Trump says he disagrees with 'send her back' chant

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders MORE on Thursday disavowed the “send her back” chant that rang throughout his North Carolina rally when he attacked Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Undocumented aliens should stay away as COVID-19 rages in the US The Southern Poverty Law Center and yesterday's wars MORE (D-Minn.), as congressional Republicans sought to distance themselves from the slogan amid widespread backlash.

“I was not happy with it. I disagree with it,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

Asked why he did not stop the chants, Trump responded, “I think I did. I started speaking very quickly.”

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The president did not speak up to stop the refrain. After the chants began, he paused for 14 seconds, looked around, neither smiling nor frowning, and waited for the crowd to quiet down before continuing his remarks.

Trump’s attempt to renounce the chant was an acknowledgement of the discomfort of some allies, including Republican lawmakers who said the party could suffer damage if it became a signature slogan of the president’s reelection campaign.

Trump sought to distance himself from his supporters at the Greenville, N.C. rally, telling reporters to go there and “ask the people ‘why did they say that?’”

The chant began as the president made a litany of attacks on Omar, part of his days-long onslaught against a group of four minority, progressive Democratic congresswomen aimed at painting the opposing party as extreme.

The president ignited the controversy on Sunday when he attacked Omar and three of her colleagues, saying they should “go back” to their home countries, even though they are all U.S. citizens.

Only Omar, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia, was born outside the country.

Republicans have struggled to walk a tightrope of embracing Trump’s effort to elevate the group of freshman Democrats without fully endorsing the rhetoric he has directed at them, which has been widely criticized as racist. Some members said they expressed their concerns privately on Thursday morning during a breakfast with Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Kushner makes first appearance at coronavirus briefing Meadows sets up coronavirus hotline for members of Congress MORE.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyDemocrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots Top GOP lawmakers push back on need for special oversight committee for coronavirus aid Stocks move little after record-breaking unemployment claims MORE (R-Calif.) said at a news conference that the chants “have no place in our party and no place in this country.”

Those sentiments were nearly identical to comments from Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerHouse Democratic campaign arm outraises GOP counterpart in February How campaigns are adapting to coronavirus Dems unlikely to subpoena Bolton MORE (Minn.), head of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, who told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that “there’s no place for that kind of talk.”

But Emmer also defended Trump against accusations of racism, arguing there is “not a racist bone in this president’s body.”

Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington Top GOP post on Oversight draws stiff competition Freshman Dem finds voice in fight against online extremism MORE (N.C.), a member of House Republican leadership, maintained there is a difference between the “send her back” chant and Trump supporters' cries of “lock her up” against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFormer Obama adviser Plouffe predicts 'historical level' of turnout by Trump supporters Poll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Whoopi Goldberg presses Sanders: 'Why are you still in the race?' MORE during the 2016 campaign, saying that “send them back” cannot become a rallying cry for the GOP in 2020.

“I'm offended by ‘send her back’ or ‘send them back’ — they are American citizens. That's not what the president [meant], I believe his intentions,” Walker, who was at the Trump rally, told reporters.

Omar blasted the chant during an impromptu news conference on Thursday, suggesting the president was endangering others who “share my identity.”

“I am not [scared for my safety.] What I'm scared for is the safety for people who share my identity,” Omar told a group of journalists while standing in the middle of Independence Avenue outside the Capitol. “This is not about me. This is about fighting for what this country should be and what it deserves to be.”

Many in Washington pointed to the chants as the latest sign of how much political discourse has coarsened in the age of Trump.

Some likened the president’s response to his crowd to that of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senator suspending campaign fundraising, donating paycheck amid coronavirus pandemic Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Juan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal MORE (R-Ariz.), who cut off a woman during a 2008 rally when he was running for president after she said she could not trust then-Democratic nominee Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's Campaign Report: Coronavirus forces Democrats to postpone convention Biden associates reach out to Holder about VP search Poll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters MORE because “he’s an Arab.”

McCain, who feuded with Trump in the years before his death in 2018, grabbed the microphone and corrected her.

“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about,” McCain said at the time.

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.