Ilhan Omar

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday she is trying to get in touch with Rep. Ilhan Omar to discuss her latest attention-getting tweet about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that has drawn new backlash to the freshman Minnesota Democrat.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to speak with her,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday when asked about Omar’s tweet, which has attracted strong criticism. “We tried to reach her, she was in transit.”

Pelosi said she wants to speak to Omar about her tweet questioning then-President George W. Bush’s New York City address to rescue workers at Ground Zero, days after the worst terror attack in American history, in which he declared “The people who knocked down there towers will hear all of us soon.”

Omar tweeted “Was Bush downplaying the terrorist attack? What if he was a Muslim,” under the Bush quote delivered at Ground Zero.

The tweet quickly drew criticism and came just a day after Omar was the subject of a New York Post cover depicting the flaming twin towers and the lawmaker’s comments before a Muslim advocacy group that “some people did something,” on Sept. 11, 2001. The commentwas widely seen as downplaying the significant and horror of a tragedy that claimed nearly 3,000 lives. Omar claimed in the aftermoth of 9/11 Muslim civil liberties had suffered.

Pelosi has yet to comment on Omar’s recent comments and tweets, but plans to respond at some point, she said.

“As is my custom with my colleagues, I call them in before I call them out,” Pelosi said. “I’ll have some comment after I do speak to her.”

A back-and-forth over Twitter about whether Rep. Ilhan Omar had downplayed the significance and horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks sparked debate on Capitol Hill this week.

On Friday, she suggested that President George W. Bush would have faced more scrutiny for his comments in the aftermath of the attacks if he were Muslim.

“Was Bush downplaying the terrorist attack?” Omar asked in a tweet sharing an article to the Washington Post. “What if he was a Muslim?”

The Post story included a fact check on Omar’s remarks and said they were reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s “bullhorn speech.”

“The people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” Omar said, quoting Bush’s speech.

A video surfaced over the weekend showing Omar referring to the 9/11 hijackers as “some people who did something.”

That speech was met with instant criticism from Republicans and conservative media.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, condemned Omar for trivializing the deadliest terror attack in American history.

“You described an act of terrorism on American soil that killed thousands of innocent lives as ‘some people did something,’” Crenshaw said of Omar in a tweet. “It’s still unbelievable, as is your response here.”

The right-leaning New York Post published a dramatic front page Thursday with the screaming headline “ Here’s your something.”

Former FBI Investigator and now CNN Legal Analyst James Gagliano called Omar’s tweet a “false equivalence”

“President Bush made this statement days after World Trade Center was reduced to rubble, as he stood atop the smoking pile. I was there,” Gagliano said. “We, in FBI, were working to determine involvement in conspiracy, following evidence.”

Omar and other Democratic freshman lawmakers have said that criticizing her for speaking about her experiences as a Muslim American puts her in danger.

Authorities charged a New York man last week with threatening to assassinate Omar.

“I’m not going to quote the NY Post’s horrifying, hateful cover,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. “She‘s done more for 9/11 families than the GOP who won’t even support healthcare for 1st responders- yet are happy to weaponize her faith.”

Considering her qualified apologies following repeated statements in evidence of such a viewpoint, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is likely anti-Semitic.

But I do not believe she is being judged fairly for her recent remarks on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As the video below shows, Omar told a gathering of the Council on American-Islamic Relations that CAIR was founded after the terrorist attacks “because [CAIR] recognized some people did something and all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

Many observers are now criticizing Omar. They say her words diminish the 2,977 victims who died on 9/11, and the significance of that day in American history. But I suspect Omar’s intent was not malicious or derisory. Rather, I believe Omar was attempting to draw divergence between her Islamic faith and the al Qaeda fanatics who carried out the 9/11 attacks. When she says that “some people” did it, she meant “some people who are not us” or “not like us,” referring to herself and peaceful, mainstream adherents of Islam in the U.S.

Yes, Omar’s words were poorly chosen. And as my colleague Tiana Lowe aptly observes, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is utterly wrong to support Omar by challenging the patriotism of Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas. Crenshaw is a combat veteran of the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq. He has done a lot more to serve this nation than AOC, Omar, and just about every other member of Congress for that matter.

But I do not believe Omar’s words were designed to deride our fallen fellow citizens. The freshman congresswoman was drawing a positive application of “otherness” with regards to the ideological separation between American Muslims and al Qaeda. While it is true that al Qaeda are Islamic fanatics, it is also understandable why Omar would be frustrated at the damage that the 9/11 attacks did to American perceptions of her faith.

