President Donald Trump said Monday that he is not concerned by criticism that his tweets suggesting four minority congresswomen return to their home countries were racist, asserting that they hate the United States and are free to leave.
His comments at a White House event came as leaders of the Democratic House prepared a resolution condemning tweets over the weekend in which Trump said the liberal lawmakers critical of him should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."
In a letter to Democratic colleagues, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Trump had gone "beyond his own low standards using disgraceful language about Members of Congress" and that Democrats would "forcefully respond to these disgusting acts."
Trump expressed no regrets at a White House event to celebrate American-made products when asked by reporters if he was concerned by widespread criticism that his tweets about the lawmakers were racist.
"It doesn't concern me because many people agree with me," Trump said. "And I'll I'm saying - they want to leave, they can leave."
Trump's tweets targeted a group of liberal freshmen who have been feuding with Pelosi, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. All are U.S. citizens, and only Omar was born outside the United States.
Trump said at the White House event that all four have been "complaining constantly" about the United States.
"These are people that hate our country," Trump said. "They hate our country. They hate it, I think, with a passion."
A House vote rebuking Trump's tweets targeting the four lawmakers known as the "Squad" could unify a Democratic caucus that has been frayed by tensions between the group and Pelosi.
And it would also put Republicans on record about Trump's comments. Congressional Republicans were largely silent on Sunday after his initial tweets - with some fearful of chastising a president popular with the GOP base - though some began speaking out critically on Monday.
Trump doubled down on his weekend tweets early in the day Monday, saying that the congresswomen should apologise to him.
Tweeting from the White House, he employed a tactic he has used before: accusing his opponents of the same transgressions for which they have criticised him.
"When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said," Trump wrote. "So many people are angry at them & their horrible & disgusting actions!"
He later criticised Democrats for coming to the defense of the congresswomen, who he claimed had shown "racist hatred" in their speech and are "very unpopular & unrepresentative."
All four lawmakers targeted by Trump have called for his impeachment - Tlaib has done so using profane language - and have been highly critical of his administration, notably denouncing conditions at federal detention facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump's comments regarding Israel appeared to target Omar and Tlaib.
Earlier this year, Omar apologised after she was widely accused of anti-Semitic speech for suggesting that supporters of Israel's government have an "allegiance to a foreign country."
Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, has advocated what has been dubbed a "one-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arguing that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively opposes a two-state solution of neighboring Israeli and Palestinian states, she has supported the transformation of Israel into a single, jointly governed Arab-Jewish nation. But the idea has little support among either Israelis or Palestinians.
Ocasio-Cortez went on Twitter to denounce Trump shortly after his latest posts.
"It's important to note that the President's words yday, telling four American Congresswomen of color 'go back to your own country,' is hallmark language of white supremacists," she wrote. "Trump feels comfortable leading the GOP into outright racism, and that should concern all Americans."
Trump's tweets on Sunday morning were sent before he headed to his golf club in Sterling, Virginia.
"So interesting to see 'Progressive' Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run," Trump tweeted.
"Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," Trump added. "Then come back and show us how it is done."
Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Tlaib was born in Detroit, and Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York. Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia; her family fled the country amid civil war when she was a child, and she became a U.S. citizen as a teenager.
Pelosi subsequently described Trump's tweets as racist and divisive.
"When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to 'Make America Great Again' has always been about making America white again," she said in a tweet. "Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power."
By Sunday evening, at least 90 House Democrats, plus Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., had denounced Trump's remarks, with more than half of them using the words "racist" or "racism" to describe his tweets.
The only Republican member of Congress to speak out against Trump on Sunday was Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who wrote on Twitter that "POTUS was wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any 'home' besides the U.S."
"But I just as strongly believe noncitizens who abuse our immigration laws should be sent home immediately, & Reps who refuse to defend America should be sent home" in the next election, he added.
A few other Republicans were critical of Trump's tweets when asked about them on Monday.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., speaking on the syndicated radio program "Michigan's Big Show," called Trump's tweets "really uncalled for" and "very disappointing."
"We don't respond to everything that's out there," he said when asked about the relative silence from GOP lawmakers. "But I would imagine, I would know, that a good number of my Republican colleagues don't appreciate the comments as well. And actually if you look at the facts . . . three of the four were born in this country, so it makes no sense."
During a television appearance Monday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. counseled Trump to focus on policy differences with the congresswomen rather than on them personally.
"Aim higher. They are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies," Graham said on Fox News's "Fox & Friends."
During the interview, Graham called the congresswomen's ideas "anti-Semitic" and "socialist" and said their agenda is "disgusting."
"We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists," Graham said, referring to Ocasio-Cortez. "They hate Israel. They hate our own country."
Trump later tweeted selective quotes from Graham's interview that did not include his advice to "aim higher."
Trump also faced some criticism from Republicans beyond Capitol Hill.
In a statement, former Ohio governor John Kasich, a frequent Trump critic, called the president's comments "deplorable and beneath the dignity of the office."
"We all, including Republicans, need to speak out against these kinds of comments that do nothing more than divide us and create deep animosity - maybe even hatred," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. sought to highlight the silence of most Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"Is the Republican silence over President @realDonaldTrump's racism agreement or embarrassment?" he said in a tweet late Monday morning.
On Sunday night, Trump tweeted that it was "sad" to see Democrats "sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion."
He returned to that argument Monday morning.
"If Democrats want to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen, it will be interesting to see how it plays out," Trump wrote. "I can tell you that they have made Israel feel abandoned by the U.S."
Speaking to reporters at the White House on Monday morning, Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, said: "I don't think the president's intent in any way is racist. . . . This is not a universal statement that he is making."
Asked about the controversy during an earlier appearance on the Fox Business Channel, Short mentioned a recent naturalisation ceremony at which Pence presided and that was attended by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is Asian American.
"So when people write the president has racist motives here, look at the reality of who is actually serving in Donald Trump's Cabinet," Short said. "He is making a point about a great frustration a lot of people feel that, I think it's hard to find anything Ilhan Omar has actually said since elected to Congress that has been positive about the United States of America."