U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday defended his attacks against four Democratic congresswomen, saying he was not concerned if people thought his tweets toward them were racist and accused the U.S. lawmakers of hating America.
“As far as I’m concerned if you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave,” Trump said at an event at the White House.
The event was meant to highlight U.S. manufacturing, with Trump viewing boats, motorcycles and other products that were made in the United States, but his comments about the lawmakers overshadowed the event.
“If you’re not happy in the U.S., if you’re complaining all the time, very simply: you can leave,” he said, drawing applause from some of the crowd. “You can leave right now. I don’t know who’s going to miss ’em.”
Trump’s weekend tweets – where he said the four first-term minority congresswomen, known informally in the U.S. Congress as “the squad,” should “go back” to the “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” – prompted other Democrats to accuse Trump of racist rhetoric meant to further divide Americans.
Asked Monday if his tweets were racist, Trump responded “not at all.”
In an aggressive line of attack that could have consequences for Trump as he seeks re-election in 2020, he was seen as appealing to white nationalist Republicans while further risking his standing among moderate swing voters.
“We have a president who is throwing a match on the flame,” Senator Angus King, an independent, said on MSNBC on Monday. “It inflames the worst of our instincts.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, backed Trump in comments on Fox Business Network and to reporters at the White House.
Short defended President Trump’s tweets about the four U.S. congresswomen, saying his tweets were not racist because Trump has an “Asian woman of color in his Cabinet,” referring to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
“I don’t think that the president’s intent in any way is racist,” Short said Monday. “He has an Asian woman of colour in his cabinet who came to the United States.”
WATCH: Marc Short, chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, defends President Trump’s tweets, says they were not racist because Trump has an ‘Asian woman of color in his Cabinet’
Trump did not mention names in his initial Sunday tweets targeting “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.” He appeared to reference representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who all have been critical of both Trump and current Democratic House leaders.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump tweeted. “Then come back and show us how … it is done.”
All four of the congresswomen are U.S. citizens. Three – Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib – were born in the United States while Omar, a Somali refugee, arrived in Minneapolis in 1997.
Most of Trump‘s fellow Republicans in Congress had little public reaction to the tweets.
Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a sometime Trump golf partner and adviser, blasted the four congresswomen in an interview on Fox News on Monday, calling them “socialist” and “anti-Semitic.” Graham also called on Trump to stop making such personal attacks.
“Aim higher. … They are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies. The bottom line here is this is a diverse country,” Graham said, adding he had spoken to Trump.
Another Republican lawmaker, U.S. Representative Chip Roy, also pushed back, saying in a tweet overnight that Trump “was wrong” but adding that lawmakers “who refuse to defend America” should not be re-elected next year.
None of the top four Republican leaders in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, or their representatives had any immediate comment.
Asked if Trump‘s tweets were racist, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told CNN on Monday: “I wouldn’t go that far, no, certainly not.”
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On Sunday, Trump lambasted Democrats for defending the women, who countered with their own tweets accusing him of pushing white nationalism.
Ocasio-Cortez shot back at the president and his party, saying Trump‘s words telling them to “go back” to their own countries “is hallmark language of white supremacists.”
“Trump feels comfortable leading the GOP into outright racism and that should concern all Americans,” she tweeted.
Trump is seeking re-election next year after his 2016 victory, which drew heavily on attacks against immigrants and has since stoked racial tensions nationwide.
His tweets follow days of reported tensions between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and more progressive members of her caucus as they seek to build on their 2018 midterm victories.
Pelosi and other Democrats defended the four congresswomen, saying Trump was exacerbating white nationalism and using “xenophobic” rhetoric.
Several Democratic presidential candidates seeking to challenge Trump blasted the tweets as “racist.”