The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is met with fading resistance from Republican and corporate leaders

President Trump defended on July 15 a tweet were he said four liberal congresswomen of color should “go back” to their home countries. (Video: Reuters)

When Donald Trump assailed Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals during his 2015 presidential campaign launch, companies including Macy’s and NBC rushed to cut their business ties with him.

When a tape surfaced in 2016 of Trump boasting about grabbing women’s genitals, top Republican officials briefly pulled their endorsements, disinvited him from events and even sought to remove him from the ticket.

When, as president, Trump equivocated on condemning white supremacists in a deadly Virginia rally, top business leaders disbanded White House advisory boards in protest.

But on Monday, a day after he posted tweets promoting the racist trope that four minority congresswomen should “go back” to their countries of ancestry, the president waltzed onto the South Lawn of the White House with the confidence of a man fully supported by his party and by much of the corporate world that had once kept him at arm’s length.

Republican Senators responded on July 15 to President Trump's tweets targeting minority, liberal congresswomen. (Video: Rhonda Colvin/The Washington Post)

“We are very excited to be hosting our third annual Made in America Showcase,” Trump said as business owners, Republican officials and other supporters greeted him warmly.

After some brief remarks about American manufacturing, the president launched into an acerbic screed doubling down on his Sunday tweets that encouraged the Democratic congresswomen, who he said “hate our country,” to leave the United States.

“If you’re not happy here, then you can leave,” he added. “That’s what I said in a tweet that I guess some people think is controversial. A lot of people love it, by the way. A lot of people love it.”

He was met with applause.

The complete list of GOP lawmakers reacting to Trump’s “go back” tweet

The president, who has grown more comfortable in Washington as he has surrounded himself with assenting voices, has learned over the past three years that there is little consequence within his party or from aligned corporate and religious leaders for embracing incendiary rhetoric and pugilistic attacks.

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Even as a few Republican lawmakers spoke out against Trump’s language, with some specifically calling it racist, most stayed quiet or sought to soften their admonishment of the president by mixing it with criticism of the women he attacked.

“They’re just terrified of crossing swords with Trump, and they stay mute even when the president unleashes racist tirades,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who has been critical of Trump. “Republican leaders are now culpable for encouraging this kind of rank bigotry. By not speaking out, by staying mum, they are greenlighting hate rhetoric.”

On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted that a group of liberal freshmen congresswomen should “go back” to their countries of origin. His targets included Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.).

The Republican lawmakers who did speak out against Trump waited more than 24 hours after the tweets were posted, which Democrats swiftly condemned as xenophobic.

Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Tim Scott (S.C.) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Reps. Will Hurd (Tex.), Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), Fred Upton (Mich.) and Pete Olson (Tex.) were among Republicans who criticized Trump for his attack on the four congresswomen, collectively known as “the Squad.”

“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” Trump tweeted Sunday.

“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump added. “Then come back and show us how it is done.”

All four of the lawmakers are U.S. citizens, and only Omar was born outside the United States. In a news conference Monday, the women said Trump was seeking to distract the country.

“I encourage the American people and all of us — in this room and beyond — to not take the bait,” Pressley said. “This is a disruptive distraction from the issues of care, concern and consequence to the American people that we were sent here with a decisive mandate from our constituents to work on.”

On Twitter, after the Democratic lawmakers held their news conference, Trump tweeted the political endgame driving his attacks.

“The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them,” Trump wrote about the liberal lawmakers who had recently feuded with party leaders. “That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”

While Republicans in the past have tried to cast their party as welcoming to immigrants and Americans from all backgrounds, the fact that so few spoke out against Trump’s comments undercut that message, Brinkley said.

“They’ve just figured if they criticize Trump, it’ll boomerang on them and they’ll become the piñata of right-wing media,” he said.

The president’s allies defended his remarks.

“AOC, Tlaib and Omar criticize America so often and so viciously preferring Soviet, Chinese, Venezuelan socialism to our free market economy that saying they would be happier somewhere else is a fair response,” said Rudolph Giuliani, the president’s lawyer and a former New York mayor. “To say it’s racist is almost as ignorant as their statements.”

Republicans may be forced to go on the record in response to the president’s remarks, as House Democrats are considering a vote on a resolution of condemnation.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Trump had gone “beyond his own low standards using disgraceful language about Members of Congress.” She pledged that Democrats would “forcefully respond to these disgusting acts.”

For his part, Trump appeared unmoved by the spectacle as he hosted business leaders at the White House.

During the U.S.-made product event that morphed into an impromptu news conference, Trump said his comments were “not at all” racist and slammed the Democratic lawmakers who had called him out.

Asked if he was concerned about criticism that his comments advanced an argument supported by white nationalists, Trump said he was not.

“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he said. “And all I’m saying — they want to leave, they can leave.”

The business world largely shrugged off Trump’s words, a shift from the kind of forceful response that industry leaders provided after the president’s muddled response to a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville two years ago.

After Monday’s event at the White House — during which Trump accused members of Congress of hating the United States, hating Jews and loving al-Qaeda — business leaders gathered for the event circled around the president as he signed an executive order.

Standing with Trump was Lockheed Martin chief executive Marillyn Hewson, one of the business leaders on Trump’s manufacturing council before it disbanded after the Charlottesville violence.

Lockheed spokesman Bill Phelps did not answer questions about whether Hewson approved of Trump’s comments before or during the event.

“Today’s event at the White House was about celebrating the best in U.S. manufacturing,” he said Monday. “Our CEO attended to highlight how the aerospace and defense industries, and our company specifically, are contributing to national security, economic growth and job creation.”

Other Washington figures, who have previously accused Trump of bigotry, have since become his greatest defenders.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who in 2015 called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” played golf with the president Sunday immediately after his flurry of tweets containing racist remarks.

Speaking on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” on Monday, Graham called the congresswomen “a bunch of communists” and referred to their ideas as “anti-Semitic,” “socialist” and “disgusting.”

“They hate Israel. They hate our own country,” he said.

At the White House, Trump echoed Graham’s comments while making the case that his rhetoric targeting the lawmakers was politically wise, saying that, ultimately, “the voter will decide.”

During his interview with Fox, Graham also called on Trump to “aim higher” and highlight his policy differences with the congresswomen rather than their personal backgrounds.

“They are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies,” Graham said.

But if his goal was to persuade Trump to tone down his rhetoric, the president made clear Monday that is not how he interpreted Graham’s advice.

“What am I supposed to do? Just wait for senators? No. These are four — so I disagree with Lindsey about that. That was the only thing,” Trump said. “He said aim higher, shoot higher. What am I supposed to do, wait till we get somebody else in a higher position? Higher office?”

John Wagner and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.