President Donald Trump
has renewed his attacks on a Somali-born congresswoman while reversing his previous criticisms of a North Carolina crowd who chanted 'send her back,' defending them as 'patriots' while again questioning the loyalty of four Democratic lawmakers of colour.
In a week that has been full of hostile exchanges over race and love of country on both sides, Trump returned to a pattern that has become familiar during controversies of his own making: Ignite a firestorm, backtrack from it, but then double down on his original, inflammatory position.
'You know what I'm unhappy with?' Trump answered when reporters at the White House asked if he was unhappy with the Wednesday night crowd.
'Those people in North Carolina, that stadium was packed. It was a record crowd. And I could have filled it 10 times, as you know. Those are incredible people. They are incredible patriots. But I'm unhappy when a congresswoman goes and says, 'I'm going to be the president's nightmare.''
It was another dizzying twist in a saga sparked by the president's racist tweets about Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who moved from Somalia as a child, and her colleagues Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
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The moment took an ugly turn at the rally when the crowd's 'send her back' shouts resounded for 13 seconds as Trump made no attempt to interrupt them. He paused in his speech and surveyed the scene, taking in the uproar, though the next day he claimed he did not approve of the chant and tried to stop it.
But on Friday, he made clear he was not disavowing the chant and again laced into Omar, the target of the chant.
'You can't talk that way about our country. Not when I'm president,' Trump said. 'These women have said horrible things about our country and the people of our country.'
He also tweeted that it was 'amazing how the Fake News Media became 'crazed' over the chant 'send her back' by a packed Arena (a record) crowd in the Great State of North Carolina, but is totally calm & accepting of the most vile and disgusting statements made by the three Radical Left Congresswomen.'
Omar was defiant Thursday, telling reporters at the Capitol that she believes the president is a 'fascist' and casting the confrontation as a fight over 'what this country truly should be.'
'We are going to continue to be a nightmare to this president because his policies are a nightmare to us. We are not deterred. We are not frightened,' she told a cheering crowd that greeted her like a local hero at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as she returned from Washington.
The back-and-forth captured the potential impacts of Trump's willingness to inject racist rhetoric into his reelection fight. Trump's allies distanced themselves from the chant, fretting over the voters it might turn off in next year's election and beyond. Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to the episode as a rallying cry to energise and mobilise their supporters to vote Trump out of office.
Trump's double flip-flop was reminiscent of his response to the violent clash between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Then, he initially blamed violence on 'both sides' of the altercation. After a wave of bipartisan condemnation and scathing cable news coverage, he issued a clean-up statement at the White House days later. Yet, after watching the response to his reversal, he doubled back to his original position during a wild Trump Tower news conference.
This week, Trump started the tumult by tweeting Sunday that Omar and three other freshmen congresswomen could 'go back' to their native countries if they were unhappy here.
The chants at the Trump rally brought criticism from GOP lawmakers as well as from Democrats, though the Republicans did not fault Trump himself.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California declared that the chant has 'no place in our party and no place in this country.'
GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois tweeted that it was 'ugly, wrong, & would send chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers. This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union.'
Citing Trump's rhetoric, House Democrats said they were discussing arranging security for Omar and the three other congresswomen.
Even by Trump's standards, the campaign rally offered an extraordinary tableau for American politics: a president drinking in a crowd's cries to expel a congresswoman from the country who's his critic and a woman of colour.
It was also the latest demonstration of how Trump's verbal cannonades are capable of dominating the news. Democrats had hoped the spotlight Thursday would be on House passage of legislation to boost the minimum wage for the first time in a decade.
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Who are 'the squad'?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley are among the most junior members of Congress.
Elected in November last year, the four are new to Washington politics.
But thanks to substantial social media followings and an inclination to be brash and outspoken, they wield significant influence within the Democratic Party.
The four are informally referred to as 'the squad'.
They also represent the far-left of the caucus, with Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Ms Tlaib identifying as 'Democratic socialists'.
The four draw a sharp contrast to the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives, who have just 13 women and a mere handful of non-white members.
The squad had been quibbling with Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the weekend over social media, but the animus was redirected after Mr Trump's tweets.
tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to 'Make America Great Again' has always been about making America white again,' Ms Pelosi said.
'Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power.'
Who is Ilhan Omar?
Along with Ms Tlaib,
was the first Muslim woman to be elected to Congress.
Ms Omar was born in Somalia but fled during the civil war, arriving in the USA in 1992.
She now represents a district in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after being voted in last year.
As a hijab-wearing black woman,
Ms Omar has been subject to particularly nasty internet rumours
, including that she married her own brother.
She has spoken sharply in criticism of Israel, with several comments of hers labelled as anti-Semitic.
Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
The best known of the four,
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned Washington DC last year when she ousted Democratic heavyweight Joe Crowley in a primary election
Mr Crowley was feted as the next Speaker of the House, but was caught unaware by Ms Ocasio-Cortez, who was working as a bartender before her election to Congress.
The youngest-ever congresswoman, 29-year-old Ms Ocasio-Cortez represents parts of The Bronx and Queens in New York.
But in a few short months she has become a household name in America, one of the best-known and most divisive politicians in the country.
She has long been a proponent of major government action to take on climate change and health care, branded as the 'Green New Deal and 'Medicare-for-All'.
Who is Rashida Tlaib?
was one of the two first Muslim women to serve in Congress when she was sworn in in January. The other is Ilhan Omar.
Ms Tlaib represents one of the poorest districts in America, a part of Detroit so strongly Democratic that she was elected unopposed in November.
On her first day in Congress she drew controversy for a fiery speech she gave about Mr Trump.
'We gonna go in there and
impeach the motherf---er
,' she said.
Who is Ayanna Pressley?
was elected to a seat in Boston, Massachusetts after ousting long-time incumbent Michael Capuano in the primary.
A heavily Democratic district that was previously represented by John F. Kennedy, Ms Pressley ran unopposed in the general election.
The win made her the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts.
In her primary victory speech, she declared Mr Trump a 'racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man'.
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