Trump sees advantage in debate over Israel, anti-Semitism

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump can't get enough of Rep. Ilhan Omar.

As Democrats try to turn the page after the freshman lawmaker's remarks, criticized by some as anti-Semitic, ignited an embarrassing, intra-party fight, the Republican president is trying to prolong and weaponize the issue for his 2020 campaign, asserting during a private weekend fundraiser that Democrats "hate" Jews.

While Trump publicly muses about winning over Jewish voters for his re-election, his motivations are more complicated and expansive. The president's rhetorical escalation also is designed to unsettle the Democratic primary debate, exploit an issue that can energize his supporters and move past his own history of toying in anti-Semitic motifs.

Trump was slow to condemn white supremacists who marched violently in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. In 2016 he circulated an image of a six-pointed star alongside a photo of Hillary Clinton, a pile of money and the words "most corrupt candidate ever." And he told a group of Republican Jewish donors he didn't expect to earn their support because he wouldn't take their money.

"You want to control your politicians, that's fine," he told the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015. Ultimately, the group and many of its donors backed Trump.

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Democratic congressional candidate the Midterm elections, Ilhan Omar, speaks to a group of volunteers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 13, 2018. - Somali-American state legislator Ilhan Omar claimed victory in her primary in Minnesota in August, putting her on track to become one of the first female Muslim members of the US House of Representatives. (Photo by Kerem YUCEL / AFP) (Photo credit should read KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images)
Ilhan Omar, Democratic congressional candidate, poses for a selfie with a supporter and her son while campaigning in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 13, 2018. - Somali-American state legislator Ilhan Omar claimed victory in her primary in Minnesota in August, putting her on track to become one of the first female Muslim members of the US House of Representatives. (Photo by Kerem YUCEL / AFP) (Photo credit should read KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Jan. 5, 2017, file photo, new State Rep. Ilhan Omar is interviewed in her office two days after the 2017 Legislature convened in St. Paul, Minn. Omar, already the first Somali-American to be elected to a state legislature, is jumping into a crowded race for a Minnesota congressional seat. Omar filed Tuesday, June 5, 2018, for the Minneapolis-area seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017 file photo, State Rep. Ilhan Omar takes the oath of office as the 2017 legislature convened in St. Paul, Minn. Omar, a Muslim, is the nation's first Somali-American to be elected to a state legislature. Religion's role in politics and social policies is in the spotlight heading toward the midterm elections, yet relatively few Americans consider it crucial that a candidate be devoutly religious or share their religious beliefs, according to an AP-NORC national poll conducted Aug. 16-20, 2018. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, left, laughs while speaking with an attendee during the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) Party endorsement convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., on Sunday, June 17, 2018. The DFL will endorse a primary candidate for the seat of Representative Keith Ellison, a democrat from Minnesota, as he runs for state attorney general. Photographer: Emilie Richardson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar speaks during the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) Party endorsement convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., on Sunday, June 17, 2018. The DFL will endorse a primary candidate for the seat of Representative Keith Ellison, a democrat from Minnesota, as he runs for state attorney general. Photographer: Emilie Richardson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Ilhan Omar attends the premiere of 'Time For Ilhan' during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Cinepolis Chelsea on April 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
In this Aug. 16, 2018 photo, Democrat Ilhan Omar, the nation's first Somali-American legislator who won her party's congressional primary in the race, talks during an interview at Peace Coffee in Minneapolis. Just two years ago, the Minnesota Democrat became the first Somali-American elected to a state legislature. Now she's likely to become one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Amal Sabrie, Isra Hirsi, Ilhan Omar, Ilwad Hirsi, Ahmed Hirsi, Adnan Hirsi attend the premiere of 'Time For Ilhan' during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Cinepolis Chelsea on April 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Ilhan Omar, candidate for State Representative for District 60B in Minnesota, arrives for her victory party on election night, November 8, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Omar, a refugee from Somalia, is the first Somali-American Muslim woman to hold public office. / AFP / STEPHEN MATUREN (Photo credit should read STEPHEN MATUREN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 07: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., attends a rally on the East Front of the Capitol with groups including United We Dream, calling on Congress to defund Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Thursday, February 7, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 13: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., attends a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Rayburn Building titled 'Venezuela at a Crossroads,' on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. Elliott Abrams, U.S. special representative for Venezuela, testified. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 15: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., arrives for a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to respond to negative comments by President Trump that were directed at freshmen House Democrats on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 15: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center responding to negative comments by President Trump that were directed at the freshmen House Democrats on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 15: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center responding to negative comments by President Trump that were directed at the freshmen House Democrats on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019 in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump stepped up his attacks on four progressive Democratic congresswomen, saying if they're not happy in the United States "they can leave." (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) at Netroots Nation convention in Philadelphia, PA on July 13, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JULY 06: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar speaks on stage at 2019 ESSENCE Festival Presented By Coca-Cola at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 06, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ESSENCE)
WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 26: U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar speaks during a demonstration held by Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on one-year anniversary of Supreme Court's decision about US President Donald Trump's travel ban for Muslims in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, United States on June 26, 2019. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks at a press conference on the No Shame at School Act on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. The bill, which is sponsored by Omar, will ensure that no child is shamed or goes without eating a school lunch due to a lack of money. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 7: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., arrives for a Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health forum in Rayburn Building on Friday, June 7, 2019. Actress Taraji Henson, founder of the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, spoke about her struggle with depression. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks at a press conference on the No Shame at School Act on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. The bill, which is sponsored by Omar, will ensure that no child is shamed or goes without eating a school lunch due to a lack of money. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) listens to remarks during a congressional Iftar event at the U.S. Capitol May 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. Muslims around the world are observing the holy month with prayers, fasting from dawn to sunset and nightly feasts. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks at the America Welcomes Event with a Statue Of Liberty Replica Shows Solidarity With Immigrants & Refugees at Union Station on May 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn.org)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks at the America Welcomes Event with a Statue Of Liberty Replica Shows Solidarity With Immigrants & Refugees at Union Station on May 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn.org)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: The House Foreign Affairs' Committee's Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee member Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) questions witnesses during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill May 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, testified before the committee. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 08: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Mika Brzezinski at the 2019 Town & Country Philanthropy Summit Sponsored By Northern Trust, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Pomellato, And 1 Hotels & Baccarat Hotels on May 08, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Town & Country)
UNITED STATES - MAY 16: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., attends a news conference at the House Triangle, on legislation to create special immigrant visas for Iraqi and Afghan wartime translators on Thursday, May 16, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 08: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Ava DuVernay at the 2019 Town & Country Philanthropy Summit Sponsored By Northern Trust, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Pomellato, And 1 Hotels & Baccarat Hotels on May 08, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Town & Country)
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Trump on Tuesday promoted comments by former model and 2016 campaign staffer Elizabeth Pipko, who said on Fox & Friends that "Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party."

