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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

President Trump’s Rhetoric

Prior to departing for visits to El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 7, President Donald Trump rejected the premise that his rhetoric has divided the country, as his critics have claimed. He said “my rhetoric … brings people together.” But that is not how he is perceived by most Americans.

A CNN poll in March found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said the phrase “will unite the country and not divide it” doesn’t apply to Trump. In a Pew Research Center survey published in June, 55% of those surveyed say Trump has changed the tone of political debate for the worse, while only 24% say he has changed it for the better.

Trump’s rhetoric has brought some people together, as evidenced by the large and boisterous crowds that attend his political rallies, and he has high job approval ratings among Republicans. But he has a well-earned reputation for responding strongly to political attacks — real and perceived.

During the 2016 campaign, his wife, Melania, said of her husband, “As you may know by now, when you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder.”

Trump’s combative approach has continued throughout his presidency, and at times he has made divisive and disparaging remarks that in some cases have drawn criticism even from his own party.

Here is just a sampling of some those moments:

‘Go Back’

In a series of tweets in July, Trump told “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” to “go back” to those countries.

“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump tweeted.

He was referring to Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. Omar was born in Somalia, but the other three were born in the United States. Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York, Tlaib in Detroit and Pressley in Chicago

Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who recently announced he will not run for reelection, told CNN that Trump’s tweets were not only inaccurate, but “racist and xenophobic.”

The Democratic-led House adopted a resolution condemning Trump’s “racist comments.” Only four Republicans, including Hurd, voted for it, but at least 40 Republican members of Congress criticized the president’s remarks, according to a Reuters tally.

A Fox News poll found that 63% of those surveyed thought that Trump’s tweets about the congresswomen “crossed the line,” and only 27% saw them as an “acceptable political attack.”

Following his remarks, Trump’s supporters at a rally in North Carolina chanted, “Send her back,” as Trump relitigated his case against Omar. The president later falsely said he tried to stop the chant — a claim that resulted in four Pinocchios from the Washington Post fact checker.

America’s Cities

Also in July, Trump attacked Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, and in the process declared that his district in Baltimore is uninhabitable for humans. He called the district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and claimed that “no human being would want to live there.”

In an interview with a local radio station, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, called Trump’s comments “outrageous and inappropriate.”

Baltimore is not alone. Trump also has denigrated Atlanta and San Francisco, among others.

A day after calling Baltimore uninhabitable, Trump tweeted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco is “not even recognizeable lately,” saying “[s]omething must be done before it is too late.”

Shortly before his inauguration, Trump tweeted that Democratic Rep. John Lewis’ district, which includes Atlanta, is “in horrible shape and falling apart (and not to … mention crime infested).”

‘Shoot Them’

Trump has often used the word “invasion” to describe the so-called caravans of Central Americans traveling to seek asylum in the U.S. and other immigrants who cross the border illegally. At a May 8 rally in Panama City, Florida, Trump defended his use of the word “invasion,” and expressed frustration at the inability to stem the flow of illegal immigration.

“I mean, when you have 15,000 people marching up, and you have hundreds and hundreds of people, and you have two or three border security people that are brave and great – and don’t forget we don’t let them and we can’t let them use weapons,” Trump said. “We can’t. Other countries do, we can’t. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people?”

At this point, an audience member yelled, “Shoot them!

Trump shook his head and joked, “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff.”

‘Worst of the Worst’

A frequent target of the president’s attacks are legal U.S. residents who have lawfully entered the country through the Diversity Immigration Visa Program.

As we have written beforethe Diversity Immigrant Visa Program uses a computer lottery system to randomly issue up to 50,000 immigrant visas each year to qualified applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

At a Jan. 9, 2018, immigration meeting at the White House, Trump inaccurately described the program this way: “They call it ‘visa lottery,’ I just call it ‘lottery.’  But countries come in and they put names in a hopper. They’re not giving you their best names; common sense means they’re not giving you their best names. They’re giving you people that they don’t want.  And then we take them out of the lottery. And when they do it by hand — where they put the hand in a bowl — they’re probably — what’s in their hand are the worst of the worst.”

As we have written, there is no evidence that other countries are gaming the system and sending the U.S. “the worst of the worst.” Individuals, not countries, apply for the visa, and applicants are subjected to the same background checks as other visa applicants, including criminal background checks. 

