Earlier in the day, Trump and other GOP leaders had eagerly joined the political pile-on besetting Omar, a freshman Democrat who is one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, after she appeared to draw on an anti-Semitic trope about the currency of Jewish clout in political life.
“I think she should be ashamed of herself,” Trump told reporters Monday evening aboard Air Force One.
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 right-wing perspective on the Middle East. Under a hail of criticism from both sides of the aisle, the congresswoman apologized and said she was learning about the “painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”
For the president, that wasn’t enough.
"I think it was a terrible statement, and I don’t think her apology was adequate,” Trump said. Asked how she should make amends, he offered: “She knows what to say.”
But Trump, as a presidential candidate in December 2015, said much the same about what Jewish donors supposedly expect in return for their money.
Speaking at a presidential forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, he told members of the lobbying group, which describes itself as the “unique bridge between the Jewish community and Republican decision-makers,” that he wasn’t seeking their money because he didn’t want to be beholden to them.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he said bluntly. Drawing a contrast to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who raked in vast sums of money, Trump said, “That’s why you don’t want to give me money, okay? But that’s okay. You want to control your own politician.” He said he understood their perspective because he, too, was once a donor, a point suggesting that he didn’t view quid pro quo as an expectation unique to Jewish groups.
Still, the remarks drew criticism from some observers for perpetuating stereotypes about Jews, not just as political puppet masters but also as ruthless negotiators. “Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room?” Trump asked earlier in the speech, adding, “Perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to, maybe more. It’s okay. I’ve been called on that a couple of times, too.” The aside drew laughs and applause in the room.
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under George W. Bush and an RJC board member, was less enthused about Trump’s pitch.
But the candidate’s comment didn’t land him in hot water with his own party, which instead made him its nominee. The Jewish group’s spokesman, Mark McNulty, told CNN at the time that the comments reflected only Trump’s awareness “of the composition of our board and our audience — one that includes many successful businessmen and women as well as dealmakers like him.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which censured Omar on Monday, defended the GOP front-runner after the 2015 appearance.
“We do not believe he intended his comments regarding negotiations and money to relate specifically to their Jewishness, but we understand that they could be interpreted that way,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the group’s chief executive, who has spoken out against Trump on other occasions, said in a statement later that day. “We encourage him to clarify that this was not his intention, and that he rejects the traditional stereotypes about Jews and money.”
Trump appears never to have publicly clarified his intent. Instead, he went on as president to make statements that seemed to find little fault with anti-Semitic bigotry and, at times, to use language that actually upheld it.
In a since-deleted tweet that was posted before the November midterm election, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), then-House majority leader, accused Soros, who had just been targeted by a homemade explosive, of seeking to “BUY this election!” Also in on the plot, he wrote, were former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, a California billionaire. The two men are Jewish and of Jewish heritage, respectively.
It was McCarthy who called on Democratic leaders last week to sanction Omar and her Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who is also Muslim, for conduct he described as “unacceptable in this country,” especially given “what this country went through in World War II.” Without explaining why, he judged their remarks to be worse than racist statements made by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). Both women have been critical of the Israeli government and have periodically apologized for their use of language that some found prejudicial against Jews.
Earlier this month, McCarthy had promised to take action against the Democratic lawmakers if their party’s leadership did not. That vow is what first elicited Omar’s pronouncement about the financial interests fortifying the hard line in support of Israel.
After Omar’s online repartee Sunday, the denunciations came quickly, and from Democrats, too. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), in a joint statement with five other House Democratic leaders, called her comments “deeply offensive.”
Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who had been among the first in his caucus to criticize Omar, calling her words “deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself,” said Monday that he accepted her apology.
“I take her at her word,” he said.
Then, he had this reflection for reporters hounding him for comment on the latest Democratic infighting: “I do want to, though, to point out to all of you that when Kevin McCarthy said that it was Bloomberg, and it was Soros, and it was Steyer pulling the strings behind the scenes, none of you camped out, right?”
“And their caucus stayed united and had his back, and none of you called them out on that,” he added. “So I just want you all to acknowledge that there’s some hypocrisy going on there, too.”
His words left room for interpretation about whether his charge of hypocrisy lay with the Republican Party or with the media.