Donald Trump last night launched an extraordinary defence of racist comments he made about four Democratic congresswoman, saying he “did not care” if white nationalists found common cause with him.
In language perhaps never before used in public comments at the White House, the president doubled down on a series of attacks he had made on the four women of colour – three of whom were born in the US and one who moved here 20 years ago as a refugee from Somalia. He had told the four to “go back home”.
“As far as I’m concerned, if you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave,” Mr Trump said at yesterday’s event, which had been intended to celebrate US manufacturing. He denied that a series of tweets he had posted over the weekend and yesterday morning had been racist.
Mr Trump was asked by a member of the media if it concerned him that many people considered his tweets racist and that “white nationalist groups are finding common cause with you”. He replied: “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me. All I’m saying, they want to leave, they can leave. Now, it doesn’t say leave forever. It says leave if you want.”
In what appears to be a deliberate political strategy intended to rally his base as he campaigns for re-election, Mr Trump has been targeting the four Democratic congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. They have all been critical of both him and current Democratic House leaders.
On Friday, Mr Trump said he did not know where these women “come from”. He then posted a series of tweets saying they should “go back home”. He wrote: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how ... it is done.”
The congresswomen held an impassioned press conference on Capitol Hill last night in response. Ms Pressley said: “He does not embody the grace, the empathy, the compassion, the integrity that that office requires and that the American people deserve. That being said, I encourage the American people and all of us in this room and beyond to not take the bait. This is a disruptive distraction ... He would love nothing more than to divide our country based on race, religion, gender, orientation, or immigration status.”
Mr Trump continued to tweet attacks at the women during the event.
Shortly before, Ms Ocasio-Cortez, a New York representative, tweeted that Mr Trump had “showed off his white nationalism for the world to see”. She told him: “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us. You rely on a frightened America for your plunder. You won’t accept a nation that sees healthcare as a right or education as a number one priority, especially where we’re the ones fighting for it. Yet here we are.”
Only a handful of Republicans have condemned Mr Trump’s language, with most being noticeable in their silence. Senator Lindsey Graham attacked the women as “socialist” and “antisemitic”, though he also called on the president not to make such personal attacks.
In his White House press conference, Mr Trump also echoed earlier false claims that Ms Omar is an Al Qaeda sympathiser. He criticised her for “being from Somalia”, adding that she “hates Jews” and “loves Al Qaeda”.
Yesterday, Democrats in congress moved to formally censure Mr Trump’s attacks on the four congresswomen. “The House cannot allow the president’s characterisation of immigrants to our country to stand,” said House speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Our Republican colleagues must join us in condemning the president’s xenophobic tweets.”
But Mr Trump hit back at accusations that his tweets were racist, saying: “So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion. Whenever confronted, they call their adversaries, including Nancy Pelosi, ‘RACIST’.”
At the White House conference, Mr Trump also defended the use of mass raids aimed at rounding up immigrants over the weekend as “very successful”. With few details of the raids made public so far, the statement is difficult to verify. Immigrants and campaigners had been braced for a large number of arrests, but there have only been reports of low-profile operations in a few cities.
“The ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids were very successful,” Mr Trump said. “People came into our country illegally ... Many were felons. Many were convicted of crimes. Many, many were taken out on Sunday – you just didn’t know about it. It was a very successful day but you didn’t see a lot of it. Every person taken out had papers and we had court orders.”
He offered no evidence to back up his claim.
New York mayor Bill de Blasio said there were three ICE operations in his city on Saturday. There were also unconfirmed reports of ICE action in Denver and Miami.
The removal operations are designed to deter an increase in Central American families seeking asylum in the United States, with many fleeing poverty and gang violence in their home countries in recent months.
Yesterday, the Trump administration said it was implementing new rules for immigrants seeking asylum, requiring them to first seek protection from a third country such as Mexico.
A statement jointly issued by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice said the interim rule would set a “new bar” for immigrants “by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States”. The American Civil Liberties Union called the new rule “patently unlawful” and vowed to file a lawsuit.