Trump’s shift Friday was reminiscent of how he responded to the deadly clash between white nationalists and protesters in Charlottesville in August 2017. He initially denounced the bigotry and hatred, then issued a stronger statement calling the racism practiced by hate groups “evil,” but the next day he spoke of “very fine people on both sides.”
His comments Friday capped a tumultuous week when Trump tweeted that the four women should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” and repeatedly defended his words despite widespread criticism that his remarks were racist and divisive. In a rare rebuke, the House voted to condemn his racist tweets about the four lawmakers.
Trump said Friday that criticism of the United States is unacceptable and that the four congresswomen “can’t get away with” it.
“I can tell you this, you can’t talk that way about our country, not when I’m the president,” he told reporters outside the White House.
Every American has the right of free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution, a reporter pointed out — and the president acknowledged that.
“We have First Amendment rights also — we can . . . say what we want,” Trump said. It was unclear who he was referring to as “we.”
The four Democrats — Omar, and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — have warned that the country has taken a wrong turn with Trump administration policies, most notably on immigration and climate change.
Trump, in his inaugural address, spoke of “American carnage,” describing empty factories “like tombstones across the landscape,” and separately has talked about China outpacing the United States. His 2016 campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” as if it weren’t.
At the rally Wednesday, Trump supporters chanted “Send her back!” when the president recounted several of Omar’s comments, mischaracterizing some of them, and lashed out at her for her opposition to the Israeli government.
The next day, Trump said he didn’t condone that chant, but by Friday morning he was back on the attack. He assailed the media for its coverage of the episode and hailed the crowd at the North Carolina rally.
“Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots,” the president said during an event in the Oval Office at which he again attacked Omar.
“She’s lucky to be where she is, let me tell you,” he said. “And the things that she has said are a disgrace to our country.”
Asked about his unhappiness with the rally chant, Trump said: “You know what I’m unhappy with? I’m unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country. I’m unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can say anti-Semitic things.”
Trump has provided no evidence that Omar has ever said she hates the United States. Earlier this week she said, “I probably love this country more than anyone that is naturally born.”
In tweets earlier Friday, Trump characterized media coverage of his rally in Greenville, N.C., as “crazed” and complained that the media was “totally calm & accepting” of what he said were “vile and disgusting statements” made by Omar and the three other minority congresswomen whom he has repeatedly criticized in recent days.
Trump also complained that the media covered the return of Omar to her home state Thursday. She was greeted at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by a crowd chanting, “Welcome home, Ilhan!”
The president has taken repeated aim at the four since Sunday, when his “go back” tweet caused an uproar, decried by Democrats and a few Republicans.
Besides Omar, the other three lawmakers were born in the United States. Omar was born in Somalia and became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
Much of Trump’s criticism of Omar has focused on remarks she has made about Israel. Earlier this year, she tweeted that support for Israel among members of Congress was “all about the Benjamins,” a reference to $100 bills.
In February, she apologized for her comment, saying in a statement: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.” She also clarified that, in general, her remarks were aimed at criticizing the Israeli government, not Jewish people.
Trump also has falsely accused Omar of praising the terrorist group al-Qaeda.
Speaking to reporters Friday afternoon, he claimed that the congresswomen have talked about “evil Jews,” which they haven’t, and inaccurately said Ocasio-Cortez had called America “garbage,” when she was actually talking about not settling for incremental policies that were “10 percent better than garbage.”
Reporters asked Trump if he believed that the “Send her back!” chant was racist.
“No, you know what’s racist to me? When somebody goes out and says the horrible things about our country, the people of our country, that are anti-Semitic, who hate everybody, who speak with scorn and hate,” Trump said. “ . . . We’re dealing with people who hate our country.”
During an event Thursday in the Oval Office, Trump told reporters that he did not agree with the chant of “Send her back!” and “felt a little bit badly about it.” He also claimed that he had moved to cut off the chant by starting to speak against it “very quickly,” even though he paused for 13 seconds until the chant died down.
Kayleigh McEnany, a spokeswoman for Trump’s reelection campaign, told CBSN on Thursday that Trump “couldn’t really hear what was going on” when the crowd started to chant.
Trump’s decision to try to distance himself from the chant came after a flurry of GOP lawmakers publicly condemned it, even while being careful not to denounce Trump directly.
On Friday, Trump dismissed reports that first lady Melania Trump and his daughter Ivanka had advised him to condemn the racist chant.
“False information. It was fake news,” he said.
In his tweets Friday, Trump predicted that he would win Minnesota next year, saying voters there “can’t stand” Omar and “her hatred of our Country.”
In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Minnesota by less than two percentage points.
Later Friday morning, Trump retweeted several of his tweets from earlier this week in which he was critical of Omar and the other minority lawmakers, including one in which he said it was “sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama weighed in on Twitter.
“What truly makes our country great is its diversity. I’ve seen that beauty in so many ways over the years,” she wrote. “Whether we are born here or seek refuge here, there’s a place for us all. We must remember it’s not my America or your America. It’s our America.”
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, on Friday tweeted footage of Omar’s greeting at the airport as she returned to Minnesota the night before.
“This land is your land, This land is my land, This land was made for you and me,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote, adding the hashtag, “#IStandWithIlhan.”
In remarks at the airport, Omar pledged to continue to be Trump’s “nightmare.”
“When I said I was the president’s nightmare, well you’re watching it now,” she said. “Because his nightmare is seeing a Somali immigrant refugee rise to Congress.”
Ashley Parker and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.