By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump pressured fellow Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday to support him and vote against a symbolic measure condemning his racially charged attacks on four minority Democratic congresswomen.
Outrage sparked by Trump’s Sunday tweetstorm – in which he told the group of congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” – has since diverted attention from all other business in Washington.
All four lawmakers are U.S. citizens; three were born in the United States.
Democrats, who have a majority in the House, were expected to pass the symbolic resolution of condemnation on Tuesday evening.
“These comments from the White House are disgraceful and disgusting and these comments are racist,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the floor of the House.
Pelosi’s speech sparked a two-hour limbo on the floor after Republicans argued she broke debate rules by characterizing the president as racist. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer eventually ruled that Pelosi had gone too far on the House floor.
Trump and Republican leaders cancelled a late-afternoon meeting as the drama wore on.
A relatively small group of Republican lawmakers have spoken out against Trump’s tweets about the congresswomen: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
Their criticism has been muted. But the House vote will force them to either stand against their party’s leader, who has strong support among conservatives, or effectively defend him.
‘PRESIDENT IS NOT A RACIST’
House Republican leadership recommended members vote against the resolution, which says the House “strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimised and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of colour.”
“It’s all politics,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters. Trump later retweeted McCarthy’s comments and thanked him.
Trump has a history of what critics consider race-baiting. He led a movement that falsely claimed former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and he said after a deadly, white supremacist-led rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the incident.
On Tuesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he thought “everybody ought to tone down their rhetoric” and focus on issues, but he stopped short of condemning Trump’s remarks.
“The president is not a racist and I think the tone of all of this is not good for the country, but it’s coming from all different ideological points of view,” McConnell said.
Trump’s attacks on the four progressive congresswomen – known as “the squad” – have been viewed as an effort to divide the Democrats, who won control of the House of Representatives in 2018 and have the power to thwart his legislative agenda.
At his rallies, Trump has often talked about proposals from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which he calls extreme, as he seeks to energise his political base – and attract moderate voters – ahead of the November 2020 presidential elections.
Trump has also sought to highlight divides within the House Democratic caucus, where leaders have struggled to work with the progressive newcomers, straining party unity.
Earlier on Tuesday, Trump had warned Republicans on Twitter against voting against him. “Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body! The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show ‘weakness’ and fall into their trap.”
In response, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “You’re right, Mr. President – you don’t have a racist bone in your body. You have a racist mind in your head, and a racist heart in your chest.”
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Amanda Becker, David Alexander, Eric Beech, David Morgan and Mohammad Zargham; Writing by Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Bill Trott, Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)