US President Donald Trump has called the congressional impeachment investigation that may seek to remove him from office “a lynching”.
Mr Trump condemned the inquiry in a tweet as “without due process or fairness or any legal rights”.
But Democrats were outraged at the president for invoking such a grim and racist chapter from US history.
Lynching refers to historic extrajudicial executions by white mobs mainly against black people.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters on Tuesday that Mr Trump did not mean to be racially insensitive.
“The president has used many words, all types of language, to talk about the way the media has treated him,” the deputy press secretary said.
He added: “The president wasn’t trying to compare himself to the horrific history in this country at all.”
The impeachment inquiry is examining whether the Republican president abused his office by improperly pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation into former US Vice-President Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination.
Mr Trump denies holding up US military aid to Ukraine so they would investigate Mr Biden’s son, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’
Mr Trump has repeatedly called the impeachment inquiry, as well as an earlier investigation into foreign meddling in the 2016 election, a “witch hunt”.
But his likening of a process enshrined in the US constitution to racist killings provoked outrage among African-American lawmakers.
Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, told CNN: “That is one word that no president ought to apply to himself.”
“I’ve studied presidential history quite a bit and I don’t know if we’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”
Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, tweeted to Mr Trump: “What the hell is wrong with you?
“Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you.”
He called on Mr Trump to delete the tweet.
Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, said: “The president should not compare a constitutionally mandated impeachment inquiry to such a dangerous and dark chapter of American history.”
‘I wouldn’t use the word’
Republican lawmakers mostly defended Mr Trump, but not necessarily his choice of language.
Jim Jordan, of Ohio, said the comment showed that “the president’s frustrated”.
Senator Lindsey Graham said: “This is a lynching in every sense.”
Tim Scott, the only black Republican US senator, said: “There’s no question that the impeachment process is the closest thing to a political death row trial, so I get his absolute rejection of the process.
“I wouldn’t use the word lynching.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters: “That’s not the language I would use.”
Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said Mr Trump should retract his tweet.
“We can all disagree on the process, and argue merits. But never should we use terms like “lynching” here. The painful scourge in our history has no comparison to politics,” he wrote.
What’s the latest with the impeachment inquiry?
Career US diplomat William Taylor – the acting US ambassador to Ukraine – is being interviewed by the impeachment committees at Congress on Tuesday.
Texts show Mr Taylor raised the alarm to other US envoys about pulling US aid to Ukraine.
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Mr Taylor wrote in one message.
During a cabinet meeting at the White House on Monday, Mr Trump called for his party “to get tougher and fight” the impeachment inquiry.
Initially hopeful that the inquiry would be done by November’s Thanksgiving holiday, Democrats are now signalling it may drag on towards Christmas.
Quick facts on impeachment
Impeachment is the first part – the charges – of a two-stage political process by which Congress can remove a president from office
If the House of Representatives votes to pass articles of impeachment, the Senate is forced to hold a trial
A Senate vote requires a two-thirds majority to convict – unlikely in this case, given that Mr Trump’s party controls the chamber
Only two US presidents in history – Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson – have been impeached but neither was convicted and removed
President Nixon resigned before he could have been impeached