He once encouraged supporters to attack protesters — then claimed to ensure the safety of all Americans.
He mused that Russia should seize his competitor’s emails — then said it was just a joke.
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And he whipped his crowd into a frenzy about locking up Hillary Clinton — before insisting post-inauguration that the idea of prosecuting his Democratic opponent is “just not something I feel very strongly about.”
President Donald Trump returned to a familiar tactic Thursday of blaming others for a problem many believe he created, tossing his own base under the bus to deflect outrage from GOP allies on Capitol Hill and beyond.
It’s a throwback to a field-tested Trump playbook: push the rhetoric further than some allies can handle, then tiptoe back to shrug off responsibility.
Days after Trump encouraged four freshman Democrats — Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) — in a pair of tweets to “go back” to other countries, his supporters backed him up Wednesday night by chanting “send her back” about Omar, the only one of the four congresswomen who was born outside the United States.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump reprimanded his supporters who had launched into the racially incendiary chant at a North Carolina campaign rally. Trump, who said he was “not happy” with the episode, claimed that he tried to stop the crowd by “speaking very quickly,” at no point mentioning that the chant began only seconds after he told the crowd that Omar “looks down with contempt on the hardworking American” and “has a history of launching vicious, anti-Semitic screeds.”
Indeed, the president pushed his adoring audience all the way to the edge and then continued attacking Omar once the chant they started died down. But as more and more Republicans piled onto him Thursday, Trump responded by suggesting it was his audience — not him — who had crossed a line.
“I disagree with it,” he said of the chant.
It is hardly the first time the president has denied involvement in a controversial action or comment that, intentionally or not, he provoked.
At a campaign rally the day of the Iowa caucuses, then-candidate Trump told his supporters to “knock the crap” out of any protesters — promising to cover their legal fees if they did. But one month later, when an anti-Trump protester was sucker-punched at another rally in Arkansas, his campaign said they “obviously discourage this kind of behavior.”
In another instance from 2016, Trump drew praise from former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke after he reposted a quotation from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He later distanced himself from Duke during a series of cable news interviews.
Close allies to the president said they see no reason to believe he will end his attacks against Omar or her three progressive colleagues, who together make up a group known as “the squad.”
“Send her back is over the top. It’s not appropriate,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But otherwise, “you can expect [Trump] to continue.”
“I wouldn’t dare say he’d change his style. And if he does, it won’t be much,” added Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “The way I view it is, I wouldn’t give four freshmen that much attention.”
While Trump threw Republicans a bone by disavowing the chants midday Thursday, the damage had already been done to senators who have repeatedly urged him to focus on issues, highlight the booming economy and avoid personal attacks.
“You don’t want it to get personal, you hope it doesn’t, but unfortunately it has,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think it is good for him to paint a contrast on the philosophies, policy positions, issues, because I think that gives the American people a clear choice.”
“The chants were offensive. And very unfortunate and they do not speak well of that crowd,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Trump has “a special responsibility to unite Americans regardless of our ethnicity, race or national origin. I feel that he failed in that regard.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) likened the rally to a “rock concert” where crowd control is impossible and said “people are reading too much” into the chants. But he suggested that a more fertile area of attack would be singling out Omar’s support for the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement aimed at winning concessions for Palestinians against Israel.
“If we focus on what Omar just proposed yesterday with respect to BDS against Israel, I want the American people to know that stuff,” Tillis said. “If we do that, the American people are going to have enough.”
But Trump has shown no sign of a course correction, despite distancing himself from his supporters’ controversial chant. Even some of his campaign advisers said they worry he will make matters worse while he’s visiting his Bedminster, N.J., golf club this weekend. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled to speak at a private campaign event there Friday night, while the president‘s schedule for the rest of the weekend is unknown.
One administration official said Trump bragged about the tweets he posted last Sunday, in which he urged Omar and her colleagues to “go back” to where they came from, after seeing reports that his support among Republicans had increased after the off-message attack. (A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday showed the president’s net approval among GOP voters rising 5 percentage points since a poll taken last week.)
“I’m not relishing the fight. I’m enjoying it because I have to get the word out to the American people,” he told reporters before arriving in Greenville, N.C., on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Republicans are weighing how to move forward. They insist — and have privately told Trump and Pence — that the president will benefit more if he focuses on his party’s ideological battle with progressive Democrats instead of fanning the flames of racism.
Many GOP lawmakers spent all week deciding how to condemn Trump’s tweets without raising his ire and earning themselves an angry phone call or the threat of a primary challenger. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is seeking reelection in a diverse state, declined to talk about the episode, as did Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had gently criticized Trump earlier this week.
“I don’t know if all of this is strategic or shoot from the hip. I have no idea,” said one exasperated Republican senator who insisted on anonymity after speaking previously about Trump’s outburst earlier this week. “I’m done on this issue.”
Trump campaign officials also dodged questions about the president’s tweets and the chant that broke out at his Wednesday rally. Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s 2020 campaign, instead criticized the “socialist ideas” he claims have been espoused by “the squad” and other Democrats.
“The Squad, as they call themselves, are now the leaders of the Democrat Party,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “Americans don’t like it when elected officials consistently disparage this country.”