US President Donald Trump renewed his attacks Sunday on four Democratic congresswomen he launched xenophobic tweets against last week, demanding they apologise "for the horrible (hateful) things they have said."
"I don't believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country," Trump tweeted of ethnic-minority first-term Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.
"They should apologise to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said. They are destroying the Democrat Party, but are weak & insecure people who can never destroy our great Nation!" the president tweeted.
The comments come a week after Trump sparked a firestorm of outrage when he attacked the left-leaning lawmakers in a series of tweets, saying they should "go back" to their countries of origin.
The group -- all American citizens, three of whom were born in the United States -- are of Hispanic, Arab, Somali and African-American descent.
In a rare move, Trump was rebuked by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on Tuesday for "racist comments" against the women, who are known as the "Squad."
The following day chants of "Send her back!" broke out at the president's "Make America Great Again" rally in Greenville, North Carolina, when he again attacked the women.
Trump claimed falsely that Omar had said the terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda made her "proud" and he described the congresswomen as "left-wing ideologues (who) see our nation as a force of evil."
Trump later said there was "great energy" at the rally but claimed he was not pleased by the taunts.
"I was not happy when I heard that chant," he said. "I didn't like that they did it, and I started speaking quickly" to move on with his speech.
Television footage showed, however, that Trump let the chants continue for more than 13 seconds, only resuming speaking as they died down.
Analysts say the president's performance in Greenville demonstrated that without a Democratic presidential candidate to focus on yet, he plans to make inflammatory attacks on the Squad a centrepiece of his 2020 re-election strategy.
Two days after the rally he falsely accused the congresswomen of using the phrase "evil Jews," and Ocasio-Cortez in particular of calling Americans "garbage."
Several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls who plan to run against him and a few Republicans have urged Trump to tone down the rhetoric.
Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin and the chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday he didn't agree that the congresswomen were incapable of loving their country.
"I find it unfortunate so many parts of our public debate are getting stuck inside a racial framework when what I would like to see is us moving toward that colour-blind society," he told CNN's State of the Union.
But the president has made it clear -- despite the risk of inflaming racial tensions and widening the partisan divide -- that he believes he has latched onto a winning strategy.
Trump tapped into grievances among white blue-collar and rural Americans to eke out a narrow victory in 2016, winning 57 percent of white voters while his rival Hillary Clinton won 37 percent.
Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings, the African-American chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told ABC's This Week that the "send her back" chants reminded him of painful experiences fighting segregation in the 1960s.
"It's extremely divisive and I don't think this is becoming of the president of the United States of America, the leader of the entire world. We can do better than that."
He added that the congresswomen targeted by Trump "love their country" and work hard to move closer to the "perfect union that our founding fathers talked about."
He said he had "no doubt" Trump was a racist, a charge rejected by White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller.
"I fundamentally disagree with the view that if you criticise somebody, and they happen to be a different colour skin, that that makes it racial criticism," Miller told Fox News Sunday.
Senator Corey Booker, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, meanwhile told CBS's Face the Nation that he was accusing Trump of being "worse than" a racist.
"He is somebody that is using race like a weapon to divide our country against itself," Booker said.