For Democrats, Ilhan Omar Is a Complicated Figure to Defend

WASHINGTON — When President Trump tweeted an edited video portraying Representative Ilhan Omar as playing down the 9/11 attacks, it took less than three hours for Senator Bernie Sanders to rush to her defense and declare her “a leader with strength and courage.” But when a Fox News anchor described Mr. Sanders on Monday night as “a staunch supporter” of Ms. Omar, the senator balked.

“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Mr. Sanders insisted. “I’ve talked to Ilhan about twice in my life.”

His reaction reflects the broader Democratic Party’s conflicted embrace of Ms. Omar. That struggle has especially been apparent in the House, where Jewish Democrats have tangled with Ms. Omar and Democratic leaders have grappled with how to handle the freshman Democrat from Minnesota, who is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

When Ms. Omar, 36, pushed for a House rules change to permit her to wear her hijab on the House floor, she was heralded as a powerful symbol of the Democratic Party’s inclusiveness. But her support of the boycott Israel movement and her attacks on supporters of Israel have made her a complicated figure to defend. Democratic leaders, as well as many in the rank and file, are choosing their words with caution.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced the president for invoking the “painful images of 9/11 for a political attack” without mentioning Ms. Omar, and waited until Sunday — two days after Mr. Trump’s tweet — to issue a statement saying she had asked the Capitol Police to assess the congresswoman’s safety. Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the House Democratic leader, waited three days before calling on the president to apologize to Ms. Omar.

“They put us in photos when they want to show our party is diverse,” Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the only other Muslim woman of Congress, wrote on Twitter, responding to someone who complained about Ms. Omar’s “lack of support” from the Democratic leadership. “However, when we ask to be at the table, or speak up about issues that impact who we are, what we fight for & why we ran in the first place, we are ignored. To truly honor our diversity is to never silence us.”

In many respects, Ms. Omar, a Somali refugee whose family received asylum in the United States when she was a teenager, represents a new direction for the Democratic Party. Her allies on the left argue that Mr. Trump’s war with Ms. Omar is a defining issue for the party.

“This is a proxy for who counts as an American and who doesn’t, and that is a fight that the Democratic Party needs to be leading on,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a liberal advocacy group that helped elect Ms. Omar. “The Democratic Party can’t run away from the fight regarding Ilhan Omar, because she represents the country. In the story between Make America Great Again or the new America we are becoming, she is a pivotal character.”

Mr. Trump appears to agree. Using Ms. Omar as his foil, he and his team are deploying the same anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric for the 2020 re-election campaign that they used to ride to the White House in 2016. The congresswoman has said she has “experienced an increase in direct threats on my life” since the president’s tweet on Friday.

“This is endangering lives,” she said in a statement Sunday night. “It has to stop.”

But centrist Democrats have a more complex relationship with Ms. Omar. Her leftist brand of politics does not go over well in the swing districts that delivered Democrats the House majority. Her views on Israel make many Jews — an important component of the Democratic base — deeply uneasy. And her insinuations that American policy toward the Jewish state is driven by money — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote on Twitter — have drawn charges of anti-Semitism, prompting her to apologize.

So while Ms. Omar’s more moderate colleagues have denounced the threats against her, they have been tepid in their remarks. Representative Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat from New Jersey and strong supporter of Israel, spoke carefully when asked about Ms. Omar.

“The response to different points of view in our country must never be threats of physical harm or violence,” he said.

Even Mr. Sanders — who hails from the same wing of the party as Ms. Omar — is taking care to put some distance between the two of them. When Mr. Sanders spoke Monday night, at a televised town hall meeting hosted by the Fox News Channel, Mr. Sanders, who if elected would be the nation’s first Jewish president, said, “I think that Ilhan has got to do maybe a better job in speaking to the Jewish community.”

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