BY ZEKE MILLER, JILL COLVIN, JONATHAN LEMIRE
WASHINGTON (AP) — Defiant in the face of widespread censure, President Donald Trump escalated his demand for four Democratic congresswomen of color to leave the U.S. “right now,” stoking the discord that helped send him to the White House and claiming “many people agree with me.”
At the Capitol, the four lawmakers fired back, condemning what they called “xenophobic bigoted remarks” and renewing calls for Democrats to begin impeachment proceedings.
Trump had called on the four to “go back” to their “broken and crime-infested” countries in tweets that have been widely denounced as racist . His remarks were directed at Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are American citizens, and three of the four were born in the U.S.
The episode served notice that Trump is willing to again rely on incendiary rhetoric on issues of race and immigration to preserve his political base in the leadup to the 2020 election.
“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump said Monday at the White House. “A lot of people love it, by the way.”
At the Capitol, there was near unanimous condemnation from Democrats and a rumble of discontent from a subset of Republicans, but notably not from the party’s congressional leaders.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said Trump’s campaign slogan truly means he wants to “make America white again,” announced Monday that the House would vote on a resolution condemning his new comments . The resolution “strongly condemns” Trump’s “racist comments” and says they “have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s White House nominee in 2012 and now one of the president’s most vocal GOP critics, said Trump’s comments were “destructive, demeaning, and disunifying.”
Far from backing down, Trump dug in.
“If you’re not happy in the U.S., if you’re complaining all the time, you can leave, you can leave right now,” he said.
The president’s words, which evoked the trope of telling black people to go back to Africa, may have been partly meant to widen the divides within the House Democratic caucus, which has been riven by internal debate over how best to oppose his policies. And while Trump’s attacks brought Democrats together in defense of their colleagues, his allies noted he was also having some success in making the progressive lawmakers the face of their party.
The Republican president questioned whether Democrats should “want to wrap” themselves around this group of four people as he recited a list of the quartet’s most controversial statements.
Trump “does not know how to defend his policies and so what he does is attack us personally,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, said his party would also try to force a vote in the GOP-controlled chamber.
Trump, who won the presidency in 2016 in part by energizing disaffected voters with inflammatory racial rhetoric, made clear he has no intention of backing away from that strategy in 2020.
“The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them,” he tweeted Monday afternoon. “That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”
Trump has faced few consequences for such attacks in the past. They typically earn him cycles of wall-to-wall media attention. He is wagering that his most steadfast supporters will be energized by the controversy as much, or if not more so, than the opposition.
“It’s possible I’m wrong,” Trump allowed Monday. “The voters will decide.”
The president has told aides that he was giving voice to what many of his supporters believe — that they are tired of people, including immigrants, disrespecting their country, according to three Republicans close to the White House who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Trump singled out Omar, in particular, accusing her of having “hatred” for Israel and expressing “love” for “enemies like al-Qaida.”
“These are people that, in my opinion, hate our country,” he said.
Omar, in an interview, once laughed about how a college professor had spoken of al-Qaida with an intensity she said was not used to describe “America,” ″England” or “The Army.”
She addressed herself directly to Trump in a tweet, writing, “You are stoking white nationalism (because) you are angry that people like us are serving in Congress and fighting against your hate-filled agenda.”
Republicans largely trod carefully with their responses.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of the president who golfed with him over the weekend, advised him to “aim higher” during an appearance on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” even as he accused the four Democrats of being “anti-Semitic” and “anti-American.”
Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, said “I don’t think that the president’s intent in any way is racist,” pointing to Trump’s decision to choose Elaine Chao, who was born outside the country, as his transportation secretary.
Chao is one of the few minorities among the largely white and male aides in high-profile roles in Trump’s administration. She is the wife of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who declined to comment Monday on Trump’s attacks.
Among the few GOP lawmakers commenting Monday, Rep. Pete Olson of Texas said Trump’s tweets were “not reflective of the values of the 1,000,000+ people” in his district.
“We are proud to be the most diverse Congressional district in America,” he wrote. “I urge our President immediately disavow his comments.”
Several other Republicans went out of their way to say they were not condoning the views of the Democrats, while encouraging Trump to retract his comments.
In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from February 2017, half of Americans said the mixing of culture and values from around the world is an important part of America’s identity as a nation. Fewer, about a third, said the same of a culture established by early European immigrants.
But partisans in that poll were divided over these aspects of America’s identity. About two-thirds of Democrats but only about a third of Republicans thought the mixing of world cultures was important to the country’s identity. By comparison, nearly half of Republicans but just about a quarter of Democrats saw the culture of early European immigrants as important to the nation.
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.
Lemire reported from New York. Follow Miller on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@ZekeJMiller , Colvin at http://twitter.com/@ColvinJ and Lemire at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire .