WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday disavowed the “send her back” chant that broke out at his re-election rally Wednesday night when he railed against a Somali-born congresswoman, as Republicans in Congress tried to distance themselves and their party from the ugly refrain.
Mr. Trump said that he “was not happy” with the chant and that he had tried to cut it off, a claim contradicted by video of the event. Asked why he did not stop the chant, Mr. Trump said, “I think I did — I started speaking very quickly.”
In fact, as the crowd roared “send her back,” Mr. Trump looked around and seemed to bask in the enthusiastic refrain.
“I was not happy with it,” Mr. Trump said on Thursday at the White House. “I disagree with it.”
Mr. Trump’s effort to distance himself from his own campaign rally reflected the misgivings of his allies. Republicans pleaded privately with the White House on Thursday to avoid allowing the party to be tied to the message embraced by the crowd in Greenville, N.C., even as they declined to criticize Mr. Trump.
Republican leaders have struggled all week to respond to Mr. Trump’s attacks on Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first two Muslim women elected to the House, and three other Democratic congresswomen of color who he tweeted over the weekend should “go back” to their countries, even though all but Ms. Omar were born in the United States.
Now Republican officials must contend with the increasingly ugly fervor of his supporters as captured in a frenzied moment in North Carolina, with a rageful refrain that they worry could damage their party’s brand.
“Those chants have no place in our party or our country,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, told reporters.
Those were almost the exact words used by Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Republican campaign arm, earlier Thursday, when he repudiated the chant, but insisted that the Twitter posts that appeared to have inspired the slogan had been mere mistakes of wording.
“There’s no place for that kind of talk,” Mr. Emmer said at a breakfast in Washington where he was asked about the chant. “I don’t agree with that.”
“There’s not a racist bone in the president’s body,” he added, referring to Mr. Trump’s tweets. “What he was trying to say, he said wrong.”
[The painful roots of Mr. Trump’s “go back” comment.]
Ms. Omar shrugged off the attacks, saying there was nothing new about the Mr. Trump’s behavior or the response of his supporters. She cited his years of false claims that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
“He does that every single day, and it’s no different,” Ms. Omar said at the Capitol. “What I’m going to be busy doing is uplifting people, and making sure they understand: Here in this country we are all Americans, we are all welcome, irregardless of what he says.”
But even the House’s chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, could not help but join the fray. He opened the House’s session on Thursday with a pointed prayer: “This has been a difficult and contentious week in which darker spirits seem to have been at play in the people’s house. In your most holy name, I now cast out all spirits of darkness from this chamber, spirits not from you.”
Mr. Emmer’s comments came on the heels of gentle criticism on Wednesday night by Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, a top official in the party’s messaging arm, who took to Twitter once the rally had ended to distance himself from the ugly scene. But like Mr. Trump, Mr. Walker sought to shift the focus to criticism of Ms. Omar.
“Though it was brief, I struggled with the ‘send her back’ chant tonight referencing Rep. Omar,” Mr. Walker wrote. “Her history, words & actions reveal her great disdain for both America & Israel. That should be our focus and not phrasing that’s painful to our friends in the minority communities.”
Their comments came amid widespread repudiation of the chant, which Democrats and minority advocacy groups denounced as racist, xenophobic and part of a hateful message peddled by Mr. Trump.
Ms. Omar would not respond to a question about whether she feared for her safety, but at least one organization, Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group, said Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s tweets and language were endangering the lives of Ms. Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, the other Muslim woman elected to Congress in November.
“The president’s open, calculated, anti-Muslim bigotry is something we expect to see much more of throughout the 2020 campaign,” Madihha Ahussain, the group’s special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, said in a statement. “All Americans, including all Democrats and Republicans, should unequivocally and immediately disavow this hatred.”
Mr. Trump’s tweets targeted Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib, as well as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts. All of them are American citizens.
“This president is evolving, as predicted, deeper into the rhetoric of racism, which evolves into violence,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said Thursday. She said that she was worried for her safety and that House Democrats were discussing how to address security concerns that have stemmed from Mr. Trump’s targeting of their members.
Mr. Emmer tried to minimize the president’s remarks.
“What he was trying to say is that if you don’t appreciate this country, you don’t have to be here,” Mr. Emmer said. He quoted a constituent who told him that Ms. Omar’s statements led people to believe that she hated America, adding, “How about a little gratitude with that attitude?”
The latest criticism of Mr. Trump’s language comes two days after the House took the remarkable step of passing a resolution condemning his tweets and asserting that they were “racist comments that legitimized and increased hatred of new Americans and people of color.” Only four Republicans voted yes. All others, including Mr. Emmer and Mr. Walker, voted no.
Hours before the chant broke out at the president’s re-election rally, the House killed an attempt by Representative Al Green, Democrat of Texas, to impeach Mr. Trump for the statements, which he said had sullied the office of the president.
But on Thursday morning, his race- and ethnicity-based insults were cited by Representative Peter Welch of Vermont, the latest Democrat to call for impeachment, as one piece of evidence that his presidency had “wrought an unprecedented and unrelenting assault on the pillars and guardrails of our democracy.”
“Instead of embracing the fundamental responsibility of every American president to unite our country, this president has unleashed a torrent of attacks on fellow citizens based on their race, gender, religion and ethnic origin,” Mr. Welch said in a statement.