Republicans press Pence for answers on 'send her back' chant

By Melanie Zanona, Quint Forgey and John Bresnahan

Republican members are expressing shock and discomfort over the “send her back” chants that erupted during President Donald Trump’s rally Wednesday night, with even some members of House GOP leadership conveying their concerns to Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday.

During a breakfast meeting with Republican leaders, multiple members said they were disturbed by the chants aimed at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and asked Pence to relay their message to Trump, which he agreed to do, according to several members who were present.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, the sophomore class representative, even asked for a 15 minute meeting with the president so he could directly discuss the chants along with Trump’s weekend tweetstorm against Omar and the progressive squad.

“I want to talk to the president about the tweet, and what has emanated from that,” the Michigan Republican told POLITICO. “It’s one thing to do chants of ‘lock her up.’ But a chant like [‘send her back’] is simply not reflective of our constitution.”

Mitchell was one of the only members of GOP leadership to criticize Trump’s tweets, but he did not vote for a resolution condemning them as “racist.”

And Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was also uneasy with the tweets and rally cries, said Pence seemed to share in their concerns.

“He said, ‘at first I couldn’t even tell what it was.’ And he said, ‘that just needs to not happen,’” said Cole, ranking member on the House Rules Committee. “He seemed as appalled by it as everybody else.”

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the vice chair of the GOP conference and a former pastor, added: “We talked about that, and he, we, felt like this is going to be part of our discussion to make sure we are not defined by that. We want our policies, from the House all the way up to the administration, to define us.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said those chants have “no place in our party and no place in this country.” But he disputed the notion that Trump was egging on the crowd.

“The president clarified in there what he was talking about: a love of the country. And if you don’t love the country, leave the country,” McCarthy said.

Trump on Thursday sought to distance himself from the chant, saying “I was not happy with it — I disagreed with it.” When asked why he didn’t stop it, he replied “I think I did — I started speaking very quickly."

Rep. Tom Emmer, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee who represents Minnesota alongside Omar in the House, said he didn't watch the rally last night but said "there’s no place for that kind of talk."

“I don’t agree with it," he said.

Emmer, speaking at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, declined to say whether the chant was racist, instead characterizing it as “not acceptable.”

The president in recent days has ramped up his incendiary attacks against a quartet of high-profile House Democrats — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — referencing his feud with the progressive lawmakers to inflame the crowd at Greenville, N.C.’s East Carolina University on Wednesday.

"They are always telling us how to run it, how to do this," Trump said at the rally. "You know what? If they don't love it, tell them to leave it."

Omar, a Somali refugee who emigrated to the U.S. with her family in the early 1990s, became a citizen in 2000 when she was 17 years old.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) denounced the display on Twitter early Thursday, writing online that “chants like ‘send her back’ are ugly, wrong, & would send chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers.” He continued: “This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters in the Capitol on Thursday morning that the phrase “send her back” was not inherently racist, and maintained that Trump’s attack against Omar was rooted not in racial animosity but instead provoked by her outspoken opposition to the president.

“I’ve said before that if you're Somali refugee wearing a ‘MAGA’ hat, he doesn't want to send you back. You’ll probably have dinner at the White House,” Graham said.

“The bottom line is that if you embrace his policies, it doesn't matter where you come from, he probably likes you,” he added.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who joined Trump for the rally, dismissed the chants Thursday morning during an appearance on Fox News.

“Any time you get into a crowd like that and you’ve got a lot of supporters, they’re going to say what they want to say,” he said.

“We’ve got to shift the attention back to some of the positions that they're taking that are extreme,” he added. “Now the media here on Capitol Hill only want to talk about parsing the president's words. I’m not going to answer a question of them unless they come back and talk about the things that actually lit this candle — and It's the extreme positions taken by AOC, Omar and the so-called ‘gang.’”

Asked to respond to characterizations of the rally attendees in his home state as racist, Tillis answered: “I refuse to take that bait. This is about people who want to change America. This is about people who have a socialist vision for the United States.”

Rep. Justin Amash, the independent Michigan congressman whose calls for Trump’s impeachment led to his departure from the Republican Party earlier this month, tweeted Thursday: “A chant like ‘Send her back!’ is ugly and dangerous, and it is the inevitable consequence of President Trump’s demagoguery." He cautioned: “This is how history’s worst episodes begin. We must not allow this man to take us to such a place.”