US lawmaker Omar again courts controversy after appearing to critique Obama

US lawmaker Omar again courts controversy after appearing to critique Obama

Minnesota Rep., who caused anti-Semitism row last week, then denies in a tweet — since deleted — that she drew parallel between Trump and Obama

US Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, at a news conference on prescription drugs, January 10, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/JTA)
US Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, at a news conference on prescription drugs, January 10, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/JTA)

Fresh from a bruising fight over comments by her criticized as anti-Semitic, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar jumped back into the frying pan over the weekend, appearing to level harsh criticism at former US president Barack Obama, then claiming she had been misquoted before seemingly backtracking.

In an interview published Friday with Politico magazine, Omar criticized Obama’s policies on immigration and other issues that she said were similar to those employed by the Donald Trump administration.

“Family separation and the caging of kids…this was Obama,” she can be heard telling Politico in a recording. “The droning of countries around the world…that was Obama.”

Politico paraphrased Omar as saying Obama’s message of “hope and change” was a mirage, though it was not clear the congresswoman actually said that.

“We can’t be only upset with Trump. … His policies are bad, but many of the people who came before him also had really bad policies. They just were more polished than he was,” she said.

“And that’s not what we should be looking for anymore. We don’t want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished. We want to recognize the actual policies that are behind the pretty face and the smile.”

After the interview was published, Omar said she was not trying to criticize the former president, and that the Politico piece was an example of “how reporters distort words.”

Former US president Barack Obama during a campaign rally at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, November 2, 2018. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images North America/AFP)

“Exhibit A of how reporters distort words. I’m an Obama fan! I was saying how Trump is different from Obama, and why we should focus on policy not politics,” she said in the tweet.

The complaint sparked an avalanche of responses, with critics taking her to task for questioning a reporter’s integrity without evidence, and defenders arguing she had been criticizing multiple presidents and that the quotes criticizing Obama lacked that context.

By Saturday, however, Omar had deleted the tweet without comment.

Tim Alberta, the Politico reporter who interviewed her, slammed her for trying to “avoid owning” her comments.

“Exhibit A of how politicians use the media as a straw man to avoid owning what they said,” he wrote, adding, “Your tape…supports what I wrote 100%. So does my longer tape. It’s beyond dispute. Next time, a phone call from your office before the Twitter ambush would be appreciated.”

Omar has become a lightning rod in Congress for comments on foreign policy, and especially US policy toward Israel, that many in the Jewish community have deemed anti-Semitic. She has denied charges of prejudice toward Jews or Israel.

Omar, a Somali refugee who resettled in Minnesota, had sparked fiery debate with her repeated criticisms of Israel and AIPAC, including claims that
lawmakers were enthralled to the pro-Israel lobby because of “Benjamins,” or $100 bills, and that Israel supporters are urging members of Congress to have “allegiance to a foreign country.”

“I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone,” Omar tweeted. “Our nation is having a difficult conversation.”

Lawmakers expressed outrage, warning that Omar was peddling in age-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish money and Jews having dual loyalties.

On Thursday, the US House passed a resolution originally intended to deliver a direct rebuke of anti-Semitism following comments by Omar. But after blowback from progressives, it was revised to broadly condemn discrimination against Muslims and other minorities as well.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC on February 12, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The final resolution, which made no mention of Omar, ultimately passed 407 to 23. It condemns anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities “as hateful expressions of intolerance.” Republicans who voted against it complained it had been watered down.

US President Donald Trump and other Republicans seized on the shift, injecting a new angle of attack as the GOP readies a 2020 re-election bid and fellow Republicans seek to claw back ground they lost in the House in last year’s mid-terms.

“The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party, they’ve become an anti-Jewish party,” Trump said Friday.

Democrats shot back with accusations of “hypocrisy” against Trump.

“We are appalled, but not surprised, that President Trump has once again demonstrated dishonesty, hypocrisy, and willingness to use anti-Semitism and Israel as a political football,” said Halie Soifer of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Soifer pointed to anti-Semitic tropes used in the past by Trump, saying that “the president’s own words have fueled the fire of intolerance and targeting of Jews, and Republicans have failed to condemn the president’s remarks in the same way that Democrats were quick to rebuke Representative Omar.”

AP contributed to this report.

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