Trump’s attacks on Omar revive his familiar refrain against Muslims

Washington: US President Donald Trump has often seen the political benefits of stigmatising Muslims.

During the 2016 campaign, he would not rule out creating a registry of Muslims in the United States. He claimed to have seen "thousands" of Muslims cheering on rooftops in New Jersey after September11, a statement that was widely debunked. And after the deadly attacks in Paris and California, Trump called for a moratorium on Muslims travelling to the United States.

"I think Islam hates us," Trump told Anderson Cooper, the CNN host.

Ilhan Omar, centre, smiles as she stands between fellow Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee, left, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, outside the Capitol.Credit:AP

Now, with 19 months until the 2020 election, Trump is seeking to rally his base by sounding that theme again. And this time, he has a specific target: Democrat Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

In Omar, a Somali refugee whose family received asylum in the United States when she was a teenager, Trump has found a perfect foil: a progressive Democrat whose embrace of the boycott-Israel movement and attacks on supporters of the Jewish state have made her a divisive figure within her own party.

As the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor — she pushed for a rules change to allow it — she is also a powerful, and visible, symbol for Muslims and refugees.

Trump made a sarcastic reference to Representative Ilhan Omar during a speech in Las Vegas, a day after prosecutors said a New York man was arrested for threatening to murder the freshman Minnesota Democrat.Credit:Bloomberg

Trump and his team are trying to make Omar, who is relatively unknown in national politics, a household name, to be seen as the most prominent voice of the Democratic Party, regardless of her actual position. In February, the President pounced when Omar unleashed a firestorm with her comments on Israel, rejecting her subsequent apology and calling for her to resign.

"Congressman Omar is terrible, what she said," Trump told reporters.

Omar, said Sam Nunberg, a 2016 campaign aide to Trump, "is the perfect embodiment of the sharp contrast President Trump wants to paint for 2020," one he thinks "gives the President a chance to expand his support closer to 50 per cent."

And the contrast Trump drew in a video he tweeted out on Friday was not subtle.

Against the backdrop of graphic images of the World Trade Centre during the September 11 attacks, the video repeatedly quotes a portion of a speech Omar gave at an event hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, describing how the group was founded after the attacks "because they recognised that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties."

President Donald Trump sits down for an iftar dinner at the White House last year.Credit:AP

The video focused only on the words "some people did something," implying that Omar was playing down what had happened. Juxtaposed was Trump's comment in capital letters: "We will never forget".

Trump's electoral success in 2016 was based partly on culture wars and fears among an older, white voting base that the country it knew was slipping away. Like his hard line on immigration, his plays on fears of Muslims — including consistently conflating Islam with terrorism — proved polarising among the wider electorate, but helped him keep a tight grip on his most enthusiastic voters. In the South Carolina Republican primary in February 2016, for instance, exit polls showed that 75 per cent of voters favoured his proposed Muslim ban.

An attendee holds a sign during the Republican Jewish Coalitions National Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.Credit:Bloomberg

Trump has privately said his language about Muslims has been received well among his base. His advisers and friends acknowledge that, in effect, he is trying to re-create some of the same conditions of the 2016 campaign.

Now, as he looks toward 2020, he is betting the issue can deliver for him again. It is a strategy that will provoke criticism that he is summoning dark forces in American society, a point that Omar made in a statement on Sunday evening.

"Since the President's tweet Friday evening, I have experienced an increase in direct threats on my life — many directly referencing or replying to the President's video," Omar said. "This is endangering lives. It has to stop."

Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, denied that Trump meant any harm by the video. "Certainly the President is wishing no ill will and certainly not violence toward anyone," she said.

But Democrats across the philosophical spectrum — from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to centrists like Josh Gottheimer,  one of Omar's most vocal critics — expressed alarm at the way Omar was singled out.

"Since Ilhan came to national attention and throughout her tenure in Congress she has been a target of these right-wing extremists; that's why we're standing up for her," said Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "This isn't the first time that President Trump has targeted her and people like her."

Gottheimer, though less partisan, denounced the threats against Omar, adding, "The response to different points of view in our country must never be threats of physical harm or violence."

Democract Jerrold Nadler, who has also been critical of Omar, singled out Trump's own reaction to the events of September 11. "He has no moral authority to be talking about 9/11 at all," he said, noting that Trump's real estate company applied for and received grants after the attacks that were intended for small businesses affected by the devastation.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said it was "beneath the dignity of the Oval Office" for Trump to have shared a video of Omar spliced with footage of the burning twin towers.

Taking questions during an appearance at the London School of Economics, Pelosi said she was hesitant to criticise Trump while on foreign soil. But she said called his action "wrong" when questioned about how Trump has responded to the freshman lawmaker.

"I don't think any president of the United States should use the tragedy of 9/11 as a political tool," Pelosi said, adding that she is "proud" of her Democratic colleagues. She had earlier calle don Trump to take the Twitter post down.

Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic strategist, predicted that Trump's use of such graphic images from one of the nation's darkest days would backfire for him.

"Voters are turned off by the use of 9/11 for political purposes, and my guess is that moderate voters are going to see Trump's use of that as both ugly and extreme," Garin said. "I think his over-the-top exploitation of 9/11 is going to turn more voters off than he wins over by attacking the Democrats on this."

On a quick trip to Omar's home state of Minnesota to hold an economic round table at a trucking company on Monday, the president made no mention of her. Outside, however, the debate over Omar was raucous.

The President's supporters, in trademark red hats on one side of the road, chanted "Trump 2020" and "Omar divides" with the occasional "CAIR is Hamas" sign, in reference to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Across the street, chanting "This is what Democracy looks like" and singing This Little Light of Mine, protesters waved "I stand with Ilhan" signs and banners.

The New York Times, with Washington Post

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