Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) stood atop the edge of a flower bed to address a swelling crowd of union protesters. She was a few seconds into her speech when a worker interrupted her.
In the weeks since President Trump’s July 14 tweet telling Tlaib and three minority female colleagues, who are all citizens, to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” the lawmakers known as “the Squad” — Tlaib and fellow Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) — have experienced a surge of interest and support. Fundraising for their political campaigns has spiked, as have their online followings. The four women have collectively drawn more than 1 million additional Twitter followers.
But the heightened profile has come with complications.
The women are trying to manage the risk of being perceived as more of a pop sensation than serious purveyors of policy, according to aides. And they worry that too much attention might inflame their opponents, said the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Amid the Squad mania over the past few weeks, aides said they had rejected pitches for photo shoots from two fashion magazines.
The ultimate goal, the lawmakers say, is to harness Trump’s negative messages about them into something potentially positive — a bigger platform to press their agenda.
“What Trump is doing is trying to play to his base,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Except the thing is, we’ve got a base, too. That’s not something he’s used to.”
Trump, whose mention of Omar prompted a “send her back” chant from the crowd at a North Carolina rally last month, alluded to them at his Cincinnati rally on Thursday without naming them — saying the “Democrat Party is now being led by four left-wing extremists who reject everything that we hold dear.” Trump has also expanded his attacks to another minority lawmaker — repeatedly tweeting insults in recent days at Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and the Baltimore district he represents.
The scene at the union rally where Tlaib spoke last month, outside Reagan National Airport, demonstrated the Squad’s emerging power. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), two of the most prominent liberal Democratic candidates for president, also addressed the crowd — but neither received as raucous of an ovation as the freshman congresswoman from Detroit.
In Tlaib’s speech, she tried to move between the tweets and connected Trump’s behavior to larger themes. Tlaib told the audience that Trump’s “hate agenda” helped distract the country from his tax cuts to the rich while union workers like them struggled to make a living wage.
“It’s not just about hating ethnicity,” she said. “It’s about hating workers.”
“Keep calling him out!” one person responded.
Another shouted a vulgar phrase that Tlaib had used months ago about how to handle the president.
“Thank you for helping to put a smile on my face,” Tlaib said. “It’s not easy . . . dealing with this hate agenda.”
Aides to the four lawmakers privately say they are concerned about the toll of the intensified attention they are receiving. After the women interviewed with Gayle King for “CBS This Morning,” their media teams severely limited access to them. The lawmakers only took interviews as they walked the halls between meetings.
The death threats have become so persistent that Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley said they asked not to be informed of them unless the threats seem credible and imminent.
“I’m just, like, over it,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Since Trump’s attacks, though, staff had to inform her several times of those types of threats. Two Louisiana police officers were fired recently after one wrote and the other liked a Facebook post saying Ocasio-Cortez, a former bartender, “needs a round........and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve.” Last week, images circulated online of a billboard advertising a North Carolina gun store featuring large pictures of the four lawmakers and the words, “The Four Horsemen Are Idiots.”
Ocasio-Cortez said she gave up her television, in part to avoid the incessant coverage of her, and was trying to spend less time on social media.
“It’s funny to me that a joke about female friendship became this thing,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
The “squad” moniker started with Ocasio-Cortez after she posted a photo of the women on Instagram with a caption using the popular Internet phrase.
The newly elected congresswomen all had broken ground — Ocasio-Cortez, at 29, was the youngest woman elected to Congress; Tlaib and Omar were the first female Muslim lawmakers on the Hill; and Pressley is the first black woman to represent a district in Massachusetts.
They are all known as being ardent and outspoken liberals who support ideas that Republicans describe as socialist, including tuition-free college and government-run health care.
Each embody different political styles. For example, Tlaib has made news for her self-described “raw” language while Pressley tends to speak in sweeping, alliterative prose.
They also do not necessarily vote as a bloc. They split on votes for the House spending bill, and Pressley was the only one who supported a House resolution to condemn the global movement for boycotts, divestments and sanctions on Israel.
They have become celebrities on the left, even as they are vilified on the right.
One day late last month, Ocasio-Cortez strode into a congressional building, unaware that she was being followed by three teenagers. As she stood in a hallway, they decided to approach.
“I can’t believe I ran into you!” one said, asking for a selfie.
“It was my goal to meet you,” said another.
A line of admirers soon formed. They were in many cases indicative of the diverse coalition Ocasio-Cortez and her allies represent.
Fifth in line was a middle-aged Republican family. The sixth person was a young white woman who said she regarded Ocasio-Cortez as a hero. A man who said he had been a women’s rights activist for 40 years was the 12th person, and a Hill intern who described herself “as a brown girl from Kentucky” was the 17th.
In all, 23 people had approached Ocasio-Cortez before she could move on. She had been in the building for seven minutes.
The attention can be distracting. So, amid the furor over the attacks by Trump, Ocasio-Cortez took her staff members on a trip to the House archives. They looked at records of debates over the Civil Rights Act to find inspiration. She said she learned that even the committee chairman had to be persuaded to vote in favor of the landmark legislation, and other lawmakers tried to add controversial amendments to the bill to keep it from passing. It reaffirmed to them that political games in Washington had always been present.
“It was this great moment of perspective for us,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
The next day, Pressley was sitting between Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez at a House Oversight Committee meeting — and the three again experienced another reality of their celebrity status.
High school students visiting the District had heard that three members of the Squad might be at the hearing, so they filled every seat.
Outside, there were at least a hundred more, most of whom were at a summer camp run by the American Civil Liberties Union, texting with other teenagers about taking turns to watch the action.
The heated conversation — over a Democratic resolution to subpoena government emails from the private server of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s relatives and advisers — was of little interest to most in the crowd, until Tlaib started to speak. Suddenly, the air was filled with cellphones.
Her questioning was brief and the resolution eventually passed. The meeting was adjourned, and the teenagers rushed to the dais. Some of their hands started trembling at the prospect of shaking a Squad member’s hand. “I think I might cry right now,” one said as Ocasio-Cortez grabbed a camera and three women posed with them for a selfie.
The teenagers followed the women as they walked out of the room and into a hallway.
The waiting television cameras were a reminder of the new platform available to the Squad. And on this day, they had a cause to champion: the importance of paying interns.
“Experience doesn’t pay the bills!” the three women said. The video has been retweeted about 70,000 times.
As Pressley walked to her next meeting, she reflected on her surprising new status.
“I feel humbled by it,” she said. “I’m grateful for the love and for the support. But what I feel most of all is just a sense of responsibility.”
Christine Loman contributed to this report.