Mon, 19 Aug 2019

Mark LaMet and Lynn Davis contributed to this report.

U.S. President Donald Trump has found his latest target for acerbic ridicule - a hijab-wearing Muslim newcomer to Congress named Ilhan Omar. She is a Somali refugee but naturalized U.S. citizen whom Trump views as something less than a patriotic red, white and blue American.

Trump railed against the lawmaker Wednesday night at his 2020 re-election campaign rally in North Carolina. He stoked the packed crowd at a college basketball arena with his claims that she is proud of al-Qaida terrorists, blames the U.S. for the political crisis in Venezuela and launches "vicious anti-Semitic screeds."

"Send her back! Send her back!" the frenzied crowd of Trump supporters chanted as he paused to listen for 13 seconds but without responding. It was reminiscent of Trump's 2016 campaign, when supporters regularly shouted, "Lock her up!" in a call to jail his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state.

Back in Washington on Thursday, the president disavowed the chant against Omar, saying, "I was not happy with it. I disagree with it."

Still, to Trump, Omar has in short order become a suitable proxy for opposition Democrats trying to oust him next year after a single term in the White House. He singled her out last weekend, along with three other Democratic lawmakers who also are women of color, but unlike Omar, all U.S. citizens by birth. The president said they ought to "go back" to their home countries to "fix" things there before criticizing the U.S.

House condemnation

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted to condemn Trump's remarks as "racist," but Trump dismissed any contention he is a racist. Instead, he praised the almost unanimous support he won from Republican lawmakers who opposed the resolution, only four of whom voted with Democrats against him.

"These left-wing ideologues see our nation as a force for evil," Trump said at the rally, describing them as "hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down."

"They don't love our country," he said. "I think, in some cases, they hate our country. You know what? If they don't love it, tell them to leave it."

"Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country," Trump said. "A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American Dream - frankly, the destruction of our country."

Omar swiftly rebuffed Trump, saying, "We have said this president is racist. We have condemned his racist remarks. I believe he is fascist."

Now in her late 30s, Omar told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that she, like many refugees, does not have a birth certificate. She is the mother of two daughters and a son, ranging in age from 7 to 15. Since January she has been a congresswoman from Minneapolis, a large city in the U.S. heartland state of Minnesota. Once divorced, she is married to Somali-born Ahmed Abdisalan Hirsi, the father of her three children and recently an aide to a Minneapolis City Council member.

She has been a naturalized U.S. citizen for about two decades, after fleeing the civil war in Somalia with her family in 1991 when she was a child. She lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years before moving to the U.S. in the mid-1990s. She held several politics-related jobs in Minneapolis in recent years, before winning a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016, becoming the first Somali-American Muslim legislator in U.S. history.

Fierce critic

Last year, she won her congressional seat, overwhelming a Republican candidate to fill the seat of a Democratic congressman - Keith Ellison, also a Muslim American - who left it to win election as the state's attorney general.

Now Omar has become one of Trump's fiercest critics, regularly attacking his immigrant detention policies at the southern U.S. border with Mexico as immoral and assailing the country's long-standing support and alliance with Israel, which she says comes at the expense of Palestinians living alongside the Israelis.

More broadly, she has attacked her adopted country, saying it has "failed to live up to its founding ideals," a place that had disappointed her and so many immigrants, refugees and minorities like her.

Aside from drawing Trump's attention and his ire, the outspoken Omar has in six-plus months in Congress often rankled her Democratic colleagues, a number of them Jewish and more broadly, regardless of their religion, longtime supporters of Israel.

Earlier this year, the freshman lawmaker made a statement that played off tropes questioning the influence of Jewish money in American politics. Later, she said, "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country," specifically Israel.

In both instances, the uproar and condemnation from her Democratic colleagues, and many Republican lawmakers as well, was quick and unrelenting. She subsequently apologized to Jewish groups for some of her comments.

Both times, within days, the House of Representatives approved resolutions to indirectly rebuke Omar that condemned anti-Semitism. Neither statement named her, even though some lawmakers wanted to.

'Go back' to their countries

Omar, along with three other progressive congresswomen, argued with congressional Democratic leaders over the treatment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border. Omar, along with the three others Trump denigrated - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayana Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan - wanted more compassionate control over government actions, and they voted against most Democrats.

Asked about their split with party leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed dismissive, saying the group, collectively known as "the squad," amounted to only four lawmakers who had rallied no one else to their views demanding more controls on the treatment of migrants.

But after Trump vilified the four with his "go back" to their countries demand, Pelosi led the fight to condemn Trump's language as racist.

Omar's comity with her Democratic colleagues, however, could be short-lived.

She is proposing a resolution defending the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

"We are introducing a resolution ... to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our First Amendment rights [in the U.S. Constitution] in regard to boycotting," Omar said.

But a competing resolution condemning the BDS movement has wide support in the House and is much more likely to win approval, if any resolution passes.

Even so, Omar remains undaunted, saying, "I am very much driven by the moral clarity that I was sent to govern with, and I'm quite confident that it will withstand pressure."

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