Trump tries to distance himself from 'Send her back' chants despite silence at rally
Says he 'felt a little bit badly about it,' claims to have tried to stop chant
U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday sought to distance himself from supporters' chants of "Send her back" after he criticized Somali-born Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar at a rally in North Carolina.
"I felt a little bit badly about it," Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about the chants, which drew an outpouring of criticism. "I disagreed with it. But again I didn't say that. They did. And I disagreed with."
Speaking in the Oval Office, Trump claimed he tried to stop the chant, which came after he recited a litany of complaints about Omar, the Minnesota representative who fled to the U.S. as a child with her family from violence-wracked Somalia. Video shows the president pausing his remarks, appearing to drink in the uproar and not admonishing his supporters as they chanted.
"I was not happy with it," Trump said a day later as some prominent Republicans criticized the chant at the president's re-election event. He said he "would certainly try" to stop the chant should it return at a subsequent rally.
Watch Trump's reaction to the chants at his rally:
So far, no Republican lawmakers are directly taking on Trump over the episode. Omar, however, responded bluntly to Trump and the chants.
"We have said this president is racist. We have condemned his racist remarks. I believe he is fascist," she said. "I want to remind people that this is what this president and his supporters have taught our country that is supposed to be a country where we allow democratic debate and dissent to take place.
"And so this is not about me. This is about us fighting for what this country truly should be."
Watch Omar call Trump 'fascist':
The freshman congresswoman has fast become a leading critic of Trump and his politics, winning fans at home and abroad. A crowd of supporters holding signs that read "Stand with Ilhan" and "Stop racism now" met her Thursday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as she arrived from Washington. She was due to hold a rally Thursday night in her Minneapolis district.
Congresswoman Omar just arrived back in the Twin Cities. <a href="https://t.co/ZiFqWnDJgQ">pic.twitter.com/ZiFqWnDJgQ</a>—@thauserkstp
The muted reactions by congressional Republicans followed a pattern that's become familiar after numerous incidents in Trump's presidency when he's made antagonistic or racially provocative comments.
At the Wednesday campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., Trump tore into the four progressive freshman congresswomen — Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — who last weekend he tweeted should return to their native countries if they "hate America."
All of the four who strongly oppose many of Trump's policies are U.S. citizens, and three were born in the U.S.
Trump's criticism of Omar included a false accusation that she has voiced pride in al-Qaeda .
Among the Democrats criticizing Trump and his rally, 2020 presidential contender Joe Biden said Trump was exploiting race relations to excite his base and should have quieted the crowd.
"Let me hear you say 'I condemn them,"' the former vice-president told reporters following a campaign event in Los Angeles.
Some Republicans criticize chant
Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters that such cries "have no place in our party and no place in this country."
But McCarthy, a staunch Trump ally, said the president's aversion to Omar is based on ideology, not race.
"This is about socialism versus freedom," he said, a refrain Republicans are increasingly using as they begin trying to frame their offensive against Democrats for the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he didn't think the chant was racist, and that his issues with the four congresswomen are over "policy, not personality."
"Was it racist to say 'love it or leave it?' I don't think a Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back," the South Carolina senator said. "If you're a racist, you want everybody from Somalia to go back because they're black or they're Muslim. That's not what this is about, to me.
"What this is about, to me, is that these four ... in their own way have been incredibly provocative."
Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a conservative who attended Trump's rally, told reporters at the Capitol that the chant "does not need to be our campaign call like we did, 'Lock her up,' last time."
That was a reference to a 2016 campaign mantra that Trump continues to encourage aimed at that year's Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Though it was brief, I struggled with the “send her back” chant tonight referencing Rep. Omar. Her history, words & actions reveal her great disdain for both America & Israel. That should be our focus and not phrasing that’s painful to our friends in the minority communities.—@RepMarkWalker
Walker, who called the chant "offensive," was among House Republican leaders who had breakfast Thursday with Vice-President Mike Pence at Pence's residence in Washington. Walker said he cautioned Pence that attention to the chant could distract voters next year from the economy and other themes Republicans want to emphasize.
"We don't need to take it that far where we change the narrative of the story," he said he told Pence.
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger tweeted that the "Send her back" chant was "ugly, wrong, & would send chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers. This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union."
Rep. Tom Emmer, who heads the House Republicans' campaign organization, told reporters, "There's no place for that kind of talk. I don't agree with it."
But he defended Trump, saying there isn't "a racist bone in this president's body" and asserting that Trump "said wrong" what he actually meant.
"What he was trying to say is that if you don't appreciate this country, you don't have to be here. That goes for every one of us. It has nothing to do with your race, your gender, your family history. It has to do with respecting and loving the country that has given you the opportunities which you have."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Fox Business News that it's time to "lower the rhetoric" about racism. He did not mention the crowd's chants or Trump's acceptance of them.
The Democratic-led House voted Tuesday to condemn Trump's tweets as racist. On Wednesday, it rejected an effort by one Democrat that was opposed by party leaders to impeach Trump.
With files from Reuters