Politics & Government

ECU, site of ‘send her back’ chants, tries again to distance itself from Trump rally

East Carolina University distanced itself from President Donald Trump’s Wednesday rally on its campus, sending a letter to the university community Friday making it clear — once again — it did not “sponsor, host or endorse” the rally.

During the rally at Minges Coliseum on ECU’s Greenville campus, supporters of the president chanted “send her back, send her back” as Trump attacked U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Omar, a freshman member of the House, is from Somalia. As a child, she immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee and became a citizen as a teen.

“With this event and with any event on our campus, the University does not control, and is not responsible for, the content of speech,” the letter said. It was signed by the university’s senior leadership, including Dan Gerlach, the school’s interim chancellor.

The school released a statement Wednesday indicating it would not be hosting, sponsoring or “endorsing this specific candidate in any way.”

The Trump campaign paid $13,500 to rent the 8,000-seat arena, Jeannine M. Hutson, interim chief communications officer, told The News & Observer on Friday. The school will bill the campaign for day-of operational expenses, including campus police and facility staff. That assessment is still being done, Hutson said.

The letter says the school’s leadership has “received a great deal of feedback since the Trump Campaign visit.” ECU must follow “federal, state and UNC Systems guidelines regarding free speech,” it continues.

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican who was in attendance Wednesday night, estimated that 30 to 35% of the sold-out crowd was chanting “send her back, send her back” to Omar, who is a Muslim.

Omar tweeted her response to the chanting Wednesday night.

Trump disavowed the chants on Thursday, but on Friday he called those in the crowd “incredible patriots” and renewed his attacks on Omar, claiming she hates the United States and makes anti-Semitic statements.

“Most people in North Carolina — that stadium was packed, it was a record crowd. And I could have filled it 10 times, as you know. Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots. But I’m unhappy when a congresswoman goes and says, ‘I’m going to be the president’s nightmare.’ She’s going to be the president’s nightmare. She’s lucky to be where she is. Let me tell you. And the things that she has said are a disgrace to our country,” Trump said at the White House.

The chants have overshadowed the rest of the rally, Trump’s first official 2020 event in North Carolina. The Republican National Convention will be held in Charlotte in August of 2020.

Trump won the state in 2016, beating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But he lost Pitt County, home to ECU, by more than seven points.

“We encourage and welcome civil discourse on our campus. The U.S. Constitution allows the intellectual and individual freedom of expression that enables us to live our mission. These freedoms do not protect the right to hear and listen to only what is convenient and agreeable but do protect the right to be able to respond and express one’s own views. We will facilitate such conversations on the campus in the fall,” the letter says.

Trump is not the first president or presidential candidate to use the coliseum, Hutson said. President George W. Bush did so as a sitting president on April 11, 2001, and President Barack Obama visited as a candidate in May of 2008.

President Bill Clinton made an unannounced stop on campus in 2016 while campaigning for his wife. Former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin held an event at the arena during the 2008 campaign, and another Republican nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan, held an event on campus in September of 2012. President John F. Kennedy visited in the September before his election in 1960, according to university archives.

Gerlach’s first day as interim chancellor was May 6. Former Chancellor Cecil Staton was forced out after a rocky three-year tenure.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.