Pipko, who serves as spokesperson for the group "Jexodus," which bills itself as speaking for "Jewish Millennials tired of living in bondage to leftist politics," saw her comments amplified by Trump on Twitter. "There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party," she continued. "They don't care about Israel or the Jewish people."

Her comments mirrored Trump's charge on Friday that Democrats had become an "anti-Israel" and "anti-Jewish" party, responding to the House voted a day before to disapprove of all prejudice in response to Omar's invocation of "dual-loyalty" charges against American supporters of Israel earlier this month.

Speaking later that evening, Trump went even further in an appearance before Republican National Committee donors, charging that Democrats "hate" Jewish people, according to a person who heard the remarks but spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the president's comments at a private event.

Omar, D-Minn., had sparked a political firestorm with comments suggesting House supporters of Israel have dual allegiances. It derailed the Democrats' focus on investigations of the Trump administration, including a public back-and-forth over how, or even if, her party should condemn her comments. The ultimate resolution, which passed the House overwhelmingly, didn't call out Omar by name.

As a small percentage of the nation, American Jews are not a particularly significant voting bloc, nor is Israel their decisive issue of concern. And both parties acknowledge the controversy is unlikely to alter dramatically the electoral votes of the American Jewish community, which has skewed decisively toward Democrats for more than a generation.

Even a small shift, though, can be significant.

"We're slicing the salami very thin, and an incremental shift in traditional Democratic blocs to the other side can have a profound impact," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He said his group plans to make "the largest investment that we've ever had in the 2020 race in terms of outreach, advocacy and independent expenditures on behalf of the president."

Stoking the fight also gives Trump an opportunity to deflect criticism of his own rhetoric, invigorate evangelical Christians for whom the Israel issue is a powerful motivator and paint Democrats into a radical corner.

It also plays into Trump's attempt to cast Democrats as radicals ahead of the 2020 campaign, said conservative commentator Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine. He noted that Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed back against efforts to condemn Omar's comments. "It makes it very easy to say they're just adopting whatever the socialist says."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders kept the controversy alive on Monday by criticizing Democrats for failing to explicitly repudiate Omar.

"It's something that should be called by name," she said. "It shouldn't be put in a watered-down resolution."

Sanders pointed to Republican condemnation of Rep. Steve King earlier this year, including stripping the Iowa Republican of his committee memberships, after he made remarks defending white supremacy. But King had long espoused racially charged ideas, and the GOP only took action after it lost its majority in the chamber.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, warned that Trump's politicization of the issue "threatens the bipartisan support for Israel."

"The problem is that the president sees it somehow as a way to make some kind of political hay and a wedge," she said. "And he keeps addressing it that way. And I just think it's a mistake, as someone that's a strong supporter of Israel, that he keeps doing it."

Hallie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said her group welcomes Trump's focus on the issue of anti-Semitism. "He himself has emboldened anti-Semites in our country by both repeating anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories," she said. "He has no credibility with Jewish voters."

Trump has been among the loudest critics of Omar, including last month when he called on her to resign from the House, or at least resign her post on the Foreign Affairs Committee over her suggestion that Jewish money drove support for Israel.

With respect to Trump's own comments to Republican Jewish donors, Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition official, said they were meant obviously in jest and any suggestion otherwise is "unfair and ridiculous."

"Jexodus" is hardly the first time Trump has tried to peel away minority voters from the Democratic coalition. He has pushed the "WalkAway" and "Blexit" movements to win over black voters to the GOP, but those efforts proved to have limited, if any impact.

According to AP Votecast, a survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters and 3,500 Jewish voters nationwide, voters who identified as Jewish broke for Democrats over Republicans by a wide margin, 72 percent to 26 percent, in 2016.

Over the last decade, Jewish voters have shown stability in their partisanship, according to data from Pew Research Center. Jewish voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

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Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut, Elana Schor and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.

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