowd loudly shouted the three words.
In the lull, Trump appeared to listen, letting the chant gain momentum, before resuming his speech, which continued with a litany of complaints against Omar and the other lawmakers.
‘Tell them to leave’
Later in his remarks, Trump encouraged his audience to “tell them to leave” the US if they continue to criticize him.
“They are always telling us how to run it, how to do this. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it,” Trump said.
Though Trump claimed to reporters he disagreed with the feelings expressed by his supporters, it was his own tweet from several days earlier that originally prompted calls for Omar, along with three other female lawmakers, to leave the country.
In that tweet, Trump cast the women as foreigners who should return to the “broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
Trump staunchly defended himself after that message, insisting it wasn’t racist and launching an all-out-assault on the lawmakers, which also include Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
Republicans by and large stood by him, casting his criticism as of the lawmakers’ far-left policies and not based on their ethnicity or religion.
But the “send her back” chant on Wednesday complicated those explanations with its starkly nativist message. The episode prompted widespread condemnation from Democrats, including those vying to replace Trump. It also sparked queasiness among some of Trump’s supporters, including at the White House.
Amid fallout from the chants, the Trump campaign held a conference call Thursday morning with surrogates laying out fresh messaging for attacks on the “Squad.” Campaign officials advised downplaying the chants as “silliness” from a rowdy crowd, one source on the call said, though did not encourage allies to disavow the chants.
Instead, surrogates were encouraged to continue attacks on the “squad” by characterizing them as radicals and focusing specifically on controversial things that Omar has said in the past.
‘It’s tough to hear’
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP leader, told reporters on Thursday morning the chant had “no place in our party or our country,” but sought to defend the President’s actions during the rally.
“What the President did, the President did not join in,” he said. “The President moved on.”
Later, a White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said on Fox News that Trump remained “stoic” during the chant and suggested he may not have been able to hear what was being shouted.
“It’s tough to hear what they were chanting,” he said.
Still, many of Trump’s close aides expressed deep misgivings about the chant and warned of the danger in allowing it to become regular part of his rollicking campaign rallies.
In early morning phone calls, Trumps’ allies relayed concerns to senior White House officials and the President himself. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, spoke with the President about the chant and expressed her concerns, according to a person familiar with the matter.
A group of Republican lawmakers expressed concerns over breakfast with Vice President Mike Pence at his residence in Washington. Pence introduced Trump at his rally in North Carolina on Thursday and delivered his own criticisms of what he said were socialist policies coming from Democrats.
Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican who also attended the rally, wrote on Twitter he “struggled” with the chant. At breakfast with Pence, Walker conveyed concern that “send her back” not become the overriding sentiment of Trump’s 2020 campaign, he told reporters on Thursday.
In the Oval Office later in the day, Trump said he “felt a little bit badly” about the chant and claimed the hall where he spoke was noisy and hectic. Still, he said he would “certainly try” to prevent such a chant from breaking out again.
“It was quite a chant,” Trump said.