But by Monday evening, several GOP lawmakers responded by taking a swipe at the Democratic women, and then criticized the president.
“While I strongly disagree with the tactics, policies, and rhetoric of the far-left socialist ‘Squad,’ the President’s tweets were inappropriate, denigrating, and wrong,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said in a tweet. “It is unacceptable to tell legal U.S. citizens to go back to their home country.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is close to Trump and was praised by the president in tweets last week, repeatedly insisted to reporters at the Capitol Monday that “the president is not a racist” and that the president had spoken out of “frustration.”
Asked if Omar should return to Somalia, McCarthy said, “No, they’re Americans. Nobody believes somebody should leave the country. They have a right to give their opinion.”
But he later sought to turn the tables by noting that Ocasio-Cortez made comments last week accusing Pelosi of “singling out... newly elected women of color.”
“The speaker of the House, she claimed, was a racist and was attacking these women of color. That was a comment last week. Now this week we’re accusing somebody else of it,” he said, before referencing comments Omar and others have made that prompted claims of anti-Semitism.
All four of the Democratic lawmakers are U.S. citizens. Three were born in the United States, and Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and became a U.S. citizen as a teenager.
All House Republicans will probably be forced to go on record on Trump’s tweets in the coming days as Democrats in the chamber introduced a resolution condemning the president’s words. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that the resolution could be brought to the House floor as early as Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that Senate Democrats are preparing a companion resolution.
Congressional Republicans were left largely to chart their own course Monday in the absence of any unified messaging effort by their party, aides said. One Senate Republican chief of staff, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the party’s response, said that there was only “commiserating” at such moments, “no coordination.”
“Every man for themselves,” said a House Republican close to party leadership, who spoke on similar terms.
But common themes quickly emerged. In responding to Trump’s tweets Monday, several Republicans echoed the president’s claim that the four women “hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion,” while others cast them as lax on border security.
“I disagree strongly with many of the views and comments of some of the far-left members of the House Democratic Caucus — especially when it comes to their views on socialism, their anti-Semitic rhetoric, and their negative comments about law enforcement — but the President’s tweet that some Members of Congress should go back to the ‘places from which they came’ was way over the line, and he should take that down,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement.
In an interview on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most vocal allies on Capitol Hill, called the Democratic lawmakers both socialist and communist while saying that their ideas were “anti-Semitic” and that they “hate Israel.” But he also counseled Trump: “Aim higher. They are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies.”
Omar apologized this year after making comments that were interpreted by many as anti-Semitic. Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, has advocated what has been dubbed a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump has repeatedly seized on their comments to argue that the lawmakers are insufficiently supportive of Israel, a claim the Democrats have denied.
Other Republicans criticized Trump’s remarks Monday with no mention of the policies of the four women.
“I am confident that every Member of Congress is a committed American. @realDonaldTrump’s tweets from this weekend were racist and he should apologize. We must work as a country to rise above hate, not enable it,” said Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio).
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said the Republican Party “has a stronger platform to talk about; that’s what we should be focusing on.”
Asked whether she found Trump’s comments racist, Ernst replied, “Yeah, I do. They’re American citizens.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said “there is no excuse for the president’s spiteful comments — they were absolutely unacceptable and this needs to stop.”
She added: “We have enough challenges addressing the humanitarian crises both at our borders and around the world. Instead of digging deeper into the mud with personal, vindictive insults — we must demand a higher standard of decorum and decency.”
And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said that Trump “failed very badly yesterday and today,” calling his comments “destructive and demeaning and in some ways dangerous.”
Several former officeholders, including former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and former Ohio governor John Kasich, rebuked Trump as well.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), meanwhile, issued a defiant defense of the president, arguing that his remark was “clearly” not racist.
“He could have meant go back to the district they came from, to the neighborhood they came from,” Harris told Bryan Nehman on Baltimore talk radio WBAL.
Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, chalked up Trump’s racist remarks to frustrations over Congress’s lack of progress on a bipartisan immigration reform deal.
“The president is frustrated that Congress has not acted to solve the crisis at our border, and he expressed his frustrations in a way that didn’t promote reconciliation across the aisle and across the country,” Collins said in a statement.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), too, defended Trump from accusations of racism and said that “it’s weird to me that our politics is all, you know, people calling each other racists.”
But he said that the president had sent “a dumb tweet, if for no other reason than it takes attention off of some of the, I think, dangerous and dumb policies that AOC and her crew are advocating for.”
And Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) issued a full-throated defense of Trump, saying in a tweet that “Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals.”
“This is America,” he said. “We’re the greatest country in the world. I stand with @realDonaldTrump.”
In a scathing floor speech, Schumer said Trump’s comments “drip with racism” and are in line with the president’s history of birtherism, his administration’s ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries, his disparaging remarks about a federal judge of Mexican descent and his use of the term “shithole” to describe some countries in Africa and Latin America.
“My Republican friends, he’s not backing off,” Schumer said. “Where are you? . . . Those who fail to condemn the president are fellow travelers on his racist road, whatever their motivation.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made no mention of Trump’s comments in his floor remarks. In response to questions from reporters, he said he would address the issue at his weekly news conference Tuesday.
Keisha N. Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the African American Intellectual History Society, said that by telling the Democratic lawmakers to “go back” to their countries, Trump “was employing a tired racist trope that white Americans have long used to try to silence and intimidate people of color in this country.”
“In so doing, he was essentially saying that they are noncitizens of this country and therefore have no basis for offering a critique of U.S. policies,” Blain said. “The reality, of course, is that they are American citizens. They have a right — and as public servants, an obligation — to critique the administration’s policies and demand immediate changes to improve the country they love and serve.”
By Sunday night, more than four-dozen House Democrats had used the words “racist” or “racism” in denouncing Trump’s tweets. But on Monday, only a handful of congressional Republicans — including Rep. Will Hurd (Tex.) and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only black Republicans in Congress — used similar language to describe the president’s words.
Hurd said in an appearance on CNN that Trump’s tweets were “racist and xenophobic” as well as inaccurate, given that three of the four Democratic women were born in the United States. Scott issued a lengthy statement that focused on Democrats’ own intraparty debates over race before going on to denounce Trump’s “unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language.”
As much as anything else, multiple House Republicans complained privately and on the record that Trump had essentially managed to at least temporarily quash the internal battle among Democrats that had exploded last week between party leaders and the four freshmen.
“I think Napoloeon had a quote about that, didn’t he?” said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.), pulling out his phone to read it off: “Never interfere with enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.”
“I think it applies,” he added. “Why would you step in someone else’s dumpster fire?”
Among those declining to weigh in on Trump’s remarks was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who said it’s “useless to engage in that rhetoric.” Capito is up for reelection in 2020, along with Collins, Daines and Ernst.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) also ducked media questions about the controversy. The son of a Cuban emigre, Cruz was born in Canada before his family moved to the United States. Trump eviscerated Cruz during the 2016 presidential contest, including making false claims that Cruz’s father played some role in the Kennedy assassination.
“I have a long-standing policy that I don’t comment on tweets,” Cruz told reporters. Informed that Monday’s controversy came from Trump’s own comments, carried on live television from the White House grounds, Cruz smiled, entered an elevator in the Capitol and said nothing.
Shane Harris, Seung Min Kim, Erica Werner and John Wagner contributed to this report.