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Ayanna Pressley hits back at Trump: ‘This is what racism looks like’

Trump attacks congresswomen on Twitter
President Donald Trump attacked a group of congresswomen on Twitter and said they should go back to the ‘‘broken and crime infested’’ countries they came from.

Democratic leaders from across the country reacted with outrage after President Trump said Sunday that four progressive freshmen congresswomen who have been at odds with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should return to the countries where they “originally came from.”

Trump did not name the congresswomen but was apparently referring to a group that includes Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, along with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. The lawmakers — three of whom were born in the United States — have clashed with Democratic House leadership over how to protect migrants on America’s southern border.


“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,” Trump said in a series of tweets.

He added: “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. 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!”

Pressley said she was not surprised at the attack, which she noted came the same weekend as planned deportation operations by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

“This is just another example and demonstration of the bigotry, the xenophobia, the hatred of this administration,” Pressley said in an interview with the Globe Sunday.

She also fired off a tweet: “THIS is what racism looks like. WE are what democracy looks like. And we’re not going anywhere. Except back to DC to fight for the families you marginalize and vilify everyday.”


The reaction was swift from Trump’s critics, who characterized his comments as racist and un-American.

Campaigning for president in New Hampshire, US Senator Kamala Harris of California decried the president’s language.

“It is an old trope, ‘go back to where you came from,’ that — you might hear it on the street, but you should never hear that from the president of the United States,” Harris said. “This guy doesn’t understand, he doesn’t understand his responsibilities, and I don’t think he understands what the American people want from their president, which is somebody who’s going to elevate public discourse and speak with a level of dignity, with a goal of unity.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, also a presidential candidate, called the president’s statement “a racist and xenophobic attack.”

Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who is also running for president, reacted to Trump’s statements with his own tweets: “This is white nationalism. The president thinks if you’re not white, you’re not an American.”

Their statements were echoed by numerous other Democratic lawmakers, who seemed to find unity in defending their fellow members of Congress. That included Pelosi, who responded: “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. Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power.”


The president attacked the Democrats’ reaction with a late tweet. “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. Whenever confronted, they call their adversaries, including Nancy Pelosi, “RACIST.” Their disgusting language . . . and the many terrible things they say about the United States must not be allowed to go unchallenged.

Trump’s tweets and the full day of angry pushback from Democrats changed the dynamic of what had been a feud among Democrats over immigration politics.

The disagreement became public recently when Pelosi pushed a vote on a border spending bill without a series of amendments advocated by liberal members to further protect migrants. The legislation without the amendments, Omar said, amounted to a vote “to keep kids in cages.”

Pelosi downplayed the influence of the four freshmen — often called The Squad — in an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”

Ocasio-Cortez accused her of “singling out” the four, all women of color, and said it was “outright disrespectful.”

The rift had brought into stark relief the delicate balance Pelosi is attempting to walk: keeping control of her caucus while opposing the president on myriad fronts.


But on Sunday, Democrats of all persuasions were quick and unanimous in their response to Trump.

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, with whom Pressley served before winning her seat in Congress, chided the president for the way he described the lawmakers’ backgrounds, noting that Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib were all born in the United States. Omar was born in Somalia and is a US citizen.

“They are US-born citizens, or naturalized citizens like his wife,” Edwards said. (Melania Trump was born in Slovenia and became a US citizen in 2006.) “I think it’s typical of the way he communicates. It makes no sense, it’s intended to be hurtful, and it’s intended to create an other-ness in perfectly patriotic Americans.

“The fact that he would tell anybody to leave and to go back where you come from because they disagree with him is not American,” Edwards said.

Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College in Easton, called the president’s tone “egregious” but said it’s “just one additional example of his behavior that ultimately has no impact among his core supporters.”

“This isn’t new,” Ubertaccio said. “The president’s views on the issue of race, and his reaction when challenged by people of color or women, have been documented for a long time.”

Some of Pressley’s other former colleagues from the Boston City Council, where she served for nine years, also came to her defense.

“This man [Trump] viciously and dangerously misunderstands what’s most special about America, that we are a country where anyone can come and reach for their dreams,” Councilor Michelle Wu said. “We can’t get distracted by tweet after tweet after tweet. There are deep structural challenges that we need to usher the political will to change, and that’s at every level. From the federal level to the city and neighborhood level.”


Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said she read the president’s tweets by happenstance while watching the national soccer team from Tunisia — her father’s native country — and teaching her children about their own immigrant roots.

“To hear this and to read it in our moment of celebrating our own family history, it had a certain irony to it,” Essaibi George said.

Adrian Walker of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Kellen Browning contributed to this report. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com.