Trump says he disagrees with 'send her back' chant

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE on Thursday disavowed the “send her back” chant that rang throughout his North Carolina rally when he attacked Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarJayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Media's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Jayapal endorses Sanders 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 PenceTrump, Pence visit MLK memorial JFK's grandson calls Pence op-ed a 'total perversion' of Kennedy's legacy Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial MORE.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyCalifornia sues Trump administration over fracking Trump: Impeachment timing intended to hurt Sanders Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 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 EmmerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders, Warren feud rattles Democrats House GOP campaign chief: Members 'need to get their act together and raise more money' House GOP campaign arm faces ethics complaint over 'trackers' in Capitol buildings 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 WalkerRepublicans, Democrats offer support after John Lewis cancer diagnosis House GOP vows to use impeachment to cut into Democratic majority A solemn impeachment day on Capitol Hill 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 ClintonDemocratic debates are magnet for lobbyists NYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Sanders v. Warren is just for insiders 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 McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials 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 ObamaObama marks MLK Day by honoring King for his 'poetic brilliance' and 'moral clarity' Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina National Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo 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.