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When President Trump holds a campaign rally today in Minneapolis, Minn., he will be inside the congressional district of a lawmaker he often criticizes. It is the district of Democrat Ilhan Omar. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has been looking at the president's Twitter feed, where he has criticized Omar, among many other people. She found the president's attacks on lawmakers are growing more personal, especially against people of color.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: President Trump's tweets can set the wheels of government in motion and set the tone for his supporters. Back in July, Trump was eagerly attacking Ilhan Omar at a rally in Greenville, N.C.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Omar has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.
RASCOE: In response, the crowd chanted, send her back.
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UNIDENTIFIED TRUMP SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Send her back. Send her back...
RASCOE: Omar was born in Somalia but is an American citizen. The chants were prompted by Trump's tweets a few days earlier. Using racist language, Trump tweeted that Omar and three other Democrats - all women of color - known as the squad should go back to the, quote, "totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came."
Trump has always used Twitter as a weapon against his political opponents. But these tweets and the dozens that would come in the weeks following against the squad and against African American Congressman Elijah Cummings represented an escalation of the president's attacks.
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TRUMP: These are people that, in my opinion, hate our country.
And AOC plus 3, that's what I call it.
Elijah Cummings has not helped the people.
If you're not happy here, then you can leave.
RASCOE: NPR examined Trump's tweets about members of Congress through October 4. Since becoming president, Trump has tweeted more than 700 times about current lawmakers. While Trump hasn't been restrained about insults, his negative tweets have increased in volume. And the nature of insults have become more extreme since July.
In the case of the squad, which includes Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, Trump has tweeted about them collectively nearly 20 times in about three months. That's more negative tweets than Trump has aimed at presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Among other things, he's called the squad a very racist group of troublemakers. That language speaks to some white Trump supporters who may be worried about their place in America, says Niambi Carter. She's a political science professor at Howard University.
NIAMBI CARTER: When he says make America great again and points to these women as the sort of embodiment of everything that America isn't - it's not black, it's not a woman, it's not Muslim, it's not Latina - these women become perfect vehicles for all of that anxiety that these white voters feel.
RASCOE: The only lawmakers with more negative tweets than the squad and Cummings are top Democrats - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. But his tweets about them are more general criticisms about the Democratic Party.
BRIAN OTT: The president chooses his targets pretty carefully, but he doesn't always choose them for the same reason.
RASCOE: That's Brian Ott, a communications professor at Texas Tech University and co-author of "The Twitter Presidency." He says Trump uses Twitter to discredit politicians he views as a threat and to distract from other matters.
OTT: Then there's this other motivation, which is trying to define the opposition. And it's clear that he takes tremendous pleasure and is particularly vitriolic when it comes to characterizing women and ethnic minorities on Twitter.
RASCOE: On Twitter, Trump says the face of the Democratic Party is the squad, Pelosi and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who is African American. He never says white men are the face of the Democratic Party. The White House didn't respond to interview requests, but Trump's supporters argue he's a counterpuncher. Paris Dennard is a prominent African American conservative who backs Trump. He said it's not race or gender that motivates the president.
PARIS DENNARD: If you are a worthy opponent - meaning you have a large social media following, meaning you can attract a lot of people to whatever it is you're talking about - he is going to engage with them because he thinks it's worth the fight.
RASCOE: Trump has targeted both Cummings, who is chair of the House Oversight Committee, and Schiff with a flood of tweets. But while the tweets against Schiff have focused on his actions as chairman, Trump's tweets against Cummings focus on the mostly black district he represents in Baltimore. Ott says the rhetoric about Cummings in particular is meant to set him apart as different.
OTT: The president's discussion of Baltimore as rat-infested is really meant to convey that he's not quite human.
RASCOE: With an impeachment probe in full swing, the president has tweeted about the squad less. Cummings hasn't gotten a mention in weeks. But Trump hasn't forgotten about these lawmakers. He told reporters on Friday that AOC plus three, as he likes to call the squad, are the real leaders of the Democratic Party.
Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Washington.
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