Wednesday February 13, 2019
By Rachael Bade ,John Wagner and Mike DeBonis
President Trump said Feb. 12 that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) should resign, adding that her apology for what critics saw as anti-Semitic remarks was "lame." (The Washington Post)
Rep. Ilhan Omar rejected President Trump’s call for her resignation by accusing him of having “trafficked in hate your whole life” while she privately has tried to make amends with her Jewish colleagues for her anti-Semitic comments.
The Minnesota Democrat, who fired back at Trump on Wednesday via Twitter, has faced a widespread backlash for suggesting that Israel’s allies in U.S. politics were motivated by money rather than principle.
During a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Trump said that “anti-Semitism has no place in the United States Congress,” called an apology by Omar “lame” and said she should resign from Congress or give up her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“You have trafficked in hate your whole life — against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more,” Omar, a freshman, said in her tweet Wednesday morning. “I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you?”
Omar, who has publicly apologized, has been huddling with Jewish members of Congress to express her regret, according to several Democrats. Prioritizing Jewish members of the freshman class, Omar is lining up several face-to-face meetings with lawmakers whom she alienated as she seeks to move past her comments.
Her outreach effort includes Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). She also has spoken to Bend the Arc and J Street, liberal Jewish groups, as well as national Jewish leaders. In her district, she has been in touch with local Jewish groups and is organizing a roundtable with Jewish constituents next week to hear their concerns.
The Democrats spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private conversations.
Omar’s apology tour comes as Democratic leaders have floated what amounts to an ultimatum to their GOP colleagues eager to rebuke the lawmaker, one of two Muslim women in the House. While Republicans said earlier this week that they may force a vote in the full House against Omar — such as a privileged resolution disapproving her actions — senior House Democrats have suggested they might retaliate, putting Republicans in the equally awkward position of having to reprimand one of their own, including their top leader.
Under what would amount to a mutually assured destruction scenario, House Democrats would force Republicans to vote on censure of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for his comments, including wondering why the term “white nationalist” is considered offensive. While both parties adopted a resolution disapproving racist comments in January, Democrats had held off on the more extreme censure vote, in part out of concern that their Republican colleagues would turn the tables.
Democrats have also privately discussed the idea of repudiating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for an election-time tweet in which he suggested that wealthy Jewish donors were trying to “buy” the midterm elections. McCarthy deleted the tweet.
The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes the thin line between criticizing Israel and being labeled anti-Semitic, after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) comments about AIPAC. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
“What we have seen from Republicans in the House is that truth does not matter and hypocrisy is not a constraint to behavior,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.). “They should proceed with caution in this particular area, given their history.”
A senior House Democratic aide was more blunt: “If they want to vote on Steve King every week, they can do that. . . . And McCarthy.”
The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
For now, Republicans appear to be holding off. While McCarthy just days ago predicted action on the House floor this week — and aides considered forcing a vote on a resolution written by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) denouncing Omar and anti-Semitism — McCarthy said Wednesday that he had no immediate plans to force the issue.
That has not stopped Republicans from criticizing Omar for her comments — and complaining that Democratic leaders are not doing enough to punish her.
Vice President Pence said in an MSNBC interview with Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday that Republicans removed King from his committees because of his comments and backed a resolution rejecting white supremacy and white nationalism.
“Unless Representative Omar resigns from Congress, at a minimum, Democrat leaders should remove her from the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Pence said.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) expressed similar sentiments.
“We have been speaking out against the growing anti-Semitism that we’re seeing from some of the Democrats in Congress,” Scalise said. “We’ve been disappointed that their leadership hasn’t been strong enough in calling that language out.”
House Democratic leaders issued a statement Monday denouncing Omar’s use of “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters.” They have argued that Omar’s apology suffices for now while suggesting that if she makes another incendiary comment, she will face harsher punishment.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) left open the possibility of disciplinary action.
“Apologies are appropriate,” Hoyer said. “But the real test is the actions going forward. . . . We need to treat one another with respect and without language that would refer to any kind of interpretation of bigotry or prejudice or hate.”
“Very frankly, if that doesn’t pan out, there may be further actions we’ll need to take,” he added.
In a pair of tweets on Sunday, Omar had cited Puff Daddy’s 1997 paean to money — “It’s All About the Benjamins” — to paint Israel’s supporters in Congress as beholden to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful lobbying group whose members contribute generously to lawmakers who share its perspective on the Middle East.
Amid the controversy, Trump himself has come under scrutiny for comments he made to the Republican Jewish Coalition as a presidential candidate in 2015.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. . . . But that’s okay. You want to control your own politician,” Trump told the group at the time.
House Democrats who had signed a letter criticizing Omar’s tweets said they were largely satisfied with her public apology and private outreach, even as Trump and Pence pushed for additional consequences.
“We just see this as opening a door for us to continue a dialogue in a constructive way on the issues that we’re concerned about,” said Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.).
Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.), a Jewish Democrat who represents a district adjoining Omar’s, met with her Monday and encouraged her to speak with more colleagues who had been offended by her remarks.
“I look prospectively on how we can do better moving forward,” he said. “There are too many people here that see their path forward as more destructive than constructive, and that is exactly how I think we should all behave. I don’t want to see anybody ostracized unless they are frankly deserving of it, and I think she deserves another chance, and I encourage that, but it also takes a commitment, and that’s what I asked for.”
“It is in nobody’s interest that she or anybody else in our caucus become a pariah, and so we’ve got to avoid that at all costs,” said another Jewish House Democrat who spoke with Omar this week.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders turned their fire on McCarthy. Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, told reporters that McCarthy should apologize for his own deleted tweet.
McCarthy, asked about the matter, accused Democrats of trying to change the topic from Omar, and defended his own tweet.
“She’s got it completely wrong,” he said of Clark. “This was Republicans vs. Democrats in a campaign. . . . This has absolutely nothing to do with that . . . nothing about somebody’s faith.”
Separately Wednesday, Omar clashed with the Trump administration’s top envoy on Venezuela on his past support of U.S.-friendly Central American governments accused of human rights abuses in the 1980s.
At a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Omar noted that Elliot Abrams, the envoy, had pleaded guilty in 1991 to misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress. He was later pardoned. She then pressed him on atrocities committed by U.S.-backed regimes.
“I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony you give today to be truthful,” she said. Abrams reacted angrily and refused to answer several questions.
Felicia Sonmez and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.