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Trump Backs Away From Chants Of 'Send Her Back' That Broke Out At N.C. Campaign Rally


President Trump is backing away from the chants of send her back that broke out at his campaign rally in North Carolina last night. The chants were about Somali American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and they come after the president's tweets targeting four Democratic congresswomen, including Omar, with racist language. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In his weekend tweets, President Trump said the congresswoman, quote, "originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe" and suggested they, quote, "go back." To be clear, all four are American citizens. And only one, Ilhan Omar, was born outside of America. She was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. as a refugee. And when Trump started talking about her at his rally last night, this happened.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Omar has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.

UNDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Send her back. Send her back. Send her back.

KEITH: The chant of send her back grew louder as Trump finished his sentence. He briefly moved away from the microphone as it continued. Now, Trump says, he disagrees with the chant.


TRUMP: I wasn't happy with that message that they gave last night.

KEITH: Asked at the White House today why he didn't try to stop the chanting, Trump falsely claimed that he did.


TRUMP: It was quite a chant, and I felt a little bit badly about it. But I will say this, I did - and I started speaking very quickly. But it started up rather fast.

KEITH: In reality, Trump stood there for 13 seconds as the chant continued, waiting for it to die down before he resumed his remarks.


UNDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Send her back. Send her back.

TRUMP: And she talked about the...

KEITH: Trump's effort to distance himself came amidst a growing chorus of concern from Trump allies. A Republican congressman who had been at the rally tweeted that he struggled with the chant and, quote, "phrasing that's painful to our friends in the minority communities." And on a nationally syndicated conservative talk radio show, Chris Stigall told listeners he thought it was problematic.


CHRIS STIGALL: A chant - send her back - to me crosses a line.

KEITH: Stigall was filling in as guest host on "The Chris Plante Show." He said he didn't think it was helpful.


STIGALL: If that becomes the new lock her up of 2020, as some people are saying, then so be it. I think it would be a mistake. I'll just register that opinion now.

KEITH: In fact, a Trump campaign aide argued that despite the racially loaded history of the phrase, this chant was really no different than the lock-her-up chants of 2016 aimed at Hillary Clinton - nothing serious, just a rally chant. The campaign wants to paint the four Congresswomen as leaders of the Democratic Party, and aides say this fight is helping with that. Rory Cooper, who used to work for House Republicans and now is at the firm Purple Strategies, says that's just spin.

RORY COOPER: I don't think anybody thinks it's working. I think that most congressional Republicans probably wish that this whole thing would go away.

KEITH: Cooper says the president is in the midst of a familiar cycle. Trump says something offensive that some of his supporters like, but others are bothered by it, so...

COOPER: He then backtracks in order to appease those folks but only enough in order to not alienate the original group that liked the fighting that he was doing. And now we're at the point where everybody has heard whatever they think they want to hear.

KEITH: A few hours after President Trump's walkback, the campaign had moved on, sending a text to supporters asking them to tell Democrats to finish the wall.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.