The furore over Donald Trump’s racist slurs against four Democratic congresswomen intensified on Sunday, as the president resumed attacking them and posting far-right material online.
The allegation, made without evidence, was the latest in a series of grave attacks Trump has directed at the four ethnic-minority congresswomen, who hail from the left of the Democratic party and have been sharply critical of his presidency.
Last week, Trump said the congresswomen should “go back” to the countries they came from, despite three of the four having been born in the US and the fourth, Omar, being a US citizen who came to America as a child refugee.
Trump supporters at a rally in North Carolina responded to his criticisms of Omar, who fled war in Somalia, by chanting “send her back”. Following widespread condemnation, Trump falsely claimed he had tried to halt the chants.
Republicans in Washington have largely supported Trump through the controversy. When the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted to officially condemn his racist remarks, only four of 197 Republicans joined the rebuke.
On Sunday, Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, said statements made by Trump and his supporters reminded him of abuse he received as a black child in the 1960s, at the height of the struggle for civil rights.
“I heard the same kind of chant, ‘Go home, you don’t belong here.’ And they called us the N-word over and over and over again,” Cummings told ABC’s This Week. He said some of his constituents were scared of the president.
Trump and his aides say he is targeting the congresswomen purely because of their criticism of contemporary America. The Democrats’ defenders note that Trump, the author of a book titled Crippled America, repeatedly assailed the US under Barack Obama and campaigned for the White House on a promise to “make America great again”.
In remarks released on Sunday, Mike Pence, the vice-president, defended Trump but did not reiterate the president’s most controversial comments. Asked if the congresswomen could be critical of the US and stay in the country, Pence told CBS: “Of course they can stay … they’re American citizens.”
Stephen Miller, a senior White House aide, and Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser on Trump’s re-election campaign, also appeared on Sunday TV shows to attack the congresswomen – who are known as “the Squad” – and to claim Trump is not racist.
Amid criticism of his handling of the supporters in North Carolina, Trump said he had disagreed with their chant, having given no hint of this during the event or in remarks praising the crowd afterwards. He later hailed them as “incredible patriots”.
Pence said on Sunday Trump “might make an effort to speak out about it” if a similar chant broke out in future.
Trump attracted further criticism over the weekend by sharing a series of tweets by Katie Hopkins, a far-right British commentator, with his 62 million followers.
One of Hopkins’s posts called for a British leader to echo Trump’s “Don’t like this country? Then leave” rhetoric. Another criticised Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, who has been repeatedly insulted by Trump.
Hopkins, a former reality TV contestant, was fired by LBC radio after calling for a “final solution” during an anti-Muslim tirade in response to the deadly suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester in May 2017.
She had previously likened immigrants to cockroaches in a newspaper column, stating they were “spreading like the norovirus” and proposing gunships should be used to stop them crossing the Mediterranean.
When pushed, some Republicans, particularly those from swing states likely to decide the outcome of next year’s election, have distanced themselves from Trump’s remarks.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican of Wisconsin, said he disagreed with the president’s allegation about the congresswomen being incapable of loving the US.
“That’s his opinion. I don’t agree with it,” Johnson told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.
But Trump’s tactics were defended by many others including Rick Santorum, a former senator and presidential candidate.
“He says things to bring attention to these issues. And I know it’s hair-on-fire time for everybody on the left, but we’re talking about it,” Santorum told CNN.
While some Democrats echoed suggestions that Trump was cleverly setting a political trap, Ocasio-Cortez dismissed concerns that the president was playing what she called “3-D racism chess”.
The New York congresswoman said in a tweet: “He’s simply an impulsive racist, one who leaves his party scrambling to excuse bigotry and scam the country.”