Omar on Trump and her unapologetic support for Sanders

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., isn’t running for president, but she’s still a hot topic on the campaign trail, at least for President Trump.

In October, Trump, who has called for Omar’s resignation, blasted her as a “disgrace” and an “America-hating socialist” at one of his rallies in her home state. Trump also suggested Minnesota’s Somali immigrant community, which Omar is part of, has had a negative impact on the state. 

It was not the first time Trump focused on Omar. The president has previously tweeted that she and the other progressive congresswomen of color, known as “the Squad,” should go back to their countries of origin. That remark sparked a House resolution condemning Trump for “racist comments,” a characterization he vehemently disputed

In a wide-ranging interview with Yahoo News on Friday, Omar said she believes Trump has an unhealthy fixation on her. 

“It seems like a serious obsession, and for all the things he should seek help for, that should be one,” Omar said of Trump’s focus on her.

At the same time, Omar, who was in New Hampshire campaigning for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said she is not surprised to have Trump’s attention.

“This has been a president that has used his energy in the most xenophobic, racist ways to mobilize a base that is understandably frightened about the kind of America they might have if we continue to build the kind of connected communities we’re all excited about,” she said.

The level of presidential attention she has received is highly unusual for a 37-year-old freshman lawmaker. But then again, many things are unusual about Omar. 

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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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In addition to  her youth and position as one of the more progressive members of the House, Omar is one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress. Omar, who emigrated to the U.S. as a child after her family fled the civil war in her country and spent time in a refugee camp, is also the first Somali-American and the first naturalized citizen from Africa to serve in Congress. But along with being a pioneering presence on Capitol Hill, Omar has also become a polarizing one, and has been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, which she fiercely denies.

But Omar is willing to be branded a political “radical,” and she made that the theme of her speech in support of Sanders at Southern New Hampshire University on Friday. “The media and many political pundits have labels they place on Sen. Bernie and myself, and sometimes we get the same titles, and one that they like to use is ‘radical,’” Omar said. 

Omar rattled off a series of policy positions that she and Sanders share, including support for Medicare for All, free public education, elimination of student debt, the opinion that climate change is “an existential threat to humanity,” and the view that it is a “moral outrage” for the fossil fuel industry to receive “corporate welfare.” 

“If that belief is radical, then I am so proud to be radical,” Omar said after each point and the crowd applauded. 

“The truth is, the only radicalism we are motivated by is radical love,” Omar continued. “Bernie Sanders has been motivated by radical love his whole life, and he has never wavered. This is the same agenda that motivated Dr. Martin Luther King.” 

Omar suggested Sanders shares Dr. King’s desire to focus on “three evils facing America;” racism, poverty, and war. She framed this as the “only way we can defeat the dark cloud of hate hanging over America.”

Sanders’s staunch progressivism has drawn predictable fire from conservatives, but it’s also sparked fear from Democrats who worry he could alienate moderate and independent voters in a pivotal election year. Omar dismissed the idea that Sanders is too far left to win the election. As evidence, she pointed to the fact Sanders lost the Democratic primary in 2016 to a more centrist candidate, Hillary Clinton, who was then defeated. 

“In 2016, we made the same argument, we ended up choosing a candidate, and we still got Trump,” said Omar. “It is really about finding candidates that resonate with folks, and I don’t know anyone better than Bernie who does that.”

After the introduction from Omar in Manchester, Sanders delivered his stump speech. But first, he offered praise for the congresswoman. 

“You’re looking at one of the extraordinary people in American politics,” Sanders said of Omar.

Much of the anger directed toward Omar has stemmed from her criticism of American support for the Israeli government in light of its treatment of Palestinians. 

Opponents have accused Omar of using anti-Semitic rhetoric in some of her comments, including a 2012 tweet in which she said Israel had “hypnotized” the world and statements she has made since entering Congress. In February, Omar offered an “unequivocal” apology after a tweet she that characterized congressional support for Israel as being “all about the Benjamins,” which many critics saw as a clear allusion to stereotypes of conspiratorial Jewish financial control over public life.

