President Donald Trump has tried to distance himself from supporters' chants of "send her back" at a rally where he blasted Somalia-born US Representative Ilhan Omar, as Republicans worry the mantra could set the tone for the 2020 campaign.
Omar shot back that Trump was "spewing fascist ideology," and Republicans expressed alarm that the inflammatory chant, building off provocative tweets and statements by Trump, might become a theme of his 2020 re-election campaign.
"We cannot be defined by this," said conservative Representative Mark Walker, who added that Republican leaders in the House of Representatives discussed the potential political risks at a breakfast with Vice President Mike Pence.
"That does not need to be our campaign call," Walker said.
He and other Republicans denounced the language used by Trump's supporters, which followed a weekend Twitter attack by Trump on Omar and three other Democratic lawmakers, all minority women, saying they should "go back" to where they came from.
All four are US citizens and, with the exception of Omar, were born in the US. Known on Capitol Hill as "the squad," the four lawmakers are sharp critics of Trump and of the Democratic House leadership. Besides Omar, the other three are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
Their physical safety and security was emerging as an issue. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson asked the Capitol Police in a letter on Thursday for an emergency meeting to discuss the president's attacks on the four women.
"Last night at a campaign rally, the president once again used inflammatory rhetoric about the four congresswomen," Thompson wrote, adding that the police department "must act swiftly to address heightened threats to these and other members of Congress."
Trump on Thursday tried to distance himself from the chant. At the White House, he told reporters: "I felt a little bit badly about it. ... I would say that I was not happy with it. I disagreed with it. But again I didn't say that. They did. And I disagreed with."
At the rally, Trump intensified his vilification of the four congresswomen and underscored that such attacks will be a key part of his strategy for winning re-election in 2020. He went on a 20-minute diatribe about them, saying they were welcome to leave the country if they do not like his policies.
When the chant started, Trump paused for several seconds and looked across the crowd silently from the podium. As the chant died down, he resumed his verbal attack.
In remarks later to reporters, Omar slammed the president, saying "he's spewing his fascist ideology on stage, telling US citizens to go back because they don't agree with his detrimental policies for our country."
As of Thursday, more than 40 of the 250 Republicans in Congress had criticised Trump over his attacks.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney, asked about the "send her back" chant, said, "It's very unfortunate for our country. ... And I'm glad the president has spoken out against it."
Australian Associated Press