Nervous Republicans, from senior members of Congress to his own daughter Ivanka, urged President Trump on Thursday to repudiate the “send her back” chant directed at a Somali-born congresswoman during his speech the night before at a rally in North Carolina, amid widespread fears that the rally had veered into territory that could hurt their party in 2020.
In response, Mr. Trump disavowed the behavior of his own supporters in comments to reporters at the White House and claimed that he had tried to contain it, an assertion clearly contradicted by video of the event.
Mr. Trump said he was “not happy” with the chant directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a freshman Democrat who is Muslim. At the rally Wednesday evening, he had been in the middle of denouncing her as an anti-American leftist who has spoken in “vicious, anti-Semitic screeds” when the chant was taken up by the crowd.
Pressed on why he did not stop it, Mr. Trump said, “I think I did — I started speaking very quickly.” In fact, as the crowd roared “send her back,” Mr. Trump paused and looked around silently for more than 10 seconds as the scene unfolded in front of him, doing nothing to halt the chorus. “I didn’t say that,” he added. “They did.”
Mr. Trump’s cleanup attempt reflected the misgivings of political allies who have warned him privately that however much his hard-core supporters in the arena might have enjoyed the moment, the president was playing with political fire, according to people briefed on the conversations.
Among them were House Republican leaders, who pleaded with Vice President Mike Pence to distance the party from the message embraced by the crowd in Greenville, N.C. Mr. Pence conveyed that directly to Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the exchange.
“That does not need to be our campaign call, like we did the ‘lock her up’ last time,” said Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina, a top official in the party’s messaging arm, referring to the chant that routinely broke out whenever Mr. Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Midway through that race, Mr. Trump told reporters he did not approve of that chant, but he never intervened.
Mr. Walker, who attended the rally on Wednesday night, later posted on Twitter that he had “struggled” with the chant. “We cannot be defined by this,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s inner circle immediately appreciated the gravity of the rally scene and quickly urged him to repudiate the chant. Ms. Trump, his elder daughter and senior adviser, spoke to the president about it on Thursday morning, the people familiar with the discussions said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Trump’s backpedaling reflects a larger issue for Republicans as they devise a strategy for the election. There is wide agreement in the party that branding Democrats as radicals in favor of open borders and what they dismiss as grandiose proposals like the Green New Deal could be a powerful argument in their attempt to hold the White House and make inroads in Congress.
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SOURCE: The New York Times, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Maggie Haberman and Michael Crowley