Some Republican lawmakers began criticizing President Trump Monday for his racist attacks on four Democratic congresswomen, calling the comments unacceptable and divisive. A few called on him to apologize, and others implored him to "stop."
But Mr. Trump openly dismissed the pleas, and showed no signs of stopping or apologizing. Instead he spent the better part of a "Made in America" event in the Rose Garden escalating the situation, telling the congresswomen they were free to leave the United States.
"As far as I'm concerned, if you hate our country, if you're not happy here you can leave," he said of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. "These are people that in my opinion hate our country. ... I am sure there will be many people that won't miss them, but they have to love our country."
Asked if he was concerned that his demand that the lawmakers, all American citizens, "go back to where they came from" was racist, the president told reporters, "It doesn't concern me because many people agree with me."
With that remark, Mr. Trump revealed that unlike the Republicans who may see his hits on the congresswomen as a damaging one-off, he believes that attacking them helps him. He even had talking points about the women that he used periodically Monday afternoon, an eagle-eyed Washington Post photographer noticed. In essence, Mr. Trump's larger campaign strategy is to paint the Democratic Party with a broad brush and play up conditions that were favorable to him in 2016. This reflects GOP polling that shows Rep. Ocasio-Cortez as the new party bogeyman.
The New York lawmaker figures to "supplant Nancy Pelosi as the poster child for Democratic social ideology," says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies. Newhouse says their polling shows that although Ocasio-Cortez has been in office for just a few months, 74 percent of voters feel they know enough about her to have an opinion. Among Republicans, 64 percent had a negative view of her. And focus groups with swing voters, participants see the congresswoman as the ideological leader of the Democratic Party and view Pelosi as the establishment politician.
"This is essentially Trump doubling down on the strategy he thinks is going to pay off, to get his base energized and out to vote and to appeal to some of those voters in the middle," says Newhouse.
And until Democrats figure out who their nominee will be, Republicans see the congresswomen as an effective stand-in. Montana Sen. Steve Daines was among those who seemed to be on board with this approach.
"Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals," Daines tweeted. "This is America. We're the greatest country in the world. I stand with @realdonaldtrump."
While the strategy risks further alienating suburban women who turned against Republicans in the 2018 midterms, party strategists note that while that election may have been a referendum on Trump, presidential elections are about a choice.
"Trump wants to make this into a choice between the way things are going in the country right now — a strong economy, avoiding foreign involvement, etc. — and running against a socialist Democrat," says Newhouse.
Republicans also think that the public has grown numb to controversies coming from the White House. "When we talk to people in focus groups, they basically say they are not listening as closely as they used to, they're inured to this, it's more noise," says Newhouse.
"For the most part, the tweets don't break through like they used to...a lot of it is baked in," says Republican strategist Matt Gorman. "Socialism is pretty unpopular, and it's a good message for us."
But Gorman and other Republicans still have their concerns. They lament the fact that Mr. Trump's attacks on the congresswomen distracted from the internal Democratic Party divisions that were playing out in public view last week. Indeed, the president's tweets and subsequent comments appeared to unite Democrats together against the president.
"Prior to this weekend, we saw the Democratic Party embroiled in racial controversy," said Republican. Sen Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the upper chamber. "Instead of sharing how the Democratic Party's far-left, pro-socialist policies...the President interjected with unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language. No matter our political disagreements, aiming for the lowest common denominator will only divide our nation further."
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who has been working to get more Republican women to run for Congress, said "While I strongly disagree with the tactics, policies, and rhetoric of the far-left socialist "Squad," the President's tweets were inappropriate, denigrating, and wrong. It is unacceptable to to tell legal U.S. citizens to go back to their home country."
But the president saw the fallout differently and said his attacks helped his cause. "The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four "progressives," but now they are forced to embrace them," he tweeted Monday evening. "That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA!"