BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders created some distance Monday night from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), emphasizing that he doesn’t know Omar well and suggesting that she should change the way she addresses the Jewish community.
At the same time, Sanders repeated his defense of Omar against accusations by many that she has made remarks that are anti-Semitic.
Sanders’s comments, which the independent senator from Vermont made in a televised town hall here hosted by Fox News Channel, were part of an unusual appearance on the network by a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination — and one that featured tense moments highlighting the challenges Sanders faces as he seeks to sway President Trump’s backers.
“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Sanders told moderator Bret Baier, after Baier called Sanders a “staunch supporter” of Omar. “I’ve talked to Ilhan about twice in my life.”
When Baier asked Sanders whether he could understand why some Jewish Americans would have a problem with some of Omar’s remarks, Sanders gave a mixed response, saying he could understand, before quickly adding, “I think that that is not quite right.”
Sanders, who would be the nation’s first Jewish president, continued, “I think that Ilhan has got to do maybe a better job in speaking to the Jewish community.” He said that he does not consider Omar to be anti-Semitic and that he respects her.
Echoing comments he made last week defending Omar, one of the first two Muslim women to win seats in Congress, Sanders said, “I support a Muslim member of Congress not to be attacked every single day in outrageous, racist remarks.”
Sanders reiterated his concerns about the current Israeli leadership — which Omar has also criticized — saying that “it is not anti-Semitic to be critical of a right-wing government in Israel.”
Trump and other conservative critics of Omar have attacked her in recent days over comments she made about the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, prompting Democrats to leap to her defense.
Over the past few months, many Democrats have sought to strike a careful balance between rebutting Omar’s Republican critics and endorsing her controversial comments about Israel and its allies in the United States.
Sanders’s appearance at the Fox News town hall capped a four-day swing through upper Midwestern states Trump won in 2016. He has been calling Trump a liar — a label he repeated on Monday night — everywhere he has gone, in an attempt to persuade those who sided with Trump in 2016 to turn instead to Sanders’s version of populism.
But the scope of his challenge was clear here Monday night before the town hall even started. Outside the event, which was held against the backdrop of a former steel plant, a few dozen Trump supporters gathered in protest.
Inside, the atmosphere quickly grew tense.
Sanders faced questions from the audience, Baier and his co-moderator, Martha MacCallum, starting with his taxes. On Monday, Sanders released 10 years of tax returns, showing that he and his wife earned about $566,000 last year and $1.15 million in 2017, putting them in the nation’s highest income brackets.
“You raised the issue, I am a millionaire,” Sanders said, making air quotes as he spoke. “Well, actually, this year we had $56o,000 in income.”
Sanders has long campaigned as a champion of working-class Americans, promising that as president, he would curtail income inequality and make the wealthy pay more in taxes. Baier asked him why, if he objected to the tax rates established by the law signed by Trump he didn’t simply decline to take advantage of them.
Sanders laughed off the question. “Come on,” he said before encouraging the moderators to ask Trump how much he pays in taxes. “Hey, President Trump, my wife and I just released 10 years. Please, do the same.” The crowd applauded.
MacCallum suggested to Sanders that if he was willing to pay more in taxes, he could voluntarily send some money back.
“You can volunteer, too,” Sanders replied. “Martha, why don’t you give? You make more money than I do.”
Sanders tackled topics such as health care, foreign policy and climate change during the hour-long event.