WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Friday demonstrated the limited influence of allies or advisers who try to steer him away from pre-election racial and cultural fights. He walked back his disavowal of a racially loaded chant at a campaign rally less than 24 hours after making it.
Acquiescing to behind-the-scenes pressure from nervous GOP lawmakers and from daughter Ivanka Trump, the president distanced himself Thursday from the chant of “Send her back!” that the crowd at his rally Wednesday in Greenville, N.C., directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who was born in Somalia. On Thursday, Trump said he was “not happy” with the chant’s language and claimed, falsely, that he had tried to cut it off.
But Friday, Trump appeared to disavow his disavowal — following the same three-stage crisis playbook he used after setting off a wave of criticism when he defended neo-Nazi protesters in 2017 Charlottesville, Va.
“No, you know what I’m unhappy with — the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country,” Trump said, referring to Omar, when he was asked about the chant condemned by Republicans as well as Democrats. “I’m unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can say anti-Semitic things. I’m unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman, in this case a different congresswoman, can call our country and our people ‘garbage.’ That’s what I’m unhappy with.”
Trump called the crowd “incredible patriots” and said that Omar was “lucky to be where she is.”
When asked about the chant again later in the day as he left to spend the weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Trump refused to condemn them. Instead, he seemed to be repeating his criticism of Omar and her allies in Congress without mentioning any names.
“You know what’s racist to me, when someone goes out and says the horrible things about our country,” he said. “The people of our country that are anti-Semitic, that hate everybody, that speak with scorn and hate — that to me is really a dangerous thing.”
The reversal followed the same pattern as the one after Charlottesville.
After Trump’s original response to the violence that took place there in August 2017, a low point of his presidency, aides urged him to take the high ground. Days later he finally relented, reading a prepared statement, in which he, for the first time, unequivocally condemned neo-Nazi groups and stated that “racism is evil.”
But the next day, he reverted to his original stance in a combative exchange with reporters in which he again blamed both sides for the violence that left one demonstrator dead and dozens injured. But while business leaders and GOP lawmakers briefly distanced themselves from Trump at the time, he appears to have suffered little long-term political damage because of the episode — and that lesson appears to have made an impression.
“It just destroys him to seem to be abandoning his base on any issue,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “When he originally said he distanced himself from the chant at the rally, one could have guessed he would go back and embrace the people who cheered ‘Send her back!’ Contrite is not in his playbook.”
But even some Trump critics said that the walkback of the walkback was not necessarily damaging to him. “I wish I could say it was foolish, but what have the actual consequences been in the real world or in Republican support of him sticking to his guns?” said conservative columnist William Kristol, a prominent Trump opponent.