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Trump says he disagrees with ‘send her back’ chant directed at Rep. Omar during his rally despite his previous ‘go back’ tweet

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/18/2019 John Wagner, Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis
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President Trump said Thursday that he disagreed with a chant at his campaign rally of “Send her back!” directed at a Somali-born lawmaker whom he targeted in recent days with almost identical language.

His comments in the Oval Office came after House Republicans questioned Vice President Pence about the episode in a private meeting and asked Trump to distance himself from the racially charged rhetoric.

“I wasn’t happy with that message that they gave last night,” Trump said of the crowd at his rally in Greenville, N.C., Wednesday night. “I was not happy when I heard that chant.”

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Pressed by a reporter why he did not try to stop the chant directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Trump said he thought he had done so by starting to speak again “very quickly.” 

“I started very quickly, and I think you know that,” he said.

In fact, the president did not start speaking immediately but paused for about 13 seconds as the chants were heard.

On Sunday, Trump suggested that Omar and three other congresswomen “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came.” Three of those lawmakers — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — are from the United States. Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000.

Asked what he thought prompted the chant, Trump told reporters that they should go to North Carolina and ask the people there. And he said that if such a chant took place again, he would try to stop it.

Upon returning to the White House on Wednesday, Trump tweeted about the energy at the rally, writing, “What a crowd, and what great people.”

His comments Thursday came during an event with members of the U.S. team in the Special Olympics.

Just hours earlier, House Republican leaders asked Pence in a private meeting at his residence to convey to Trump their unease about the language.

During the meeting, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a former pastor who had been at the rally, told Pence that “we have to be defined by our policies, not by offensive chants,” according to a person familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations.

Trump restated his disagreement with the chants during a later meeting in the Oval Office but said the four lawmakers “have a big obligation — and the obligation is to love your country.”

Earlier Thursday, congressional Republicans sought to walk a fine line between condemning the chant while continuing to stand by Trump’s efforts to turn the four lawmakers into the face of the Democratic Party.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chairman of the campaign committee for House Republicans, told reporters that there was “no place for that kind of talk. But Emmer also defended Trump for his tweets that suggested Omar and the three other minority lawmakers should “go back” to their ancestral countries. Emmer said “there’s not a racist bone in Trump’s body” and “what he was trying to say, he said wrong.”

And Emmer echoed Trump’s attempts to portray the four freshman lawmakers — known on Capitol Hill as “the Squad” — as representative of the Democratic Party heading into next year’s elections.

“You should call them the leadership squad since they are the speakers, in fact,” Emmer said. “The rest of their conference should be called the new red army of socialists.”

Other Republican lawmakers struck a similar tone as they responded to Trump’s rally at which he repeated his contention that the four lawmakers “don’t love our country” and took aim at them one by one.

While Trump was critical of the other three — Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib — he reserved most of his wrath for Omar.

Walker was the first Republican in Congress to publicly express reservations about what had occurred, saying in a tweet Wednesday night that he “struggled with the ‘send her back’ chant.”

Walker, the vice chair of the GOP caucus, elaborated on Thursday morning, telling reporters that he found the chant “offensive.”

“That does not need to be our campaign call like we did the ‘lock her up’ last time,” Walker said, referring to a common chant at Trump rallies in 2016 related to Democrat Hillary Clinton. “We cannot be defined by this . . . Let’s focus on what’s been said and the actions of Representative Omar.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) defended Trump at a news conference, asserting that the chants were coming from “a small group of people off to the side.”

“The president didn’t join in any chant like that,” McCarthy said. “He moved on in the speech. He never joined in on it.”

McCarthy also decried “this new socialist Democrat majority” during his remarks.

Others also started weighing in Thursday morning.

“I deeply disagree with the extreme left & have been disgusted by their tone,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). “I woke up today equally disgusted — chants like ‘send her back’ are ugly, wrong, & would send chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers. This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said he found the chant “inappropriate.”

“I wish we’d get off that and start talking about the economy and things that are really good, things that the majority of Republicans agree with,” he said. “It’s okay to go out and say, ‘Hey, these guys are promoting a socialist agenda, etc., etc., etc.’ But when you call them ‘un-American,’ when you get personal and that kind of stuff, I think you cross the board.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said it appeared the crowd “sort of got caught up in the atmosphere and probably didn’t think through what they were saying.”

“Probably somebody just started shouting something. But no American should ever talk to another American that way,” Cole said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made no mention of Trump’s rally during remarks Thursday morning in the chamber but referenced past questionable statements by Omar about Israel and lamented that “so many Democrats have moved so far to the extreme left.”

Democratic House leaders, meanwhile, sought to turn their attention back to their legislative agenda on Thursday after several days of controversy generated by Trump’s tweets against the four lawmakers.

“I think we’re at the point where we just got to ignore this guy. That’s my strategy,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) at the outset of a day in which House Democrats voted to approve legislation that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15.

Asked whether Democrats were trying to keep the focus on that effort, Clyburn said, “That’s exactly right.”

Omar told reporters that she, too, wanted to stay focused on her work in Congress.

“What I’m going to be busy doing is uplifting people, making sure that they understand that here in this country we are all Americans,” she said. “We are all welcome irregardless of what [Trump] says. So I’m going to go vote on the minimum wage and uplift millions of people. And I’m going to go hang out with my daughter.”

Ocasio-Cortez said that what had transpired at the rally raised concerns about the safety of the lawmakers.

Trump, she said, “is evolving — as predicted — deeper into the rhetoric of racism, which evolves into violence. I think it’s natural to be concerned with safety.”

Trump has sought to keep the focus on Omar and the other three minority lawmakers since Sunday, when he sent his tweets saying they should go back to “the crime infested places from which they came.”

The House voted Tuesday night to condemn his remarks. Four Republicans and one independent joined Democrats in voting for the resolution.

Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), an independent who recently left the Republican Party after calling for Trump’s impeachment, spoke out Thursday on the rally.

“A chant like ‘Send her back!’ is ugly and dangerous, and it is the inevitable consequence of President Trump’s demagoguery,” he wrote. “This is how history’s worst episodes begin. We must not allow this man to take us to such a place.”

john.wagner@washpost.com

rachael.bade@washpost.com

mike.debonis@washpost.com

Paul Kane, Seung Min Kim and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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