Donald Trump broadly declared on Friday that no one should criticise the United States while he is president, part of a renewed attack on four minority congresswomen whom he has targeted as un-American.
Mr Trump also praised his supporters at a rally where they chanted, “Send her back!”, a refrain directed at one of the lawmakers, Somali-born Ilhan Omar.
The president called the campaign crowd “incredible patriots” – a day after saying he disagreed with the chant.
He initially denounced the bigotry and hatred, then issued a stronger statement calling the racism practiced by hate groups “evil”, but the next day he spoke of “very fine people on both sides”.
His comments on Friday capped a tumultuous week when Mr Trump tweeted that the four women should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”, and repeatedly defended his words despite widespread criticism that his remarks were racist and divisive.
In a rare rebuke, the House voted to condemn his racist tweets about the four lawmakers.
Mr Trump said on Friday that criticism of the United States is unacceptable and that the four congresswomen “can’t get away with” it.
“I can tell you this, you can’t talk that way about our country, not when I’m the president,” he told reporters outside the White House.
Every American has the right of free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution, a reporter pointed out – and the president acknowledged that.
“We have First Amendment rights also – we can ... say what we want,” Mr Trump said. It was unclear who he was referring to as “we”.
The four Democrats – Ms Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib – have warned that the country has taken a wrong turn following Trump administration policies, mostly notably on immigration and climate change.
Mr Trump, in his inaugural address, spoke of “American carnage”, describing empty factories “like tombstones across the landscape”, and separately has spoken of China outpacing the United States.
His 2016 campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again”, as if it weren’t.
At the rally on Wednesday, Trump supporters chanted, “Send her back!” when the president recounted several of Ms Omar’s comments, mis-characterising some, and lashed out at her for her opposition to the Israeli government.
The next day, Mr Trump said he didn’t condone that chant, but by Friday morning he was back on the attack. He assailed the media for its coverage of the episode and hailed the crowd at the North Carolina rally.
“Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots,” Mr Trump said during an event in the Oval Office at which he again attacked Ms Omar.
“She’s lucky to be where she is, let me tell you,” Mr Trump said. “And the things that she has said are a disgrace to our country.”
Asked about his unhappiness with the rally chant, Mr Trump said: “You know what I’m unhappy with? I’m unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country. I’m unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can say antisemitic things.”
Mr Trump has provided no evidence that Ms Omar ever said she hates the United States, and earlier this week she said: “I probably love this country more than anyone that is naturally born.”
In tweets earlier on Friday, Mr Trump characterised media coverage of his rally in Greenville, North Carolina, as “crazed” and complained that media was “totally calm and accepting” of what he said were “vile and disgusting statements” made by Omar and the three other minority congresswomen whom he has repeatedly criticised in recent days.
Mr Trump also complained that the media covered the return of Ms Omar to her home state on Thursday. She was greeted at the Minneapolis−St Paul International Airport by a crowd chanting: “Welcome home, Ilhan!”
Mr Trump has taken repeated aim at the four since Sunday, when his “go back” tweet caused an uproar, decried by Democrats and a few Republicans.
Besides Ms Omar, the other three lawmakers were born in the United States. Ms Omar was born in Somalia and became a US citizen in 2000.
Much of Mr Trump’s criticism of Ms Omar has focused on remarks she has made about Israel. Earlier this year, she tweeted that support for Israel among members of Congress was “all about the Benjamins”, a reference to $100 bills.
In February, she apologised for her comment, saying: “Antisemitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of antisemitic tropes.
“My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.” She also clarified that, in general, her remarks were aimed at criticising the Israeli government, not Jewish people.
Mr Trump also has falsely accused Ms Omar of praising the terrorist group al-Qaida.
Speaking to reporters on Friday afternoon, he claimed that the congresswomen had talked about “evil Jews”, which they haven’t, and inaccurately said Ms Ocasio-Cortez had called America “garbage”, when she was actually talking about not settling for incremental policies that were “10 percent better than garbage”.
Reporters asked Mr Trump if he believed the “Send her back!” chant was racist.
“No, you know what’s racist to me? When somebody goes out and says the horrible things about our country, the people of our country, that are antisemitic, who hate everybody, who speak with scorn and hate,” Mr Trump said. “... We’re dealing with people who hate our country.”
During an event on Thursday in the Oval Office, Mr Trump told reporters that he did not agree with the chant of “Send her back!” and “felt a little bit badly about it”.
He also claimed he had moved to cut the chant off by starting to speak against it “very quickly”, even though he paused for 13 seconds until the chant died down.
Kayleigh McEnany, a spokeswoman for Mr Trump’s re-election campaign, told CBSN on Thursday that Mr Trump “couldn’t really hear what was going on” when the crowd started to chant.
Mr Trump’s decision to try to distance himself from the chant came after a flurry of GOP lawmakers publicly condemned it, even while being careful not to denounce Mr Trump directly.
On Friday, Mr Trump dismissed reports that first lady Melania Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, had advised him to condemn the racist chant.
“False information. It was fake news,” he said.
In his tweets on Friday, Mr Trump predicted that he would win Minnesota next year, saying voters there “can’t stand” Ms Omar and “her hatred of our country”.
In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Minnesota by less than two percentage points.
Later on Friday morning, Mr Trump retweeted several of his tweets from earlier this week in which he was critical of Ms Omar and the other minority lawmakers, including one in which he said it was “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”.
Former first lady Michelle Obama weighed in on Twitter.
“What truly makes our country great is its diversity. I’ve seen that beauty in so many ways over the years,” she wrote.
“Whether we are born here or seek refuge here, there’s a place for us all. We must remember it’s not my America or your America. It’s our America.”
Ms Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, on Friday tweeted footage of Ms Omar’s greeting at the airport as she returned to Minnesota the night before.
“This land is your land, This land is my land, This land was made for you and me,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez wrote, adding the hashtag, #IStandWithIlhan.
In remarks at the airport, Ms Omar pledged to continue to be Mr Trump’s “nightmare”.
“When I said I was the president’s nightmare, well you’re watching it now,” she said. “Because his nightmare is seeing a Somali immigrant refugee rise to Congress.”
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