NOEL KING, HOST:
Four Democratic congresswomen were targeted by racist comments. Those comments were directed at them by President Trump, so they responded. Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib held a joint press conference on Monday afternoon. Their message - we are here to stay. They were responding to the president tweeting that they should go back to the places they came from. All four of the freshman Democrats are women of color. All four are U.S. citizens, and three of them were born in the United States.
NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is covering this story. Hey, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi.
KING: So what else did the four congresswomen say in this press conference?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, as you pointed out, they're talking about - saying here to stay. Ocasio-Cortez, she talked about saying, hey, we're proposing solutions that we want to see solved. Omar, she talked about - she - but they were also very strong against President Trump. Omar talked about how he was advocating for a white nationalist agenda. Tlaib repeated calls that she had given earlier in the day that President Trump should be impeached. This is what Ayanna Pressley had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AYANNA PRESSLEY: This is simply a disruption and a distraction from the callous, chaotic and corrupt culture of this administration all the way down.
KING: Not mincing words there. How about the White House? Is the president standing by the language he used?
ORDOÑEZ: The president is standing behind the language that he used. He came out yesterday, and he was very defensive about the words that he used. He said - when asked that, he said the tweets were not racist. He didn't feel they were. He said that if the members of Congress were not happy, they could leave. When asked about support that he had been receiving and the tweets had been receiving from white nationalists, he said those things didn't concern him either because a lot of people agree with him.
KING: Franco, thanks so much. Also joining us on the line now is Adam Kennedy. He's the White House deputy director of communications.
Good morning, Mr. Kennedy.
ADAM KENNEDY: Thank you for having me on. Good morning.
KING: Did the president know the history of this specific racist language when he decided to use it?
KENNEDY: I don't think any of the president's language was racist...
KING: You don't...
KENNEDY: ...I think what he was talking about was that we have some people in this country who liken it to garbage, who attack historically persecuted minorities and who hang out with people who actually killed civilians of allies of this country. And the president wants to stand up and make sure the American people know that he's proud of his country, he's going to stand up for people who aren't.
KING: I think we could refute everything that you just said there, but this is a short interview. You're saying the president...
KENNEDY: Please try. Please try.
KING: ...The president's language is not racist. So the White House is not - is standing by this remark that these women should go back to where they came from.
KENNEDY: The president said that they can stay, they can leave - but that people should be proud of this country. There's a lot to be proud of, just like he is.
KING: Does the president know that three of these women are from the United States of America - born here?
KENNEDY: Again, the point that the president was making is that when you liken this country to garbage; when you say that there is - that the reason we support another country is because of money, which is a historical trope against a persecuted minority in this country; when you hang out with people who attack military and civilian personnel of allies, that's something that should be shocking and that people in this country should be - should know about.
KING: You're talking in part about comments that Representative Omar has made about American Jews - that American Jews found very insensitive, which she apologized for. Before President Trump was president, he was a very vocal critic of President Obama. He was elected after being very critical of the U.S. government. But now he's telling this congresswoman - these congresswomen that they should leave if they're not happy with their government.
I mean, isn't it a core value of this country, of this democracy that you get to criticize people in power, that you get to be critical of the government?
KENNEDY: Absolutely. And this president has said from the beginning that you can be critical of this government. That doesn't mean you have to be - that doesn't mean that you don't have to be proud of this country. This president was proud of this country under President Obama; he's proud of this country now. Some people in this country, some people who say they serve this country haven't said one word about how they like this country. They refer to it as garbage. They say we're having concentration camps. They refuse to condemn attacks on law enforcement personnel. So I think that is very troubling.
KING: All of these congresswomen have said that they love this country. I imagine they would not have run for office if they didn't think the country could improve. That makes sense. Did you think that President Trump was being anti-American back when he criticized President Obama's policies?
KENNEDY: Again, I don't think the president has said that criticism of this country is anti-American. I would like - I would like to see those quotes.
KING: No, he said if you criticize the country, you should go back to where you came from.
KENNEDY: No, what he said was that if all you do is demonize and vilify this country, that it raises questions.
KING: I think we're saying the same thing. The president was asked yesterday whether...
KENNEDY: I don't think we are.
KING: ...He was concerned that white nationalist groups are finding common cause with him. He said, quote, "it doesn't concern me because many people agree with me," end quote. Does it trouble you that his language is resonating with white nationalists?
KENNEDY: I don't know why it was. But I am troubled that some members of the far-left resonate with terrorists, that their language resonates with people who want to see an ally of this country destroyed, who want to see essentially the character of this nation destroyed.
KING: Sorry. The president said it doesn't concern him that white nationalists are finding common cause with his language. I wasn't clear on your answer. Does this concern you?
KENNEDY: Again, I think what's concerning is that you have people that are trying to cozy up with friends of terrorist organizations, with people who have supported terrorist organizations. And that should be known.
KING: Republican Congressman Will Hurd responded to the president's comments. I want to play you what he said to CNN.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
WILL HURD: I think those tweets are racist and xenophobic. They're also inaccurate, right? The four women he's referring to are actually citizens in the United States; three of the four were born here.
KING: How does the president feel about members of his own party calling this language racist?
KENNEDY: Again, I think the president stands behind his language. The president said that people should be proud of this country, just like he is, just like he was under President Obama.
KING: But what would he say to Republicans who say - Mr. President, you said something racist? I mean, this is his own party. Right? The president will have an election coming up in 2020. And I guess what I'm trying to get at is, does the president think that using racist language is going to help him? Is he calling out to some part of his base? When you're facing criticism within your own party, Republican lawmakers saying those comments are racist, I'm just wondering if the president is thinking this all the way through.
KENNEDY: The president hasn't used racist language. And the fact of the matter is that members of his own party have stood against him and been wrong in the past.
KING: I wonder - you know, the president got involved in all of this because there was a dispute among Democrats between Nancy Pelosi and these four young freshman members of Congress. The president got involved sort of in a dispute that they were having. Why does the president need to involve himself in this way?
KENNEDY: Again, the president is pointing out the fact that there are some people on the far-left who have decided that the best way forward is demonizing this country and the people in it. That's what he's standing up against. That's what he's pointing out.
KING: Adam Kennedy is the White House deputy director of communications. Thanks so much for taking the time, Mr. Kennedy.
KENNEDY: Thank you for having me on.
KING: All right. Franco Ordoñez, White House correspondent, I want to go back to you. I mean, based on what you heard from Adam Kennedy there, is there any sense that the White House is backing off of these comments?
ORDOÑEZ: Not at all. Not - especially in those comments, there did not appear to be any sense at all that they're backing away. Kennedy was very strong in his language. He continued to try to kind of divert the questions that you asked, put more pressure on the Democrats, painting them as extremely liberal. He talked about terrorist organization. He talked about different groups - (clears throat) - excuse me. But there's no doubt that he's not backing away.
He would not answer - very interesting that he would not answer questions about support that the president's comments has received from white nationalist groups. He kept, again, deflecting.
KING: NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.