WASHINGTON – Nervous Republicans, from senior members of Congress to his own daughter Ivanka, urged President Donald Trump on Thursday to repudiate the “send her back” chant directed at a Somali-born congresswoman during his speech the night before at a rally in North Carolina, amid widespread fears that the rally had veered into territory that could hurt the party in 2020.
In response, Trump disavowed the behavior of his own supporters in comments to reporters at the White House and claimed that he had tried to contain it, an assertion clearly contradicted by video of the event.
Trump said he was “not happy” with the chant directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, whom the president had been in the middle of denouncing as an anti-American leftist who has spoken in “vicious, anti-Semitic screeds,” when the chant was taken up by the crowd.
Pressed on why he did not stop it, Trump said, “I think I did — I started speaking very quickly.” In fact, as the crowd roared “send her back,” Trump paused and looked around silently for more than 10 seconds as the scene unfolded in front of him, doing nothing to halt the chorus. “I didn’t say that,” he added. “They did.”
Trump’s cleanup attempt reflected the misgivings of political allies who have warned him privately that however much his hard-core supporters in the arena might have enjoyed the moment, the president was playing with political fire, according to people briefed on the conversations.
Among them were House Republican leaders, who pleaded with Vice President Mike Pence to distance the party from the message embraced by the crowd in Greenville, N.C. Pence conveyed that message directly to Trump, according to people familiar with the exchange.
“That does not need to be our campaign call, like we did the ‘lock her up’ last time,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a top official in the party’s messaging arm, referring to the chant that has broken out virtually every time Trump has mentioned Hillary Clinton at gatherings of his supporters since the 2016 campaign. Midway through the campaign, Trump told reporters he did not approve of that chant but never intervened on the many occasions when it occurred.
Walker, who attended the rally, later tweeted that he had “struggled” with the chant. “We cannot be defined by this,” he said.
The retreat by Trump reflects a larger issue for Republicans as they devise a strategy for the election. There is wide agreement in the party that branding Democrats as radicals in favor of open borders and grandiose proposals like the Green New Deal could be a powerful argument in their attempt to hold the White House and make further inroads in Congress.
But while Omar and her fellow liberal freshmen who make up “the squad” — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — are particularly good embodiments of that radicalism for Republicans, there is also concern that suggesting they leave the country makes the argument too personal and could backfire.
Trump’s freewheeling campaign rallies — at which he aims for maximum entertainment value by testing boundaries and breaking taboos, all while his enthusiastic supporters egg him on with cheers and chants — encourage that kind of language. The feedback loop is so familiar by now that Trump’s staff, fearing something like what wound up happening Wednesday night, explicitly warned him before the rally that the crowd would follow his lead as he spoke about Omar and to be careful not to let things spin out of control.
Even before Wednesday’s rally, his aides and advisers had spent days trying to manage the fallout from the president’s initial Sunday tweets calling on the four Democratic congresswomen, who he said “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” to “go back” and “help fix” them.
All of them are American citizens, and all but Omar were born in the United States.
After the rally, Trump made no mention of any concern. “Just returned to the White House from the Great State of North Carolina. What a crowd, and what great people,” Trump tweeted.