WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Thursday disavowed a chant at his campaign rally of “Send her back!” directed at a Somali-born lawmaker, saying, “I was not happy with it - I disagreed with it.”
Asked by a reporter why he did not try to stop the chant at his rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday night, Trump said he thought he had done so by starting to speak again "very quickly."
"I felt a little bit badly about it," he said, adding that he was not leading the crowd in the chant. "I didn't say that, they did."
Trump's comments came at a White House event with members of the U.S. team for the Special Olympics.
During the rally, Trump harshly criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Somali-born Muslim refugee who became a U.S. citizen in 2000 and is one of four liberal minority lawmakers he targeted in racist tweets over the weekend.
As chants of "Send her back!" intensified, Trump paused to let them continue and did nothing apparent to discourage the crowd.
"What a crowd, and what great people," he tweeted upon returning to the White House on Wednesday night. "The enthusiasm blows away our rivals on the Radical Left."
Congressional Republicans sought Thursday to walk a fine line between condemning the chant while continuing to stand by his efforts to turn the four lawmakers into the face of the Democratic Party.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., chairman of the campaign committee for House Republicans, told reporters that there was "no place for that kind of talk. But Emmer also defended Trump for his weekend tweets that suggested Omar and the three other minority lawmakers should "go back" to their ancestral countries. Emmer said "there's not a racist bone in Trump's body" and "what he was trying to say, he said wrong."
And Emmer echoed Trump's attempts to portray the four freshman lawmakers - known on Capitol Hill as "the Squad" - as representative of the Democratic Party heading into next year's elections.
"You should call them the leadership squad since they are the speakers, in fact," Emmer said. "The rest of their conference should be called the new red army of socialists."
Other Republican lawmakers struck a similar tone Thursday as they responded to Trump's rally at which he repeated his contention that the four lawmakers "don't love our country" and took aim at them one by one.
While Trump was critical of the other three Democrats - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan - he reserved most of his wrath for Omar, the only one of the four not born in the United States.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who attended the rally Wednesday night, was the first Republican in Congress to publicly express reservations about what had occurred.
"Though it was brief, I struggled with the 'send her back' chant tonight referencing Rep. Omar," he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night. "Her history, words & actions reveal her great disdain for both America & Israel. That should be our focus and not phrasing that's painful to our friends in the minority communities."
Walker, the vice chair of the GOP caucus, elaborated on Thursday morning, telling reporters that he found the chant "offensive."
"That does not need to be our campaign call like we did the 'lock her up' last time," Walker said, referring to a common chant at Trump rallies in 2016 related to Democrat Hillary Clinton. "We cannot be defined by this . . . Let's focus on what's been said and the actions of Representative Omar."
Walker said he was concerned enough to talk about his worries with Vice President Mike Pence during a breakfast Thursday.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., defended Trump at a news conference, asserting that the chants were coming from "a small group of people off to the side."
"The president didn't join in any chant like that," McCarthy said. "He moved on in the speech. He never joined in on it."
McCarthy also decried "this new socialist Democrat majority" during his remarks.
Others also started weighing in Thursday morning.
"I deeply disagree with the extreme left & have been disgusted by their tone," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. "I woke up today equally disgusted - chants like 'send her back' are ugly, wrong, & would send chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers. This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union."
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he found the chant "inappropriate."
"I wish we'd get off that and start talking about the economy and things that are really good, things that the majority of Republicans agree with," he said. "It's okay to go out and say, 'Hey, these guys are promoting a socialist agenda, etc., etc., etc.' But when you call them 'un-American,' when you get personal and that kind of stuff, I think you cross the board."
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said it appeared the crowd "sort of got caught up in the atmosphere and probably didn't think through what they were saying" at the rally.
"Probably somebody just started shouting something. But no American should ever talk to another American that way," Cole said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made no mention of Trump's rally during remarks Thursday morning in the chamber but referenced past questionable statements by Omar about Israel and lamented that "so many Democrats have moved so far to the extreme left."
Democratic House leaders, meanwhile, sought to turn their attention back to their legislative agenda on Thursday after several days of controversy generated by Trump's tweets attacking the four lawmakers.
"I think we're at the point where we just got to ignore this guy. That's my strategy," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., at the outset of a day when Democrats plan to pass a bill that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15.
Asked if Democrats were trying to keep the focus on that effort, Clyburn said, "That's exactly right."
Omar told reporters that she, too, wanted to stay focused on her work in Congress.
"What I'm going to be busy doing is uplifting people, making sure that they understand that here in this country we are all Americans," she said. "We are all welcome irregardless of what [Trump] says. So I'm going to go vote on the minimum wage and uplift millions of people. And I'm going to go hang out with my daughter."
Ocasio-Cortez said that what transpired at the rally raised concerns about the safety of the lawmakers.
Trump, she said, "is evolving - as predicted - deeper into the rhetoric of racism, which evolves into violence. I think it's natural to be concerned with safety."
Trump has sought to keep the focus on Omar and the other three minority lawmakers since Sunday, when he sent his tweets saying they should go back to "the crime infested places from which they came."
The House voted Tuesday night to condemn his remarks. Four Republicans and one independent joined Democrats in voting for the resolution.
Rep. Justin Amash of Mich., an independent who recently left the Republican Party after calling for Trump's impeachment, spoke out Thursday on the rally.
"A chant like 'Send her back!' is ugly and dangerous, and it is the inevitable consequence of President Trump's demagoguery," he wrote. "This is how history's worst episodes begin. We must not allow this man to take us to such a place."