By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump used the word “horrible” in talking about Milwaukee — the city where he will accept the Republican nomination next month — during a closed-door meeting Thursday with GOP congressmen, according to several people in the room who spoke afterward.

The comment, first reported by Punchbowl News while the meeting was in progress, immediately drew disagreements from those there about what Trump meant.

Several congressmen who support Trump and attended the meeting argued he was referring to crime and voter fraud. Trump frequently denounces Democratic-led cities as unsafe — even as violent crime decreased nationally in the most recent FBI statistics — and repeats falsehoods about his loss in the 2020 election.

President Joe Biden’s campaign and his Democratic allies pounced on the reported remark even as Wisconsin Republicans contested how it was being interpreted. Biden posted a photo on the X social platform of himself greeting the Milwaukee Bucks after their 2021 NBA championship with the message: “I happen to love Milwaukee.”

Milwaukee is hosting the Republican National Convention starting July 15 and is the largest Democratic stronghold in swing-state Wisconsin.

Trump is scheduled to be in Racine, Wisconsin, for a campaign rally on Tuesday, just three weeks before heading to Milwaukee for the convention.

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung posted on X that Trump “was talking about how terrible crime and voter fraud are.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, who represents western Wisconsin, said Trump was talking about the “terrible or horrible” crime rate in the city.

“He was directly referring to crime in Milwaukee,” said Van Orden, who told The Associated Press he was sitting just feet from the former president.

He said Republicans in the room concurred. “They’re like, yeah, crime is terrible.”

U.S. Reps. Glenn Grothman and Scott Fitzgerald, also both of Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Trump was referring to the upcoming election.

But Republican U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, who represents southeast Wisconsin, disputed that Trump made the comment.

“I was in the room,” Steil posted on X. “President Trump did not say this. There is no better place than Wisconsin in July.”

And Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, who represents northern Wisconsin, said he never heard Trump call Milwaukee a “horrible city.”

“What I heard is to make sure there’s election integrity in Milwaukee,” Tiffany said in a telephone interview. “He’s talking about the states that are in play and the states of greatest importance and Wisconsin is top of the list.”

A Trump aide and two attorneys who advised him in 2020 were charged with felonies last week in Wisconsin for their roles in a scheme to get Republicans to cast Wisconsin’s electoral ballots to Trump even though he lost the state.

Government and outside investigationshave uniformly found there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have swung the 2020 election. But Trump has continued to spread falsehoods about the election, particularly in Wisconsin.

Republican Rep. Jim Banks, of Indiana, said he was also in the room and “Trump never disparaged Milwaukee.”

“Just another Democrat hoax,” Banks posted on X.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, when asked about Trump’s reported remarks, said at a news conference, “If Donald Trump wants to talk about things that he thinks are horrible, all of us lived through his presidency, so right back at you buddy.”

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat who represents and lives in Milwaukee, made a nod to Trump’s recent felony convictions in her response. Trump is scheduled to be sentenced in New York on July 11, days before the convention opens.

“Once he’s settled in with his parole officer, I am certain he will discover that Milwaukee is a wonderful, vibrant and welcoming city full of diverse neighborhoods and a thriving business community,” Moore posted on X.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is up for reelection this year, said on X that Milwaukee is “part of what makes Wisconsin the best state in the nation. Donald Trump wouldn’t understand even if a jury told him so.” She used the Trump comment in a fundraising plea hours after it was first reported.

Local and statewide Democratic leaders, including Gov. Tony Evers, worked with Republicans to land the convention this summer.

Evers, in response to Trump’s comment, posted on X: “Add it to the list of things Donald Trump is wrong about.” He followed it with an emoji of a clown face.

Milwaukee was supposed to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, but that was moved almost entirely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

___ Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.