WASHINGTON — The Democratic freshman lawmakers attacked by President Donald Trump in tweets he earlier denied were racist, responded Monday by calling the missives a tool to distract from his own record and urged Americans "to not take the bait."
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, in a joint news conference, pushed back on Trump's unfounded claims that they "hate" America. Standing side by side, the women said Trump resorted to personal attacks when he could not defend his policies.
"I encourage the American people … to not take the bait,” Pressley said. “This is a disruptive distraction from the issues of care, concern and consequence to the American people."
Ocasio-Cortez said, "Weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty to our country in order to avoid challenging and debating the policy … he does not know how to defend his policies."
Trump, speaking earlier Monday at a White House event showcasing American-made products, dismissed the uproar over his tweets Sunday that cast the four American citizens — three of whom were born in the United States — as foreigners from "crime infested places." Omar, a Somali refugee and the fourth lawmaker cited in Trump's tweets, migrated to the U.S. at the age of 10.
Trump said he never mentioned the lawmakers by name in his tweets.
Asked by a reporter if his tweets that urged the lawmakers to "go back" to the "places from which they came" were racist, the president replied, “not at all.”
Trump said, “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me. And all I’m saying is, if they want to leave, they can leave.”
Also Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans for a congressional resolution condemning what she called Trump’s “xenophobic tweets.”
In a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi said the House, "cannot allow the President’s characterization of immigrants to our country to stand.” She continued, “Our Republican colleagues must join us in condemning the President’s xenophobic tweets.”
On Sunday, Trump described Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib as hailing “from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”
In her letter, Pelosi said Trump’s Sunday blitz of tweets “went beyond his own low standards, using disgraceful language about Members of Congress.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a floor speech, criticized Republicans who had not publicly admonished the president.
“Those who fail to condemn the President are fellow travelers on the President's racist road, whatever their motivation,” Schumer said.
On Monday, a slow trickle of Senate Republicans criticized Trump's comments. They included Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Tim Scott of South Carolina. Scott said Trump had used "racially offensive language."
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said, “The President’s tweets were wrong; he shouldn’t have made them. There are legitimate arguments he can make against each of those four members of Congress, but the fact that you are an immigrant or the fact that you are the descendant of immigrants should not be made at all.”
But Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said in an email: “Anyone in or out of Congress living in America with a blame America first mentality for everything needs to do some serious self reflection, especially if they are a Member of Congress.”
In a second email hours later Monday, Zeldin said of Trump's tweets: "Sticking to the merits of the specific disagreements here would have been best."
Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told reporters Monday, “I don’t think the president’s intent [in] any way is racist … The administration is welcoming of all nationalities into the United States.”
Also Monday, administration officials were preparing to roll out new regulations aimed at significantly limiting the number of Central Americans allowed to seek asylum in the U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli, asked about Trump’s tweets during a morning appearance on CNN, called the issue a “political grenade” and refused to respond to further questions.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said the president should "aim higher" but vigorously defendedTrump’s tweets in an interview with Fox News, labeling Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib, all freshmen, as a “bunch of communists.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked of Trump's tweets: "I don't find them racist … I think he speaks for himself on that."
Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) were among the first lawmakers on Sunday to speak out against Trump's tweets.
Rice called Trump “a bigot and a racist. He’s not hiding that fact from the American people, so there’s no need for any of us to dance around it, either.”
Meeks, whose district includes a portion of southwest Nassau County, tweeted: “As I’ve said all along, this President is a racist, and this comment confirms the person we know him to be on the inside. These prejudices have no place in the Oval Office; they are indefensible.”
Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) responded Monday, saying Trump’s comments “about my colleagues are wrong, offensive, and totally unacceptable. There is no place for this type of rhetoric anywhere in our country. We must elevate the conversation.”
On Monday, Trump suggested that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib — known collectively on Capitol Hill as “the squad” — should apologize for “the terrible things they have said.”
Trump did not name the lawmakers directly but referred to some of the controversial remarks that members of the group have made since their election last November.
“When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said?” Trump said.
Omar faced bipartisan condemnation for suggesting in February that politicians supported Israel in exchange for campaign contributions. Tlaib, a Detroit native born to Palestinian immigrants, once promised supporters Trump would be impeached, using an expletive to describe the President.
Trump, speaking at the White House, also chided Ocasio-Cortez for speaking out earlier this year against Amazon’s initial plans to build a second corporate headquarters in Long Island City.
“One of them kept Amazon out of New York. Tens of thousands of jobs — would have been a great thing. … and New York has not been the same since that happened,” Trump said. “It really hurt New York … That was a terrible thing she did.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who was born in the Bronx and raised in Westchester County, said in a Monday tweet: “It’s important to note that the President’s words [yesterday] telling four American Congresswomen of color ‘go back to your own country,’ is hallmark language of white supremacists.”