Many Muslims also died on 9/11, and that the vast majority of American Muslims are decent patriots. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that was her key point: al Qaeda are not us, and their evil should not be used to collectively punish Muslims. You don’t have to approve of CAIR or Omar to appreciate the legitimacy of this idea.

[Related: New York Post cover hits back at Ilhan Omar for 9/11 remarks: ‘Here’s your something’]

The last time a Democrat won an open Senate seat in Arizona, he was helped along by a GOP candidate who never recovered from a campaign misstep in which he “shot a burro in the ass,” as the winning candidate’s campaign manager memorably put it recently. That candidate, Dennis DeConcini, was last elected in 1988. He retired after that term.

So how will liberal activists reward Kyrsten Sinema for becoming the first Democratic senator from Arizona since DeConcini? If Fight for the Future, a net neutrality pressure group, has its way, thanks will come in the form of a giant billboard “at one of the busiest intersections in Phoenix” calling Sinema “corrupt” and in the pocket of “corporate donors.” Her infraction is to be the only Democrat not to sign on to a net neutrality bill and instead to work with Republicans to craft a bipartisan bill that stands a chance of passing.

In this political climate, bipartisan cooperation is an unforgivable sin, and Sinema is repeatedly guilty of it.

Arizona has a new maverick.

Sinema, 42, has a compelling personal story that’s unique in one way: It informs her centrism, rather than serving as a platform for radicalism. By the time Sinema was 5, her middle-class Tuscon family was fracturing, her father mired in debt. He and her mother divorced, and Sinema was put into poverty. For a time, her Florida home was an old, remodeled gas station. “She’s a survivor,” former Democratic caucus Vice Chairman Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., said in 2015. “I think she’s smart about how she does it. I think a lot of people underestimate her.” The comment rings prophetic; in 2018, Crowley lost his own reelection bid against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the phenom freshman. In the same year, Sinema turned one of Arizona’s Senate seats blue for the first time in three decades.

[ Related: Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally have one thing they agree on: They hate each other]

During that winning campaign, she emphasized her credibility as a independent Democrat rather than a party hack. Asked by an Arizona radio station if she considered herself a “proud Democrat,” she responded: “Gosh, it’s hard to say proud. I don’t know that — I’m not sure that people are even proud of parties anymore, because I feel like the parties are not doing a good job. So I would say that I’m a proud Arizonan. That’s something I’m very proud of. And I’m proud of the work that I have done in Washington, D.C., and the work I’ve done in the state Senate and the statehouse before going to Congress. But I’m not particularly proud of the parties.”

Sinema was, according to the Arizona Republic, one of two members of the state’s Democratic House delegation who “sided with President Donald Trump’s agenda more in the past three months than most Republicans in the state’s House delegation.” But those three months weren’t much of an outlier for Sinema. In 2015, she opposed President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. She didn’t buy into the aggressive selling point that the only alternative to it was war. “I think it’s hyperbole and I think it’s not necessarily true,” Sinema told the Huffington Post. “It’s possible that if the deal didn’t go through, war could be one option and it could become more likely. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have options in front of us. I’m frustrated by these false dichotomies.”

Sinema also is a dissenter from left-wing orthodoxy on big banks. When, as senator-elect, she was given a spot on the Senate Banking Committee, the Washington Examiner wrote, “Sinema was long a friend of big banks in the House, and the committee appointment represents the return on a well-made investment. … During her Senate race against Republican Rep. Martha McSally, Sinema was in the top 20 of recipients of campaign contributions from both the banking and the finance sectors.Washington Examiner Commentary Editor Timothy P. Carney explained: “Sinema fought for the realtors and against Arizona’s taxpayers (disdain for whom she has repeatedly shown). Those efforts may explain why the realtors have spent $34,000 on ads supporting her Senate bid — the most they’ve spent on any Senate race this fall. In the House, one of Sinema’s core crusades was saving and expanding the Export-Import Bank. … Ex-Im is a corporate welfare agency that extends taxpayer-backed financing to foreign buyers of U.S. goods.”

[ Also read: Sinema forging paid leave plan deal with GOP]

And then there’s the issue that’s always a touchstone for Arizonans, immigration. In the House, Sinema had voted for legislation that would impose stiffer penalties on undocumented immigrants who reenter after being deported, as well as forcing immigrants who seek a healthcare tax credit to verify their status with the government first. Sinema took a harder line on asylum-seekers and, in October, backed Trump’s call to station more military personnel on the border with Mexico.

