ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A war of tweets erupted between Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump several hours after the governor said America “was never that great” and won’t be great until all Americans share true equality.

The riff heard round the political world was delivered during a speech blasting the president and his slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Cuomo, who is considered a potential White House contender in 2020, made the remarks while signing a bill aimed at combating sex trafficking in Manhattan. He said Trump wants to return to a period of greater sexism, racism and intolerance toward immigrants. He said New York would strive to be a liberal alternative where people of all backgrounds have the same opportunities.

“We’re not going to make America great again — it was never that great” said Cuomo, who is running for a third term this November. “We have not reached greatness. We will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged.”

The crowd at the event reacted with surprised gasps and laughter to the comments, which were highly unusual for a politician of Cuomo’s stature and experience.

Republicans quickly pounced.

“America, with its imperfections, has always been great,” said Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive who faces Cuomo in this year’s election. “Mr. Cuomo owes the nation an apology. He should be ashamed of himself.”

Brian Kolb, the minority leader of the state Assembly, tweeted that Cuomo’s remark was “inexcusable & reprehensible.”

A spokeswoman for Cuomo later backtracked on the governor’s comments in a statement seeking to clarify the point he was making.

“The governor believes America is great and that her full greatness will be fully realized when every man, woman, and child has full equality,” Cuomo press secretary Dani Lever said in a statement. “When the president speaks about making America great again — going back in time — he ignores the pain so many endured and that we suffered from slavery, discrimination, segregation, sexism and marginalized women’s contributions.”

The war of words between Cuomo and Trump, a native New Yorker, escalated in recent days when Trump, on a visit to upstate New York, said Cuomo had called him and promised not to challenge Trump in 2020. Cuomo denied the president’s account.

The president took to Twitter to respond to the controversy surrounding Cuomo’s remarks late Wednesday.

“Can you believe this is the Governor of the Highest Taxed State in the U.S., Andrew Cuomo, having a total meltdown!” the president tweeted.

Cuomo responded in kind, tweeting, “What you say would be ‘great again’ would not be great at all… We will not go back to discrimination, segregation, sexism, isolationism, racism or the KKK.”

“Like NY’s motto says: Excelsior — Ever Upward (not backward),” Cuomo concluded.

Cuomo faces former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon in next month’s Democratic primary. The two will square off in a one-on-one debate at Hofstra University on Wednesday, Aug. 29, airing at 7 p.m. on CBS2.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)