The row over Donald Trump’s attacks on four Democratic congresswomen has escalated after his supporters chanted “send her back” at a campaign rally.

The chants were directed at congresswoman Ilhan Omar who Mr Trump again criticised at Wednesday’s rally in North Carolina.

Mr Trump was cheered on by the crowd of thousands as he accused Ms Omar and her fellow congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashia Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley – known as “the squad” – of hating America.

Facing a backlash, Mr Trump later distanced himself from supporters’ chants.

“I felt a little bit badly about it,” he told reporters at the White House when asked about the chants, which had drawn an outpouring of criticism from Democrats and some of Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans.

Mr Trump paused for 11 seconds when the chants erupted after he recounted comments by Ms Omar, who was born in Somalia and emigrated to the United States, that he described as “vicious anti-Semitic screeds.” He told reporters at the White House he had started speaking very quickly after the chanting began, but he did not say he would ask his supporters to refrain from such behaviour.

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Mr Trump had tweeted over the weekend that the four progressive representatives should “go back” where they came from, even though all are US citizens and three are US born.

From left to right - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.

From left to right – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. Photo: AFP

Critics say the chanting echoed the “lock her up” phrase adopted by his supporters against Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

In response, Ms Omar tweeted lines from Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise: “You may shoot me with your words…But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

She later shared a photo of herself in the House of Representatives, saying, “I am where I belong”.

US President’s actions ‘vile’

On Twitter, #IStandWithIlhan began trending as Democrats expressed their support for Ms Omar and criticised the president for prompting the chants with his rhetoric.

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Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Trump is stoking the most despicable and disturbing currents in our society” while Senator Kamala Harris, another Democratic 2020 contender, described the actions as “vile”.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer drew comparisons to dictatorships.

Some conservatives have also censured the use of the phrase.

Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee Tom Emmer – who, like Ms Omar, represents Minnesota in Congress – told reporters he did not agree with the language.

North Carolina congressman Mark Walker said that he “struggled” with the chant and that the focus should be on “her history, words & actions” instead of “phrasing that’s painful to our friends in the minority communities”.

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro said “chanting for her deportation based on her exercise of the First Amendment is disgusting”.

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Senator Lindsay Graham, a vocal Trump supporter, defended the president, though he said he wished Mr Trump would focus on “policies not the personality”.

“I’ve said before that if you’re a Somali refugee wearing a Maga hat, he doesn’t want to send you back. You’d probably have dinner at the White House,” Mr Graham told reporters.

The South Carolina Republican added: “I don’t like it – I’m not going around telling anybody to leave the country who’s an American citizen.”

Republican leader Mitch McConnell told the Fox Business Network on Thursday that Mr Trump is “on to something” by attacking the four congresswomen as their policies will be important in the upcoming election.

“We’re in a big debate now and next year about what we want America to be like. Do we really think socialism applies here at a time of great prosperity, 50-year-low unemployment?”

– Reuters / BBC