President Trump’s two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday included any number of asides that, in normal times, might have prompted hours of cable-news commentary. Buried in those remarks was an aside that didn’t receive much attention — but with the renewed debate over comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that have been perceived as anti-Semitic, the aside is noteworthy.
Trump was explaining why he now says he supports an expansion of immigration.
“Companies are roaring back into our country, and now we want people to come in,” he said. “We need workers to come in, but they’ve got to come in legally, and they’ve got to come in through merit, merit, merit.”
The enthusiastic crowd broke out into cheers of “U-S-A!”
“They’ve got to come in through merit,” Trump said. “They have to be people that can help us. They have to be people that can love our country, not hate our country.
“We have people in Congress — right now, we have people in Congress that hate our country,” he continued. “And you know that. And we can name every one of them if they want. They hate our country. It’s sad. It’s very sad. When I see some of the things being made, the statements being made, it’s very, very sad.
“Very, very — and find out, how did they do in their country? Just ask them, how did they do? Did they do well?” Trump said. “Were they succeeding? Just ask that question. Somebody would say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible that he brings that up.’ But that’s okay, I don’t mind. I’ll bring it up.
Who is this member of Congress who came from another country and who Trump believes “hates America”? Well, there are 14 members of Congress who are immigrants — and only one whom Trump lambasted during a Cabinet meeting last month.
“Congressman Omar is terrible, what she said,” Trump said at the time, referring to tweets from Omar that were criticized as anti-Semitic. “And I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”
“What she said is so deep-seated in her heart that her lame apology — and that’s what it was; it was lame, and she didn’t mean a word of it — was just not appropriate,” Trump continued. “I think she should resign from Congress, frankly.”
Trump reinforced his opposition to Omar in a tweet on Monday night.
That, it seems, followed his watching a segment on Fox News in which Sean Hannity called Omar his “villain of the day.” Earlier on Monday, an adviser to Trump’s campaign was on Fox Business Network, where the language he used was harsher.
“The problem is that her beliefs are deeply rooted in hatred and anti-Semitism,” Jeff Ballabon said. “She is a hater. I’m going to say it, she is filth. She has no place in the Congress.”
“She is a filthy, disgusting hater,” he later added. “So what if she’s in Congress?”
The most recent round of criticism of Omar stemmed from a tweet she offered in response to Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.). Lowey’s initial comment criticized a poster seen in the West Virginia State Capitol that linked Omar to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Such a link, Lowey wrote, was as painful and worthy of condemnation as Omar’s implication that Jewish Americans had dual loyalty with Israel.
“Our democracy is built on debate, Congresswoman!” Omar replied. “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that!”
The implication that others had mandated allegiance or pledges of support to Israel reinforced the criticism that Lowey was offering. Omar now faces a resolution on the House floor introduced by Democrats that condemns her comments, albeit indirectly. (It’s a move that’s clearly meant to stamp out the issue as much as to hold Omar to task.)
It’s impossible, though, to isolate Omar’s religion and identity from the criticism she faces, particularly from Trump.
Omar immigrated to the United States as a refugee from the civil war in Somalia that began in 1991. She left that country when she was 10, arriving in Virginia in 1995. How did she do in “her country,” to answer Trump’s question? Well, she was a child.
It’s worth remembering, too, that in Trump’s case, he once reportedly derided African nations as “s---hole” countries. At another point, he said that once Nigerian immigrants “had seen the United States, they would never ‘go back to their huts’ in Africa,” according to the New York Times.
Omar has spoken in the past of facing bullying because of her identity and the hijab that she wears. A 2017 survey of Muslims conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of those who wore clothing that identified them as Muslim had faced discriminatory treatment.
More to the point, though, many Republicans see people who immigrate to the United States as not being “truly American.” A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic found that 63 percent of Republicans believe that being “truly American” means having been born here. (Forty-three percent of Democrats agreed.) A quarter of Republicans think that being “truly American” necessitates being of Western European heritage. (In related news, Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, again retweeted a white nationalist on Monday. Trump has never openly criticized King.]
In response to another question in the PRRI poll, 40 percent of Republicans said they mostly preferred a Christian majority, while 12 percent said they mostly preferred religious diversity.
The sincerity of Trump’s condemnations of Omar is a question of its own. At an event hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015, he predicted that Jewish donors in the room were not going to “support me because I don’t want your money.”
“That’s why you don’t want to give me money, okay?” Trump said. “But that’s okay. You want to control your own politician.”
If Trump had his way, Omar wouldn’t be in the country. “Merit” aside, his ban on travel from largely Muslim-majority countries included Somalia. What’s more, his administration has slashed the number of refugees allowed to enter the country each year, with one result being a 91 percent drop in the number of Muslim refugees admitted from 2016 to 2018. This despite the ongoing conflict in Syria, among other global issues.
Omar offered her own thoughts on Trump and her identity in a tweet on Sunday.
“My Americanness is questioned by the President and the @GOP on a daily basis, yet my colleagues remain silent,” Omar wrote. “I know what it means to be American and no one will ever tell me otherwise.”