In her apology, Omar said she meant to highlight the “problematic role of lobbyists” including pro-Israel groups. Omar further said “allies and colleagues” were “educating” her on the “painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” 

The debate continued as Omar campaigned for Sanders in New Hampshire. Ahead of her events on Friday, Judy Aron, a Jewish Republican legislator in the state, wrote a note on Facebook criticizing Democrats for “bringing noted anti-Semite and opponent of Israel Rep. Ilhan Omar to New Hampshire.” Aron’s statement was subsequently circulated by the state Republican Party. 

Yet, in supporting Sanders, Omar is pushing for the election of a man who would be the first Jewish president. Asked whether she saw the moment as a milestone given the history of tension between the Jewish and Muslim communities, Omar pointed to data showing the two groups are actually particularly close allies in the United States. 

“There’s a public narrative that gets manipulated and exploited, and then there’s the reality of our lived experiences,” Omar said. “For me, Bernie has always been someone who has reached out and connected on a multitude of things, who’s been serious about building a relationship more so than anyone else outside of, you know, obviously, my Squad sisters.”

Omar said Sanders’s efforts to work with her led to a unique bond between them.

“That is the kind of stuff that transcends, you know, religious differences and differences in upbringing, country of origin, and all of that,” said Omar, adding, “I feel connected to him in ways that I don’t feel connected to a lot of people I serve with.” 

When asked about her past comments that were seen as allusions to anti-Semitic stereotypes, Omar framed it as a case of needing to increase her awareness as someone who grew up outside of American culture. 

“That’s, I think, just exposure,” Omar said.

As an example, Omar noted that Somalis do not use last names in the same way as English speakers do. She described having to learn how to address people in this way and educating herself on which names indicate different ethnicities.

“There are many times where people will say that’s an Irish last name, that’s a Jewish last name,” Omar explained. “And that’s not something I’m familiar with. I didn’t grow up in a culture where last names are a thing.”

Omar’s appearances for Sanders in New Hampshire were part of a push to drum up youth support in the key early primary state. New Hampshire also is home to some Somali refugees, and a Sanders campaign source said Omar met with members of the community during her visit.

In addition to her speech in Manchester, Omar knocked on doors of local residents, appeared with the senator at an awards ceremony hosted by the New Hampshire Young Democrats, and made remarks at a campaign rally for him in Nashua. 

A group of five young women who came to the rally from a nearby high school said they were still undecided about whom to support, but they added that Omar’s endorsement made them more drawn to Sanders. One of the girls, Ruthie Zolla, said she appreciated Omar for being “unafraid” to tackle serious issues and “corruption.” 

“I like that she’s fearless in everything she believes in,” said Zolla. 

Three of the young women, who identified themselves as Jewish, said the accusations of anti-Semitism against Omar are unfair. One of them, Ella Weintraub, attributed the allegations to “fear of change and Islamophobia.”

“She just has to put up with so much more being a Muslim woman in this position of power,” Weintraub said of Omar. 

The young women all said it was meaningful to them to see Omar and her fellow Squad members, who are all women of color, line up behind Sanders. 

“When I heard that ilhan Omar and [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.] supported Bernie, that was really a big turn-on for me,” said Regan O’Brien, one of the students.

Indeed, the endorsement from the Squad has been a turning point for Sanders, who faced an impression that he could not appeal to women and minorities during his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2016. Since mid-October when Sanders earned the endorsement of Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., he has surged to a second place average in national polls behind former Vice President Joe Biden. 

While Sanders is running behind Biden in national polls, his numbers in key early states look far better. Sanders’s recent surge has brought him to first place in New Hampshire, and he’s in second place in Iowa, where Biden is polling third, behind Sanders and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. His strength in early states has clearly made Sanders one of the three frontrunners in the race, along with Biden and Buttigieg. 

Sanders has also made gains as another progressive candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has seen her numbers dip. Warren has the endorsement of the fourth Squad member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who appeared on the senator’s behalf at the Nashua event where Omar campaigned for Sanders. 

The Squad members who have backed Sanders have faced questions about why they didn’t choose to support another woman or person of color. Omar told Yahoo News her decision was based on Sanders’s platform. 

“For me, it’s really never been a particular leader,’ Omar said. “It’s always about the agenda.”

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