Trump made similar claims at a Dec. 8, 2017, rally in Florida, saying “when they pick the lottery, they have the real worst in their hands, oh, here they go.” On Feb. 13, 2018, at White House immigration meeting, Trump said “they’re not giving us their finest.” At an Aug. 2, 2018, rally in Pennsylvania, Trump claimed that a person who “killed nine people” could get a visa through the diversity program, even though there is a screening process that would specifically bar entry to a convicted killer.

‘Enemy of the People’

The president regularly labels news stories he doesn’t like as “fake news,” even when they are accurate, and has called news organizations “the enemy of the people.” He first used the term “enemy of the American people” in a tweet on Feb. 17, 2017, less than a month into his presidency. A week later, in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump doubled down on the phrase, while making an inaccurate claim.

“They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make ’em up when there are none,” he said. “I saw one story recently where they said, ‘Nine people have confirmed.’ There’re no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people.”

As we wrote at the time, the Washington Post on Feb. 9, 2017, broke the story that then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials.” The story — which cited “[n]ine current and former officials” as the sources — was accurate. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about talking to the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions.

In a Jan. 17, 2018, speech on the Senate floor, then-Republican Sen. Jeff Flake criticized the president for an “unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press.” In particular, Flake was critical of the term “enemy of the people.”

“‘The enemy of the people,’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017,” Flake said. “It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader. This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party.”

Puerto Rico

The president has had a running feud with Puerto Rico and its leaders.

Last September, Trump rejected Puerto Rico’s official estimate of 2,975 hurricane-related deaths after Hurricane Maria, tweeting that “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico.” He said the death toll was “6 to 18 deaths,” and falsely claimed Democrats had produced the higher estimate “to make me look as bad as possible.”

Then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who was running for Senate at the time, was among the Republicans who distanced themselves from Trump’s remarks. “I disagree with @POTUS,” Scott tweeted. “I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand.  The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching. I’ll continue to help PR.”

In April, Trump complained about the amount of federal disaster aid for Puerto Rico, falsely claiming that “Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane” and that it received “more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before.” 

African Nations

At the White House last year, the president met with Democrats and Republicans to discuss a bipartisan plan to remove the threat of deportation for so-called dreamers — young people who were illegally brought to the United States as children. 

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin later quoted the president as saying of African nations, “‘Those shitholes send us the people that they don’t want.’ He repeated that. He didn’t say that just one time.” Durbin also quoted Trump as saying, “‘We don’t need more Haitians.’”

After the meeting, Sen. Lindsey Graham reportedly told his fellow Republican senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, that the media reports about Trump’s language at the meeting were “basically accurate,” according to Charleston’s Post and Courier.

As we wrote, Trump denied using those words, although he said in a tweet that he used “tough” language. “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump said, without explaining which remarks he denied making or what exactly he said at the meeting. 

We don’t know what was said, but the incident drew national and international rebukes, including from Trump’s fellow Republicans. Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, said Trump’s reported remarks, if true, were “incredibly disappointing.” In a statement, Rep. Mia Love, a Utah Republican whose parents came to the U.S. from Haiti, called them “divisive.”

“The President'[s] comments are unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values,” Love wrote. “This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”

These are just some examples.

As a candidate, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and as president ordered what he called a “travel ban” on the citizens of seven predominately Muslim countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen). That policy and other remarks about Muslims have caused a rift with leaders in the Muslim-American community.

He has also feuded with professional football players who knelt during the national anthem, mocked the physical appearance of women who have criticized him, and belittled political opponents in both parties with derogatory nicknames.

After saying that his rhetoric “brings people together,” Trump flew to Dayton, Ohio, and then El Paso, Texas, to comfort the victims of last week’s mass shootings and thank law enforcement. After the president’s visit, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said in a press conference that Trump was “received well by the patients” and “did the right things.”

But Brown also made statements at the press conference that angered Trump, and the president fired back. “I had it with Sherrod Brown,” Trump said.

On this day of unity, the president also went on Twitter to criticize “Sleepy Joe Biden,” who gave a speech on the danger that Trump’s toxic tongue poses to the nation; describe Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas as “the lesser brother of a failed presidential candidate;” and assail Fox News reporter Shepard Smith for having “the lowest rated show on @FoxNews.”

As the first lady said, the president doesn’t back down from a fight.