WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump distanced himself Thursday from a hostile chant his supporters directed toward a Democratic lawmaker and naturalized U.S. citizen, as Republicans began publicly fretting that how the president was elevating a quartet of liberal House freshmen may instead prompt a political backlash.
The cries of "Send her back!" at a campaign rally on Wednesday that targeted Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who was born in Somalia, triggered a fresh round of hand-wringing and outright furor on Capitol Hill as Trump sought to disavow the chant from his supporters, even though he paused for 13 seconds at the Greenville, North Carolina, event, to let it continue.
Top House Republicans urged Vice President Mike Pence, who often serves as an emissary from GOP lawmakers to Trump, to tell the president that Republicans have to be defined by their vision, not by derogatory chants. A flurry of GOP lawmakers also publicly condemned the chant, even while being careful not to denounce Trump directly.
From the Oval Office, Trump disassociated himself from the chant while claiming that he had tried to stop it by "speaking very quickly."
"I disagree with it, by the way. But it was quite a chant," Trump said during an event Thursday promoting the Special Olympics. "And I felt a little bit badly about it. But I will say this: I did, and I started speaking very quickly."
The recoil on Thursday continued the fallout from a racist tweet Trump sent on Sunday, in which the president said four liberal lawmakers critical of him should "go back" to "the crime infested places from which they came." Three of those Democrats - Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan - were born in the United States. Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
Since then, Trump has continued to defend his language, which mirrored the chant of his supporters in North Carolina that he attempted to disavow. He and his allies say they are simply telling critics of the United States to leave the country if they don't like it, even though Trump himself built an entire campaign around trash-talking the United States before he won the presidency in 2016.
One of the more explicit Republican condemnations came from Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party's 2012 nominee for president.
"The chants were offensive and very unfortunate, and it did not speak well of that crowd," Romney said. "I've said what I believe about the president's responsibility in this regard, which is, I believe he has a special responsibility to unite Americans regardless of our ethnicity, race, national origin, and feel that he failed in that regard."
As the controversy has deepened, Trump's rhetoric has complicated a broader political strategy on the part of Republicans to brand Democrats as socialists by elevating the four freshmen lawmakers, lately described as "the Squad," as the face of the party. GOP officials working on House and Senate races worried privately that Trump was crossing a line by injecting race into the political discourse.
The concerns arose even as Republican lawmakers and aides argued that it was premature to gauge the political impact of Trump's comments. One GOP official involved in down-ballot races expressed concern that Trump's tactics were "distracting from the real policy debates that win over the reluctant Republican or center-right who sees the Squad as representing the future of the Democratic Party."
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly on the impact of the president's rhetoric.
Some Republican lawmakers also publicly implored the president to avoid personal attacks.
"It's OK to go out and say, 'Hey, these guys are promoting a socialist agenda, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,' " said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "But when you call them 'un-American,' when you get personal and that kind of stuff, I think you cross the board."
At a breakfast with Pence on Thursday, Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a former pastor who attended the rally on Wednesday, told the vice president that the party should be defined by policies rather than by offensive chants, according to a person summarizing the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations.
Walker asked Pence to convey his message to Trump, and Pence agreed to do so.
"That's offensive," Walker told reporters. "That does not need to be our campaign call like we did the 'lock her up' last time," he said, referring to the taunt hurled by Trump and his supporters at 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who chairs the Senate Republicans' campaign arm, said: "I think our political strategy ought to be focusing on policies, and not people."
"I think he is drawing a clear contrast and lines on some of the issues and the different philosophies and points of view that his political opponents have," said Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. "That's fair game for discussion. You don't want it to get personal. You hope it doesn't, and unfortunately that has been true in recent days."
Thursday's backlash capped an ugly week in Washington fueled by Trump's racist remarks Sunday morning, which prompted the Democratic-led House to rebuke the president's language with a condemnation resolution on Tuesday supported by all Democrats, four GOP lawmakers, and one Republican turned independent. The following day, the House headed off an effort initiated by Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, to impeach the president over his language, a vote that occurred as Trump left for the North Carolina campaign rally and which he touted there as a political victory.
Eager to refocus on their legislative agenda after days of controversy, Democratic House leaders spent much of Thursday focusing on their policy work, such as a bill passed later in the day that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15.
"I think we're at the point where we just got to ignore this guy," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C. "That's my strategy."
Omar - who was later greeted by well-wishers as she arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport - told reporters that she, too, wanted to stay focused on her work in Congress.
"What I'm going to be busy doing is uplifting people, making sure that they understand that here in this country, we are all Americans," she said. "We are all welcome irregardless of what [Trump] says. So I'm going to go vote on the minimum wage and uplift millions of people."
She added: "And I'm going to go hang out with my daughter."
Yet Democrats also voiced concerns about the safety of Omar and the other lawmakers targeted by Trump. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, asked the U.S. Capitol Police in a letter Thursday to hold an emergency board meeting in the aftermath of what the lawmaker called a "heightened threat environment."
Trump "is evolving - as predicted - deeper into the rhetoric of racism, which evolves into violence," Ocasio-Cortez said Thursday. "I think it's natural to be concerned with safety."
Earlier Thursday, congressional Republicans sought to walk a fine line between condemning the chant while continuing to stand by Trump's efforts to turn the four lawmakers into the face of the Democratic Party.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., chairman of the campaign committee for House Republicans, said there was "no place for that kind of talk." But Emmer also defended Trump and asserted that the president's intent was correct, saying "there's not a racist bone in Trump's body" and "what he was trying to say, he said wrong."
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., defended Trump at a news conference, saying the chant came from "a small group of people off to the side" and noting that Trump did not join in.
Others dismissed the chant altogether.
"So what? I mean, good grief," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a close ally of the president. "I mean, I'm not very interested, I can't imagine very many others are interested in it. It's a rally of thousands of people and they got fired up."
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The Washington Post's Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.
This article was written by John Wagner, Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis, reporters for The Washington Post.