Their news conference represented an extraordinary moment of the post-civil rights era, as a new generation of young political leaders — elected in 2018 in a backlash to Trump’s 2016 victory — publicly began to confront Washington’s oldest curse of political racism.
“I want to tell children across this country … that no matter what the President says, this country belongs to you, and it belongs to everyone,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The controversy erupted when Trump — as always seeking to rouse his political base — used one of the most basic racial tropes when he tweeted that the women, all of whom are US citizens, should “go back” to where they came from.
He refused to back down on Monday, in an episode that reflects his tendency to set groups of Americans against one another and his confidence that he will not lose the backing of the Republican Party he has reshaped in his image.
“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump said, implicitly arguing that racist positions are permissible if they are shared by large numbers of people.
Monday’s clash has been brewing for days. The four members of Congress have been among the most vehement critics of Trump’s border policies and several of them visited facilities for undocumented migrants and condemned the President in emotional terms.
Republicans, meanwhile, struggled to answer the implications of Trump’s words. Their reactions of either silence, equivocation or gentle rebuke underscore that the GOP and its reputation are now hostage to the President but that members believe his tactics may also be effective.
The party risks being tainted for years by Trump’s racial strategies that could hamper its chances of appealing to an increasingly diverse nation once the President has left the White House.
Trump clearly signaled on Monday that he will use race and the haunted, blood-soaked politics that it invokes as an anchor of his reelection bid. A conscious decision to expose divides most leaders have tried for decades to quell is an audacious and shocking bet that augurs dark political months to come.
His appearance on the South Lawn of the White House ranked alongside other clarifying racial moments of his political career — when he launched his 2016 campaign with a tirade against Mexicans and defended neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In all three cases, Trump made conscious decisions to use and then double down on racial sensitivities to exploit national societal divides to bolster his own political position.
His expansion of his attacks Monday on the liberal quartet known as “the squad” was clearly calculated. He spoke from behind a podium bearing the presidential seal and from typed remarks, edited with a trademark black sharpie. Two saluting Marines stood by as Trump claimed critics like those in the “squad” hated America, should leave if they don’t like it and are communists.
Asked if he was concerned that tweets on Sunday were giving comfort to white supremacists, Trump refused to back down.
“These are people that, in my opinion, hate our country … and all I’m saying, that if they’re not happy here, they can leave,” he said.
Trump created his White House moment on race with the windows of the Lincoln Bedroom, where the 16th President first read the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet, over his left shoulder. One floor above him was the East Room where in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson vowed to “close the springs of racial poison” when he signed the Civil Rights Act.
In a later tweet, the President spelled out a chilling message demeaning the patriotism of the four lawmakers, Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Presley of Massachusetts. Three of the group were born in the United States and all are US citizens.
“We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country. IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE! It is your choice, and your choice alone. This is about love for America. Certain people HATE our Country,” Trump wrote.
His comment did not take into account that the four lawmakers are American citizens elected to a body with the specific purpose of checking presidential power and policies. They suggested that the President does not share the principles of inclusion that the nation that he leads is supposedly built upon.
By refusing to back away from his attacks, Trump sought to make the squad the face of the Democratic Party in 2020. He is clearly hoping to use the group to carve divides between the Democrats and more moderate voters who might be troubled by the squad’s left wing policies and his own interpretations of their radicalism.
But Pressley had a warning for the President on Monday, putting him on notice that the group was part of a much wider opposition front.
“Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world,” she said.
Before the latest controversy, the quartet had already emerged as a GOP target, given their radical, left-wing politics has seen them clash with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Ocasio-Cortez has delighted conservatives looking for targets by comparing border holding facilities to “concentration camps.” Omar was at the center of a previous storm over anti-Semitic statements. Several of the group have taken positions on foreign policy that are outside the mainstream of much congressional opinion (though so has Trump).
“If the Democrats want to wrap their bows around this group of four people ….,” Trump said, offering an insight into a general election strategy that will seek to tie the eventual Democratic nominee to the most radical elements of their party.
Trump’s racially themed politics and scorched earth immigration rhetoric was a driver of his 2016 election win — though there were many complex reasons for Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
It is an open question whether Trump’s base stoking strategy will succeed in 2020 or could alienate more moderate voters and cause a bumper turnout in the more diverse Democratic coalition.
Some Republicans condemned Trump’s tweets, including Rep. Will Hurd, who has one of the nation’s most competitive districts in Texas and told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the President’s tweets were “racist and xenophobic. They’re also inaccurate.”
But other Republicans showed the stress of being asked to weigh in on Trump’s sentiments while preserving their capacity to go after the squad — one of the GOP’s top political targets.
“I don’t think the President is a racist,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota told CNN.
“I think it was a very unfortunate choice of words. But I also understand his frustration with their anti-American, anti-Semitic hatred that some of them spew.”
Trump’s most committed supporters like Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP minority leader, said the real issue was “really kind of a socialist battle versus a thing that we believe within America.”
But even McCarthy disagreed with the President’s suggestion that Omar, a Somalia-born US citizen and her colleagues should “go back” to where she was from.
“They’re Americans. Nobody believes somebody should leave the country,” he said.
The ‘squad’ responds
In a show of solidarity, the squad made their own televised appearance late on Monday afternoon.
Pressley condemned the “xenophobia” and “bigoted” words of Trump, who she would only refer to as the “occupant of our White House.”
“He is only occupying space, he does not embody the grace, the empathy, the compassion, the integrity that that office requires and that the American people deserve,” said Pressley.
But she also showed an awareness of the political dynamics at play, and Trump’s desire to exploit any indiscipline and radical behavior from her group for political purposes.
“I encourage the American people and all of us in this room and beyond to not take the bait,” she said.
Tlaib warned that Trump’s racist attacks were partly designed to take the focus of Americans away from the border crisis.
“We cannot allow these hateful actions by the President to distract us from the critical work to hold this administration accountable to the inhumane conditions at the border that is separating children from their loved ones and caging them up in illegal, horrific conditions,” Tlaib said.
The performance from the four women was powerful and carefully couched in American principles and values, emphasizing issues such as education, health care and affordable housing. It also gave the President the visuals that he must have been hoping for.
The sight of four women of color — in positions of power, two of whom are Muslim — offered a picture of diversity and inclusion but nevertheless contrasts with the vision of a nativist, white America that Trump is implicitly selling to “Make America Great Again” followers.
Omar, perhaps Trump’s most visible target, invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to warn that “the eyes of history (are) watching us.”
She also used Trump’s own words and some attributed to him in news reports to condemn him.
“This is a President who has said, grab women by the pussy. This is a President who has called black athletes sons of bitches. This is a President who has called people who come from black and brown countries, s—-holes. This is a President who has equated neo-Nazis with those who protest against them in Charlottesville,” Omar said.