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Opinion Matt Gaetz’s surprise defense of Ilhan Omar gets a big thing right

Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

Few members of Congress are as Trumpy as Rep. Matt Gaetz. So it was remarkable to witness the Florida Republican come to the defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a longtime target of Donald Trump, who presided over a chant of “send her back” about the Somali-born lawmaker at a rally in 2019.

House Republicans will vote this week on whether to remove the Minnesota Democrat from the Foreign Affairs Committee, to punish her for various proclaimed reasons. And this week, Gaetz blurted out an uncomfortable truth about the GOP's effort.

Republicans want to punish Omar "because they don’t like what she has to say,” Gaetz said Monday. Though he remains undecided on whether to remove her, he correctly questioned the validity of doing this because “I don’t like your viewpoint.”

In saying that, Gaetz exposed some essential truths about this affair that other Republicans have taken great pains to disguise. Republicans have manufactured a bunch of fig-leaf justifications for removing Omar, but none withstands scrutiny.

First, Republicans have suggested Omar is an antisemite. Trump has declared she “hates Jews,” and GOP leaders keep insisting that’s why she must be removed.

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But the substantive GOP case against Omar’s “antisemitic” comments, spelled out in the resolution for her removal, is very weak. Yes, some of these were seriously problematic, such as her tweet that Israel’s U.S. allies are driven by money. But Omar has apologized for her genuinely offensive remarks, and retracted other ones that faced criticism.

Other comments cited in the resolution, such as her remarks about Sept. 11, are ripped out of context in keeping with trickery that Republicans have employed about her comments for years.

As for the charge of bigotry, ironically enough, there may not be another member of Congress who has personally faced as much bigotry as Omar, a Muslim who arrived in the United States as a refugee decades ago. Some of this has come from Republicans themselves: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (Colo.) have described her as a “bloodthirsty” terrorist sympathizer and a member of the “jihad squad.”

What’s more, that sort of anti-Muslim bigotry might have had serious consequences. Omar has long faced extremely vitriolic death threats. She was the only rank-and-file member who had a 24-hour security detail and was taken to a secure location with congressional leaders on Jan. 6, 2021.

Now her office says this was because the Capitol Police believed threats on her life were credible. Trump attacked Omar throughout the 2020 campaign, sneering that “she’s telling us how to run our country” and depicting her as a foreign invader despite being a citizen for more than two decades.

“Following these attacks, the Capitol Police believed there to be a credible threat to assassinate me,” Omar said in a statement emailed to me. “It was for this reason that I had a 24 hour security detail on January 6th” and "needed to be taken to a secure location with Members of House and Senate leadership on that day.”

Unlike Omar, Greene has held up her refusal to apologize to Omar for some of her anti-Muslim bigotry as a badge of honor.

Greene and Boebert were not meaningfully held accountable by Republican leaders for open anti-Muslim bigotry, and Trump has faced little GOP criticism, even though this talk likely helped make Omar one of the most physically threatened lawmakers.

In fact, virtually all Republicans voted against a 2021 Democratic resolution to strip Greene of committee assignments. This, even though her conduct by any measure has been far worse than Omar’s, veering far beyond expressing “viewpoints" into repeated endorsements of political violence, and arguably incitement of it.

The GOP resolution also cites Democratic criticism of Omar to justify punishing her. But this, too, is absurd: While Democrats have strongly condemned her at times, even her most vocal Democratic and Jewish critics are staunchly defending her against GOP efforts at removal.

Strip away those phony rationales for removing Omar, and what’s left is what Gaetz suggested: It’s because of “what she has to say.”

In that regard, it’s notable that Republicans attack Omar as “anti-American.” As journalist Peter Beinart writes, Omar has mainly argued for the United States to earn its moral authority on human rights issues, and what critics really object to is her unique insistence on describing U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of the rest of the world.

The constant depiction of Omar as a foreign interloper advances a deeper objection: It’s to this Muslim American being repeatedly chosen by hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens to represent them in Congress. Omar has urged Muslim Americans to be maximally active in the political process to counter efforts to stigmatize them — that is, to fully avail themselves of their rights and privileges as citizens.

As Gaetz is suggesting, these are surely among the things Omar “has to say” that many (though hardly all) House Republicans object to. Gaetz may well vote against Omar in the end. But for now, he has gotten this one big thing right.