Donald Trump has refused to apologise after saying four congresswomen should go back to the “broken and crime infested” countries they came from, ignoring the fact they are all American citizens and three were born in the US.
Even as White House officials moved on Monday to defend his incendiary weekend tweets, the US president asked on Twitter when “the Radical Left Congresswomen” would “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”.
“So many people are angry at them & their horrible & disgusting actions!” he wrote.
Mr Trump had starkly injected race into his criticism of liberal Democrats over the weekend, drawing searing condemnation from Democrats who labelled the remarks racist and breathtakingly divisive.
Asked whether Mr Trump’s comments were racist, Marc Short, chief of staff to vice president Mike Pence, told reporters Mr Trump had been responding to “very specific” comments made by Representative Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia, and not making a “universal statement”.
But Mr Trump did not make that distinction in his Monday tweets.
He cited “Congresswomen” – an almost-certain reference to a group of women known as “the squad” that includes Ms Omar and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.
“I don’t think that the president’s intent any way is racist,” said Mr Short, repeatedly pointing to Mr Trump’s decision to choose Elaine Chao, who was born outside the country, as his transportation secretary.
“The administration is welcoming of all nationalities into the United States,” he said.
Even as Mr Short spoke, Mr Trump continued to fan the flames, tweeting: “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.”
And the president stuck to his script with further remarks on Monday, saying: “If you hate our country… you can leave.”
“If you’re not happy in the US, if you’re complaining all the time, you can leave, you can leave right now.”
Ms Omar ignited a bipartisan uproar in Washington several months ago when she suggested that members of Congress support Israel for money, while Ms Tlaib riled up a supportive crowd by calling the president a profanity and predicting that Mr Trump would be removed from office.
Following a familiar script, Republicans remained largely silent after Mr Trump’s Sunday morning broadsides that caused Democrats to set aside their internal rifts to rise up in a united chorus against the president.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr Trump wants to “make America white again”.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez, after jousting for days with Ms Pelosi, said Mr Trump “can’t conceive of an America that includes us”.
“Mr. President, the country I ‘come from,’ & the country we all swear to, is the United States,” she tweeted, adding that “You rely on a frightened America for your plunder.”
Ms Omar also addressed herself directly to Mr Trump in a tweet, writing: “You are stoking white nationalism (because) you are angry that people like us are serving in Congress and fighting against your hate-filled agenda.”
Representative Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, summed up the Democratic response: “Racial arsonist strikes again. Shut. Your. Reckless. Mouth.”
With his tweet, Mr Trump inserted himself further into a rift between Ms Pelosi and Ms Ocasio-Cortez, just two days after he offered an unsolicited defence of the Democratic speaker.
Ms Pelosi has been seeking to minimise Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s influence in the House Democratic caucus in recent days, prompting Ms Ocasio-Cortez to accuse Ms Pelosi of trying to marginalise women of colour.
On Sunday, Mr Trump’s tone took a turn.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” he tweeted.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”
He added: “These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”
The attacks may have been meant to widen the divides within the Democrat caucus, which has been riven by internal debate over how far left to go in countering Mr Trump and over whether to proceed with impeachment proceedings against the president.
Instead, the president’s tweets brought Democrats together.
Former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, tweeted that Mr Trump “continues to spew hateful rhetoric, sow division, and stoke racial tensions for his own political gain”.
“Let’s be clear about what this vile comment is: A racist and xenophobic attack on Democratic congresswomen,” tweeted Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate.
Another 2020 contender, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, tweeted at the president: “This is racist. These congresswomen are every bit as American as you — and represent our values better than you ever will.”
Few Republicans weighed in on the president’s comments.
Congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Republican black senator.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in suburban Westchester County.
Ms Pressley, the first black woman elected to the House from Massachusetts, was born in Cincinnati.
Ms Omar, the first Somali native elected to Congress and one of its first Muslim women, was born in Somalia but spent much of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp as civil war tore apart her home country.
She immigrated to the United States at age 12, teaching herself English by watching American TV and eventually settling with her family in Minneapolis.
Ms Tlaib was born in Detroit.