Sen. Thom Tillis and Rep. Mark Walker were in attendance Wednesday night at President Trump’s rally in North Carolina, where the crowd’s chant of “send her back!” targeting Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) rang in the air unchallenged.
On Thursday, Tillis defended the president, saying he had no control over the crowd and equating the event to a rock concert. Walker, a former pastor who has worked in refugee camps, called the chants offensive and said such rhetoric needs to stop before it defines the Republican Party.
The divergent responses from the two North Carolina Republicans underscore how Trump’s attacks on Omar and three other minority congresswomen have simultaneously roiled the GOP and energized the president’s core voters. It also underscored how few Republicans are willing to criticize the president and potentially jeopardize their reelection chances as Trump has a stranglehold on the party.
At the rally in Greenville, Trump escalated the attacks he has made in recent days on Omar and fellow Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.).
“These congresswomen are helping the rise of a militant, hard left. They never have anything good to say, which is why I say, ‘If they don’t like it, let them leave,’ ” he said. “They don’t love our country, and in some cases I think they hate our country.”
None of the women has said they hate the United States.
At one point, Trump listed controversial remarks made by Omar, mischaracterizing some of her comments. Several people in the crowd yelled, “Send her back!” while Trump paused to let the crowd continue chanting.
He then told reporters on Thursday that he disagreed with the chant and “wasn’t happy with the message they gave last night,” although that message was almost identical to his tweet Sunday telling the women to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Three of those lawmakers — Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib — are from the United States. Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
Tillis — who broke with Trump over his declaration of a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border to build the wall, then made an abrupt turnaround and was endorsed by the president last month — told reporters at the Capitol that people were “reading too much into” the episode.
“Any one of y’all that have been to a rock concert or other venues, somebody starts up, somebody else thinks . . . I mean, to be fair to the audience, they’re in a mode where they’re energized,” said Tillis, who rode with Trump on Air Force One to the rally and arrived in the president’s motorcade.
Earlier Thursday, Tillis told HuffPost that “a group of people chanted, he didn’t ask them to chant it.”
Tillis, who faces reelection next year, has drawn scorn from conservatives for at times parting ways with the president, particularly after he wrote a Washington Post op-ed in February announcing his support for a resolution disapproving of the emergency declaration.
But Tillis later shifted his position and voted against the resolution, saying his conversations with Vice President Pence and other Republicans influenced his change of heart. He has drawn primary challenges from two Republicans: Garland S. Tucker III, chief executive of a Raleigh investment company, and farmer Sandy Smith.
Walker, meanwhile, called the chant at Trump’s rally “offensive” and said he could not stand by and say nothing “as a former pastor who’s worked in refugee camps, who cherishes the wonderful minority communities that have supported us and continue to support us.”
“That does not need to be our campaign call, like we did the ‘lock her up’ last time,” said Walker, a third-term lawmaker who is vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. “We cannot be defined by this.”
Walker said he voiced his concerns to Pence during a breakfast Thursday morning with other House GOP leaders, arguing that “it’s something that we want to address early.”
“We want our actions of what we’re doing in all of our communities to speak louder than some chant,” Walker said.
North Carolina’s senior senator, Richard Burr (R), declined to comment on the rally.
North Carolina Democrats seized on Trump’s rhetoric and the “send her back!” chant, saying in a statement that the rally was “deeply upsetting, but not surprising from a president and party that encourages division and hate on a daily basis.”
“Senator Thom Tillis, Dan Bishop, Greg Murphy, and every single North Carolina Republican lawmaker and candidate who meekly stood on stage while the president fanned the flames of hate must answer why they support a president who encourages racist attacks,” the state party’s chairman, Wayne Goodwin, and third vice chair, Nida Allam, said in the joint statement.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.