One advantage, according to Democratic campaign strategist Brad Todd, is that “she has been everything from a socialist anti-war protester to a vote against Nancy Pelosi, depending on what advanced her most in the moment.” Todd told the Washington Examiner that this worked especially well in 2018 because “Arizona’s Democratic talent bench was short and its base desperate for victory.”

Her Senate victory over McSally, who was later appointed to fill the seat of the original “maverick,” the late Republican Sen. John McCain, seemed only to reinforce her independent streak. In addition to her net neutrality sacrilege, Sinema is joining Republican colleagues to address paid family leave. According to Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is leading the effort, Sinema was the first to cross the aisle on it, making it “the first bill that is bipartisan” on the issue. The plan, Cassidy told the Washington Examiner in early April, is likely to involve Social Security, perhaps allowing people to take benefits earlier to pay for family leave in return for delaying retirement.

Sinema signed on to an effort led by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to get the Commerce Department to release a classified report on auto tariffs and national security. She took heat from pro-abortion groups for supporting one of Trump’s judges, Arizona District Court nominee Michael Liburdi, in February. She was also one of only three Democrats to back the confirmation of Attorney General William Barr. She defended her vote in a statement: “As Arizona’s senior Senator, I will evaluate every presidential nominee based on whether he or she is professionally qualified, believes in the mission of his or her agency, and can be trusted to faithfully execute and uphold the law as it exists. After meeting with Mr. Barr and thoughtfully considering his nomination, I believe Mr. Barr meets this criteria.”

Perhaps most significant, however, was Sinema’s reaction to the controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Omar is one of the members of the “Squad,” most notably the freshman trio of Omar, Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ocasio-Cortez, who has turned her social media fame and grassroots devotion into an ability to set congressional Democrats’ priorities. An example is her climate boondoggle, the Green New Deal. It’s opposed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but that didn’t stop Democratic presidential hopefuls from signing on to it. This tension really came to a head over Israel, however.

Omar has repeatedly accused American Jews of dual loyalty. On one occasion, she claimed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, was paying off politicians to put Israel’s welfare before America’s. Tlaib had made similar dual-loyalty insinuations. Ocasio-Cortez stood by her colleagues, and when Pelosi tried to pass a resolution criticizing Omar’s anti-Semitism, Ocasio-Cortez and the grassroots led a revolt and won. The resolution was broadened far beyond anti-Semitism, and the final version was aimed at white nationalists more than anyone else. In March, the pro-Israel lobbying group held its annual conference, and Omar pushed Democrats to avoid it.

What was Sinema’s reaction to all this? The day of Omar’s tweet about the group, Sinema was at its regional dinner. The next morning, she tweeted: “Our support for a secure Israel as a beacon of democracy must remain unwavering. Proud to speak at @AIPAC‘s Phoenix dinner last night about strengthening and deepening this alliance.” She also spoke at the group’s national conference on March 25.

With Democrats increasingly souring on the alliance with Israel, Sinema is determined to stand athwart history shouting “Stop.”

Is her maverick status sustainable, or will pressure to conform amid increasing polarization be too strong? “My guess is if she’s going to have a primary challenge,” Brad Bannon, president of the D.C.-based Bannon Communications Research, told the Washington Examiner, “it’ll be more likely she gets a primary challenge from a Latino, because of the demography of the state, more than an ideological challenge.” Bannon says, “Politics is very much a function of the state you represent.” And Sinema “represents a state that is about as closely divided, in partisan terms, as you can get.”

Perhaps being a maverick in the McCain mold is the way to survive in Arizona statewide politics. For Sinema, that required transcending her reputation for radical anti-war politicking in the early 2000s. She was up to the task. “Few blue state politicians have the range to pull off that transformation, or the electoral room to pull it off,” says Todd. More Democrats, Todd told the Washington Examiner, should be taking notes: “I have been surprised [Alabama Sen.] Doug Jones has not tried it. Or that [former Missouri Sen.] Claire McCaskill didn’t try it.”

Despite the heat Sinema is taking from her left flank, Bannon thinks Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other party floor leaders will happily shrug off left-wing complaints: “My guess is Chuck Schumer doesn’t care. He’s trying to assemble a Democratic Senate majority, and in order to do that, he’s going to accommodate Kyrsten Sinema and other Democrats like her who may be running for either open seats or GOP seats in 2020.” Party leaders understand reality, Bannon told the Washington Examiner, and “the reality is, you can have a caucus that is monolithically liberal or monolithically conservative, but you can’t have a monolithic caucus if you’re in the majority.”

For that reason, Bannon says, “they’re willing to accommodate mavericks like Kyrsten Sinema.”

Seth Mandel is executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.


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