Nervous Republicans, from senior members of Congress to his own daughter Ivanka, urged President Trump on Thursday to repudiate the “send her back” chant directed at a Somali-born congresswoman during his speech the night before at a rally in North Carolina, amid widespread fears that the rally had veered into territory that could hurt their party in 2020.
In response, Mr. Trump disavowed the behavior of his own supporters in comments to reporters at the White House and claimed that he had tried to contain it, an assertion clearly contradicted by video of the event.
Mr. Trump said he was “not happy” with the chant directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a freshman Democrat who is Muslim. At the rally Wednesday evening, he had been in the middle of denouncing her as an anti-American leftist who has spoken in “vicious, anti-Semitic screeds” when the chant was taken up by the crowd.
Pressed on why he did not stop it, Mr. Trump said, “I think I did — I started speaking very quickly.” In fact, as the crowd roared “send her back,” Mr. Trump paused and looked around silently for more than 10 seconds as the scene unfolded in front of him, doing nothing to halt the chorus. “I didn’t say that,” he added. “They did.”
Mr. Trump’s cleanup attempt reflected the misgivings of political allies who have warned him privately that however much his hard-core supporters in the arena might have enjoyed the moment, the president was playing with political fire, according to people briefed on the conversations.
Among them were House Republican leaders, who pleaded with Vice President Mike Pence to distance the party from the message embraced by the crowd in Greenville, N.C. Mr. Pence conveyed that directly to Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the exchange.
“That does not need to be our campaign call, like we did the ‘lock her up’ last time,” said Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina, a top official in the party’s messaging arm, referring to the chant that routinely broke out whenever Mr. Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Midway through that race, Mr. Trump told reporters he did not approve of that chant, but he never intervened.
Mr. Walker, who attended the rally on Wednesday night, later posted on Twitter that he had “struggled” with the chant. “We cannot be defined by this,” he said.
Though it was brief, I struggled with the “send her back” chant tonight referencing Rep. Omar. 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.
— Rep. Mark Walker (@RepMarkWalker) July 18, 2019
Mr. Trump’s inner circle immediately appreciated the gravity of the rally scene and quickly urged him to repudiate the chant. Ms. Trump, his elder daughter and senior adviser, spoke to the president about it on Thursday morning, the people familiar with the discussions said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Trump’s backpedaling reflects a larger issue for Republicans as they devise a strategy for the election. There is wide agreement in the party that branding Democrats as radicals in favor of open borders and what they dismiss as grandiose proposals like the Green New Deal could be a powerful argument in their attempt to hold the White House and make inroads in Congress.
But while Republicans regard Ms. Omar and her fellow progressives who make up “the squad” — Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — as particularly good embodiments of that radicalism, there is some concern that suggesting they leave the country makes the argument too personal and could backfire.
Mr. Trump’s freewheeling campaign rallies — at which he aims for maximum entertainment value by testing boundaries and breaking taboos, all while his supporters egg him on with cheers and chants — encourage that kind of language. The feedback loop is so familiar by now that Mr. Trump’s staff explicitly warned him before the rally that the crowd would follow his lead as he spoke about Ms. Omar and to be careful not to let things spin out of control.
Even before Wednesday’s rally, his aides and advisers had spent days trying to manage the fallout from the president’s tweets on Sunday calling on the four Democratic congresswomen who he said “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” to “go back” and “help fix” them.
All of them are American citizens, and all but Ms. Omar, a Somali refugee, were born in the United States.
Many of Mr. Trump’s advisers immediately recognized that the tweets had crossed a new line, and they expected him to walk them back at the beginning of the week. But he did the opposite, renewing his call for the women to leave the United States. The charge that his tweets were racist “doesn’t concern me,” the president said, “because many people agree with me.”
Those people included Mr. Trump’s defenders on Fox News, like the prime-time host Tucker Carlson, who has repeatedly denounced Ms. Omar while defending the president against the charge of racism.
After the rally, Mr. Trump made no mention of any concern. “Just returned to the White House from the Great State of North Carolina. What a crowd, and what great people,” he tweeted.
Just returned to the White House from the Great State of North Carolina. What a crowd, and what great people. The enthusiasm blows away our rivals on the Radical Left. #2020 will be a big year for the Republican Party!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2019
Congressional Republicans, who offered only muted protest over the president’s initial remarks about the congresswomen, recognized that the spectacle in Greenville demanded a more vocal response. Some suggested that the episode, with its intimations of political persecution and even physical force, had violated sacred democratic norms.
“Those chants have no place in our party or our country,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, told reporters.
Even as they denounced the crowd’s chant, Republican leaders declined to criticize Mr. Trump personally.
“There’s no place for that kind of talk,” Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota said to reporters in Washington after being asked about the chant.