WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Monday defended his racist remarks about four minority lawmakers by alleging that they "hate our country" and should leave if they are unhappy - leading the Democratic congresswomen to respond by offering a competing vision of America that they said was based on inclusiveness.
Trump's comments, delivered in response to questions at a White House event ostensibly about American products, marked an escalation of weekend tweets in which the president said the four Democrats should "go back" to "the crime infested places from which they came." Three of the lawmakers were born in the United States, and the fourth is a U.S. citizen born in Somalia.
When asked whether he was bothered that many people viewed the remarks as racist and that white nationalists found common cause with them, Trump said: "It doesn't concern me because many people agree with me. And all I'm saying: They want to leave, they can leave."
The four Democrats - Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota - responded with a joint news conference late Monday in which they sought to contrast their efforts on issues such as health care and immigration with the president's actions.
Omar also highlighted a list of Trump's most incendiary remarks involving race and gender - including talking about grabbing a woman's genitals, and using profanities to describe black athletes and to disparage nations in the developing world.
"This is the agenda of white nationalists," Omar said. "This is his plan to pit us against one another."
The dueling narratives provided a stark contrast between the two parties ahead of the 2020 elections, pitting Trump's contention that criticism of America should be limited against Democrats advocating a broader view.
Trump's comments, which dominated cable news for two days, also offered a glimpse of the type of reelection campaign he is likely to run: openly and defiantly fanning racial animus in an effort to excite portions of his hard-right base.
Trump said the four lawmakers - informally known as "the Squad" on Capitol Hill - have been "complaining constantly" about the United States. "These are people that hate our country," he said. "They hate our country. They hate it, I think, with a passion."
And he suggested several times that the group should simply leave the United States. "If you're not happy here, then you can leave," he said, to applause from those gathered for the business-focused event. "As far as I'm concerned, if you hate our country, if you're not happy here, you can leave."
The four lawmakers, by contrast, depicted themselves as part of a nation of tolerance that offers opportunity to people like themselves. Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Tlaib was born in Detroit, and Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York. Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia; her family fled the country amid civil war when she was a child, and she became a U.S. citizen as a teenager.
"I want to tell children across this country . . . that no matter what the president says, this country belongs to you, and it belongs to everyone," Ocasio-Cortez said, recounting a childhood trip to the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall.
House Democratic leaders announced Monday that they were preparing a resolution condemning Trump's remarks. In a letter to Democratic colleagues, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Trump had gone "beyond his own low standards using disgraceful language about Members of Congress" and that Democrats would "forcefully respond to these disgusting acts."
In response to Trump's initial tweets, Pelosi - who had been enmeshed in an internal feud with the four lawmakers that spilled into public view - immediately defended them, writing on Twitter on Sunday that Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan "has always been about making America white again."
On Monday, Trump took Pelosi's distillation of what she claimed was his worldview and used it to attack her. "Speaker Pelosi said, 'Make America white again,' " Trump said. "Let me tell you, that's a very racist - that's a very racist statement. I'm surprised she'd say that."
Inside the White House, few aides offered a vigorous defense of Trump's tweets and statements, even privately. There was some frustration that the president had inserted himself into what was an internal Democratic feud, offering Pelosi a convenient off-ramp from her disagreements - generational, philosophical and tactical - with the four liberal lawmakers.
A House vote rebuking Trump's tweets could unify a Democratic caucus that has been frayed by tensions.
"It's important for the House of Representatives to show this president and any future president that it is completely unacceptable to demean and attack members of Congress; that we condemn these comments; that these comments are racist, misogynistic, xenophobic; and that we reaffirm our support and appreciate all of our members no matter their gender or where they were born," said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., an immigrant from Ecuador who was one of the freshman lawmakers urging leadership to allow a vote rebuking Trump.
The vote, which could come as early as Tuesday, would also force Republicans to go on the record about Trump's comments. Congressional Republicans were largely silent Sunday after his initial tweets - with some fearful of chastising a president popular with the party's base - although a handful began speaking out critically Monday.
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who is white, called Trump's tweets "racist" on Twitter and said he should apologize. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who is black, told CNN that Trump's remarks were "racist and xenophobic." And Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican in the Senate, issued a statement decrying Trump's "unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language," while also bemoaning how the president had distracted from debate about "the Democratic Party's far-left, pro-socialist policies."
One White House official said the agita in the West Wing was not as pronounced as it was in the wake of Trump's comments after the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that left a woman dead, when Trump said "both sides" were to blame. But by Monday morning, there was a consensus in the White House that Trump needed to use his South Lawn event to expound on and clarify the tweets, officials said.
A folded, typed sheet of paper with marker scrawls in Trump's hand - captured by a Washington Post photographer - revealed some of the president's thinking, including his notes to stress that the lawmakers "have a record of saying anti-Semitic and anti-American things all the time."
The same official added, however, that Trump's public performance Monday fell short of what many had hoped.
In a trio of tweets Monday evening, the president tried again to explain what several White House aides claimed was the original intent of his tweets - that individuals who are not happy in the United States are free to live elsewhere - while simultaneously demonizing the four minority lawmakers without naming them.
"We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country," Trump wrote. "IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!"
"Certain people," he added, "HATE our Country. They are anti-Israel, pro Al-Qaeda, and comment on the 9/11 attack, 'some people did something.' "
Many of Trump's earlier social media messages Monday echoed his remarks on the South Lawn, doubling down on his weekend missives and calling on the congresswomen to apologize to the United States and Israel, as well as to him. He later criticized Democrats for defending the lawmakers, whom he claimed had shown "racist hatred" and are "very unpopular & unrepresentative."
Asked to provide specific examples of what Trump said was racist speech from the Democrats, the White House pointed to Trump's Monday evening tweets.
All four lawmakers targeted by Trump have called for his impeachment - Tlaib has done so using profane language - and have been highly critical of his administration, notably denouncing conditions at federal migrant detention facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump's comments on Israel and the 9/11 attacks appeared to target Omar and Tlaib. Earlier this year, Omar apologized after she was widely accused of anti-Semitism for suggesting that supporters of Israel's government have an "allegiance to a foreign country." She also came under scrutiny for a speech in which, while defending Muslims who lost their civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, she said "some people did something," referring to the hijackers.
Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, has advocated a "one-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arguing that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, she has supported the transformation of Israel into a single, jointly governed Arab-Jewish nation. But the idea has little support among either Israelis or Palestinians.
There was frustration in the White House that by going so far in his tweets, Trump had squandered the moral high ground, impeding the administration and his campaign's ability to use Omar and Tlaib's more controversial comments to political advantage.
As the Democratic lawmakers were holding their news conference, Trump sent one missive on Twitter that suggested he saw a political benefit to his approach, however. "The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four 'progressives,' but now they are forced to embrace them," he wrote. "That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!"
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.
This article was written by Ashley Parker, Rachael Bade and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post.