It was as chilling a moment as any in recent American political history. Just days after Donald Trump called on four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to a foreign country, the president hosted a campaign rally in North Carolina where he lied about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Trump’s followers responded by chanting, “Send her back,” in reference to the lawmaker.
This afternoon, the president tried to put some distance between himself and his supporters’ rhetoric.
President Donald Trump on Thursday attempted to distance himself from a boisterous “send her back” chant aimed at Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that occurred at his campaign rally Wednesday night.
“I was not happy with it – I disagree with it,” Trump told reporters at the White House, adding, “I didn’t say that, they did.”
As a literal matter, that last part is true. The president himself never used the words, “Send her back.” He just paused to allow his supporters to make the chant themselves.
Asked why he didn’t ask the crowd to stop, Trump told reporters today, “I think I did. I started speaking very quickly.”
That’s not what happened. After already having called for the congresswomen to “go back” to a foreign country, Trump proceeded to peddle false and inflammatory comments about Omar. When the audience broke into its chilling chant, Trump briefly nodded his head, stepped back from the microphone, and remained silent for nearly 14 seconds.
If, as he claimed today, the president “disagreed” with what he heard, he had plenty of time to say so. Trump did the opposite, allowing the chant to go on, basking in his followers’ anger – which the president was responsible for stoking in the first place.
The Republican then proceeded to attack the Minnesota congresswoman some more.
At a certain level, it’s tempting to take some comfort in the fact that Trump, a day later, sees the ugly rhetoric as a bridge too far. But that comfort doesn’t last long: he was only too pleased to welcome the chant last night, and even while distancing himself from the rhetoric today, he clearly lied about how he handled the incident at the time.
Three years ago this month, Trump said he wasn’t comfortable with his followers chanting, “Lock her up” – a phrase he and his campaign ultimately embraced and continue to hear at his events.
No one should be surprised if “send her back” follows a similar trajectory.