GREENVILLE, N.C. — President Trump held a campaign rally Wednesday night where the crowd responded to his attacks on a Somali-born Muslim congresswoman with chants of “Send her back! Send her back!”
The crowd’s response to Trump echoed the racist remarks he has aimed in recent days at four minority Democratic congresswomen he has accused of making hateful comments about the country, setting off a controversy that led the Democrat-controlled House to vote to formally rebuke him on Tuesday night.
The event here made clear that Trump plans to use his criticism of the liberal lawmakers as a rallying cry during his 2020 campaign as he seeks to frame the election around a nationalistic message that has inflamed racial tensions across the country.
“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.’” Trump said. “They don’t love our country, and in some cases I think they hate our country.”
The crowd responded by chanting “Leave!”
On Sunday, Trump sent out a series of racist tweets attacking Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), who have been heavily critical of his administration, by saying the four Democrats should “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came.” All four of the congresswomen are American citizens, and only Omar, a Somali refugee, was not born in the United States.
Early in his remarks Wednesday night, Trump elicited loud boos when he went after Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib one by one, but he reserved most of his wrath for Omar.
During his 90-minute appearance here, Trump listed controversial remarks made by Omar, including her comments earlier this year that perpetuated anti-Semitic tropes, and he falsely claimed that she had praised al-Qaeda.
The “Send her back!” chants intensified during the rally, and Trump paused to let them continue after he said, “And obviously and importantly, she has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.”
Omar has countered Republican charges that she has made anti-Semitic remarks by saying her criticisms of Israel are based on her concerns over how Palestinians have been treated.
She responded to the rally on Twitter by writing, “I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal!” She also shared a poem by Maya Angelou: “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Democrats running for president quickly condemned Trump’s remarks at the rally.
“These members of Congress — children of immigrants, just like so many of us — are an example of exactly what makes America great,” former vice president Joe Biden wrote in a tweet. “So, Mr. President, I am here to tell you this. This is OUR country: The United States of America. You’ll never understand what makes us strong.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), another Democratic 2020 contender, wrote on Twitter: “It’s vile. It’s cowardly. It’s xenophobic. It’s racist. It defiles the office of the President. And I won’t share it here. It’s time to get Trump out of office and unite the country.”
Since the controversy began on Sunday, Trump has repeatedly accused the four congresswomen of not loving America because of their criticism of past and current policies.
“Our Country is Free, Beautiful and Very Successful. If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!,” he wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
But Trump ran for president in 2016 on the premise that the country was a shadow of its former self, using the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” He was critical of the state of the country on several occasions during the campaign and after he was elected, including during his inaugural address, when he said the goal of his presidency was to reverse a nation in decline.
“But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” he said on Jan. 20, 2017. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
The rest of Trump’s remarks at the rally Wednesday toggled between touting the strong economy as evidence of his success as president and dire warnings about the country’s downfall if put in Democrats’ hands.
A vote for Democrats is a vote for “frankly, the destruction of our country,” Trump told the crowd.
The four congresswomen have said that Trump’s recent attacks are a reflection of a white nationalist agenda and are intended to distract Democrats from their effort to make policy changes on issues such as health care and climate change.
“I want to tell children across this country . . . no matter what the president says, this country belongs to you and it belongs to everyone,” Ocasio-Cortez said at a news conference Monday. She later argued that Trump was attacking her and her colleagues because he couldn’t win a debate on substance: “Weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty to our country in order to avoid challenging and debating the policy.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump told reporters he was “enjoying” his battle with the four congresswomen and said he believed he was winning the fight politically.
“I’m not relishing the fight, I’m enjoying it because I have to get the word out to the American people,” he said before leaving the White House for the rally.
Trump has been emboldened by support from Republicans in Congress who rushed to his defense when the House voted Tuesday to condemn his incendiary remarks.
“I do think I’m winning the political fight; I think I’m winning it by a lot,” Trump said. “I think the story is that 187 Republicans voted in favor of Trump and four voted against. There is great unity in the Republican Party.”
The House voted 240-to-187 to condemn Trump’s racist remarks about the congresswomen.
Trump and Republicans have defended the president’s tweets, claiming that previous statements the congresswomen have made have been anti-American, anti-Israel and pro-socialism.
“The four congresswomen, I think they’ve said horrible things. . . . When you look at some of the things they’ve said, they’re unthinkable,” Trump said Wednesday before boarding Marine One. “If somebody else, or me, said something like that, it would be historic. You should look at some of the horrible statements because there have never been statements like that.”
Itkowitz reported from Washington.