Donald Trump has distanced himself from “send her back” chants against a Somali-born congresswoman, despite earlier calling for her to leave the US.
A day after his supporters railed against Democratic lawmaker Ilhan Omar at Mr Trump’s campaign rally, the president claimed he had tried to stop them.
Video of the event shows Mr Trump pausing his speech, appearing to drink in the uproar and not admonishing his thousands of supporters as they repeatedly cried “send her back”.
The incident sparked condemnation as both sides of politics expressed concern about the president inciting calls for people to leave America.
Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who fled to the US as a child with her family from violence-wracked Somalia, has been a vocal critic of Mr Trump.
This is one of the single most racist moments in modern American political history. As Trump began attacking my friend Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the crowd began chanting “SEND HER BACK, SEND HER BACK.” It’s utterly despicable and dangerous. We are here. We are in THAT time. UGLY. pic.twitter.com/6M0PBXe4Lr
— Shaun King (@shaunking) July 17, 2019
The president has accused Ms Omar and another three female Democratic lawmakers – dubbed “The Squad” – of hating America and casting them as foreigners.
In one tweet in the days leading up to his rally in North Carolina, Mr Trump said they should return to the “broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.
Then in the closing stages of his event, after earlier failing to criticise the “send her back” chants, Mr Trump encouraged the crowd to “tell them to leave” if the women continued to criticise 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,” Mr Trump said at the time.
However on Thursday (local time), a day after his re-election rally, Mr Trump spoke out and said he did not agree with his supporters’ sentiments, noting: “I didn’t say that; they did”.
“I was not happy with it. I disagree with it,” Mr Trump said at the White House as prominent Republicans voiced criticism.
“I felt a little bit badly about it,” Mr Trump said, adding he “would certainly try” to stop it next time but it had started so fast.
Ms Omar and three other women dubbed “The Squad” – Democratics Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – are all American citizens from minority backgrounds, and three were born in the US.
The “send her back” cries have been condemned on both sides of politics, including by senior Republicans and conservative commentators who variously described the incident as “ugly”, “disturbing” and “vile”.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a staunch Trump ally, said such cries “have no place in our party and no place in this country” and that the president’s aversion to Ms Omar was based on ideology, not race.
“This is about socialism versus freedom,” he said.
Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois 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”.
Representative Tom Emmer, who heads the House Republican’s campaign organisation, told reporters there was “no place” for such talk.
“I don’t agree with it,” he said.
But he defended Mr Trump, saying there isn’t “a racist bone in this president’s body” and asserting that Mr 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,” Mr Emmer said.
“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 was time to “lower the rhetoric” about racism.
Ms Omar responded to the controversy, accusing Mr Trump of “spewing his fascist ideology on stage” and telling US citizens to go back if they criticised him.
She tweeted lines from Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise and later shared a photo of herself in the House of Representatives saying, “I am where I belong”.
👋🏽 I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal! pic.twitter.com/W0OvDXGxQX
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2019