WASHINGTON – We’ve seen this movie before: A controversy rages but is overtaken by a provocative presidential tweet, sparking a new round of outrage from Democrats – which draws an unrepentant response from the White House.
Will this time end any differently?
The furor that began Sunday with President Trump's tweets targeting four freshmen members of Congress, all of them women of color, escalated Monday when he doubled down on his attacks and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would consider a resolution condemning his comments.
The controversy instantly united congressional Democrats who had been fractured last week over efforts by the four members – Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – to attack the party's leadership as insufficiently bold on liberal causes.
Trump seemed to revel in the dispute and what it might mean for his reelection bid in 2020, including the potential benefits of tying other Democrats more tightly with four of their most liberal and outspoken representatives.
"If Democrats want to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen, it will be interesting to see how it plays out," he wrote in a series of tweets Monday. He called them “anti-Semitic,” “anti-American” and “a bunch of Communists."
Trump’s tweetstorm succeeded (if that was the point) in stealing the headlines from other troublesome topics, including last week's failure to get a citizenship question on the 2020 census, the television footage of Vice President Mike Pence viewing migrants jammed behind bars at the border and the announcement of nationwide ICE raids to sweep up undocumented immigrants for deportation.
At a joint news conference with the four congresswomen Monday, Pressley called his comments "simply a disruption and a distraction from the callous, chaotic and corrupt culture of this administration, all the way down." She said they were determined to "not take the bait" and focus instead on issues like health care.
Even so, Omar and Tlaib said the exchanges had reinforced their determination to impeach the president.
The controversy was launched Sunday morning, when Trump had denounced them for criticizing the United States. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he tweeted. That's a trope with a history – Why don't you go back where you came from? – that has often been hurled at African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and others who have made the USA an increasingly diverse nation.
For the record, the four congresswoman are all citizens, three of them native-born and one a Somali immigrant who is a naturalized citizen. Two are black, one is Puerto Rican and one is Palestinian American. None is a communist.
'This is what racism looks like': Congresswomen react to Trump's tweetstorm
"When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to 'Make America Great Again' has always been about making America white again," Pelosi said in a tweet. She wrote an open letter to members of Congress, asking Republicans to join Democrats "in condemning the President's xenophobic tweets."
'Way over the line'
Though GOP members of Congress typically have responded to Trump's most controversial comments with a studied silence, a handful chastised him Monday.
Trump should 'aim higher': Lindsey Graham, other Republicans respond to Trump's 'go back' tweets
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only African American Republican in the Senate, said Trump used "unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language." Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called the president's comments "way over the line." Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said they were "spiteful" and "absolutely unacceptable."
"President Trump was wrong to suggest that four left-wing congresswomen should go back to where they came from," Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said. "Three of the four were born in America, and the citizenship of all four is as valid as mine."
In contrast, another Republican senator, Steve Daines of Montana, backed Trump all the way. "Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideas," he tweeted Monday afternoon. "I stand with @realDonaldTrump."
Trump doubles down: He says the House Democrats he insulted should apologize day after his 'go back' tweets
Racial politics have reverberated in American history since the country’s founding, from the battle over slavery and the Civil War to the civil rights movement to the emerging debate over slavery reparations. That said, Trump’s tweets may be the most racially provocative public comment by any president in modern times.
Nearly two years ago, in another comment that drew racial protests, Trump said after a violent protest by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, that there were "very fine people on both sides."
Overwhelming support, a solid base
Speculation has faded that the backlash might mark a turning point for his presidency. Indeed, Trump continues to have overwhelming Republican support and a solid base of backers who helped elect him, a core that is mostly white. Surveys of voters taken as they left the polls in 2016 showed Trump winning the support of 58% of whites, compared with 8% of blacks.
Monday, the president seemed unconcerned about whether the new controversy might rebound against him politically — "Many people agree with me," he told reporters — and he dismissed the charge of racism as little more than a political weapon.
"So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion," he tweeted.
"Whenever confronted, they call their adversaries, including Nancy Pelosi, 'RACIST,' " Trump said. "If the Democrat Party wants to continue to condone such disgraceful behavior, then we look even more forward to seeing you at the ballot box in 2020!"
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Updated 11:45 AM EST Dec 14, 2019