Going after four Democratic congresswomen one-by-one, combative US President Donald Trump turned his campaign rally into an extended dissection of the liberal views of the women of colour yesterday, deriding them for what he painted as extreme positions and suggesting they leave the United States.
"Tonight I have a suggestion for the hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down," Trump told the crowd in North Carolina, a swing state he won in 2016 and wants to claim again in 2020. "They never have anything good to say. That's why I say, 'Hey if you don't like it, let 'em leave, let 'em leave.'"
Eager to rile up his base with the some of the same kind of rhetoric he targeted at minorities and women in 2016, Trump declared Wednesday night, "I think in some cases they hate our country."
Trump's jabs were aimed at the self-described "squad" of four freshmen Democrats who have garnered attention since their arrival in January for their outspoken liberal views and distaste for Trump: Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
All were born in the US except for Omar, who came to the United States as a child after fleeing Somalia with her family.
'Send her back'
Taking the legislators on one at a time, Trump ticked through a laundry list of what he deemed offensive comments by each woman, mangling and misconstruing many facts along the way.
Omar came under the harshest criticism as Trump played to voters' grievances, drawing a chant from the crowd of "Send her back! Send her back!"
She responded Wednesday night with a series of tweets, including one quoting Maya Angelou's defiant poem, "Still I Rise," with the words "You may shoot me with your words... But still, like air, I'll rise."
"I am where I belong, at the people's house and you're just gonna have to deal!" she wrote in another.
Trump set off a firestorm Sunday when he tweeted that the four should "go back" to their home countries — though three were born in the United States. Trump has accused them of "spewing some of the most vile, hateful and disgusting things ever said by a politician."
He expanded on his criticisms in Greenville.
Among his complaints against Tlaib, Trump correctly reported that she had referred to the president by the "F-word," adding, "That's not nice, even for me." Trump himself had unloaded a vulgarity earlier in his speech, denouncing the Russia probe of his campaign and administration as "bullshit."
As for Ocasio-Cortez, Trump fumbled over her name and declared, "I don't have time to go with three different names." He then referred to her as just "Cortez" as he challenged her complaints about dire conditions at migrant detention centres at the border.
Trump then jokingly wondered if Pressley was related to Elvis Presley, then pivoted to more serious points, claiming she thought people of colour should "think the same."
As for Omar, Trump unfurled a whole list of complaints, including a false accusation that she voiced pride in al-Qaeda.
Before he left Washington, Trump said he has no regrets about his ongoing spat with the four. Trump told reporters he thinks he's "winning the political argument" and "winning it by a lot."
"If people want to leave our country, they can. If they don't want to love our country, if they don't want to fight for our country, they can," Trump said. "I'll never change on that."
Trump's harsh denunciations were another sign of his willingness to exploit the nation's racial divisions heading into the 2020 campaign.
His speech was filled with Trump's trademark criticisms about the news media, which he says sides with liberals, and of special prosecutor Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
Mueller had been scheduled to testify Wednesday on Capitol Hill, but it was postponed. Trump brought him up anyway.
"What happened to me with this witch hunt should never be allowed to happen to another president," he said.
He also talked about illegal immigration, a main theme of his first presidential bid that is taking centre stage in his re-election campaign. He brushed off the criticism he has gotten for saying that the congresswomen should go back home.
"So controversial," he said sarcastically.
The four Democratic freshmen have portrayed the Republican president as a bully who wants to "vilify" not only immigrants but all people of colour. They say they are fighting for their priorities to lower healthcare costs and pass a 'Green New Deal' addressing climate change while his thundering attacks are a distraction and tear at the core of American values.
The Democratic-led US House voted Tuesday to condemn Trump's "racist comments" despite near-solid GOP opposition and the president's own insistence that he doesn't have a "racist bone" in his body.
Trump hasn't shown signs of being rattled by the House rebuke and called an impeachment resolution that failed in Congress earlier Wednesday "ridiculous."
The condemnation carries no legal repercussions, and his latest harangues struck a chord with supporter in Greenville, whose chants of "Four more years!" and "Build that wall!" bounced off the rafters.
It was Trump's sixth visit to the state as president and his first 2020 campaign event in North Carolina, where he defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.