Feb 7, 2023

The Ilhan Omar controversy.

Rep. Ilhan Omar speaking to Bernie Sanders supporters in 2020. Image: Gage Skidmore
Rep. Ilhan Omar speaking to Bernie Sanders supporters in 2020. Image: Gage Skidmore 

She has been removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 15 minutes.

We're running a little longer than usual today, but I promise it's worth it. We've got the controversy around Ilhan Omar, a question about Project Veritas and Pfizer, and an important "Under the radar" story. 

Quick hits.

  1. President Joe Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address tonight, beginning at 9pm EST. (The address)
  2. Authorities in Ohio intentionally released toxic chemicals into the air from five tanker cars that were part of a derailed train, hoping to prevent an explosion. (The decision)
  3. China claimed ownership of a second balloon floating through Latin America, maintaining that it was also a meteorological tool. (The response)
  4. The death toll from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck eastern Turkey and Syria has risen past 5,000, authorities say. (The toll)
  5. Google released its first ChatGPT competitor called Bard, which it says it will roll out to a wider audience in the coming weeks. (The competition)

Today's topic.

Ilhan Omar. Rep. Omar (D-MN) was voted off of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday. Last week, we covered the removal of Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA) from the House Intelligence Committee, which new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was able to do on his own. Removing Omar, however, required a full vote in Congress.

The House voted to remove her by a 218-211 vote, along party lines, with Republicans citing remarks she made in 2019 which they described as antisemitic. The move was widely viewed as retaliation for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's push to remove Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene(R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) from their committee seats in 2021. At that time, 11 Republicans voted to remove Greene and two voted to remove Gosar. In this case, zero Democrats present for the vote opted to remove Omar, while one Republican — Ohio Rep. David Joyce of Ohio — voted present.

In 2019, Omar faced criticism after she suggested Republican support of Israel was fueled by donations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

"I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country," Omar said.

The comments sparked an immediate backlash.

"Accusing Jews of having allegiance to a foreign government has long been a vile anti-Semitic slur that has been used to harass, marginalize, and persecute the Jewish people for centuries," Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said at the time.

That same year, on Twitter, Omar responded to a tweet about House GOP Leader McCarthy threatening to punish her for being critical of Israel by saying, "It's all about the Benjamins, baby," a line about $100 bills from a famous rap song. Once again, Omar was criticized for antisemitism, as many interpreted her comments to play on tropes about Jews and money.

Amid backlash, Omar deleted the tweet and apologized, and has recently claimed she was unaware such tropes about Jews and money existed.

Omar, who arrived from the United States as a 13-year-old refugee from Somalia, is the only African-born member of Congress and one of just a few Muslim women in Congress. She is also a member of "The Squad," a nickname originally given to four female progressive members of Congress: Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

In response to the move, Omar pledged to remain active in Congress.

"My leadership and voice will not be diminished if I am not on this committee... my voice will get louder and stronger," she told reporters.

Today, we're going to look at some reactions from the left and right to this move, then my take.

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What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right support the move, arguing that Omar's comments should be disqualifying and McCarthy had the right to retaliate.
  • Some highlight a long list of antisemitic remarks Omar has made in the past.
  • Others concede this is political retribution, but justified nonetheless.

The Jerusalem Post editorial board said the move was overdue.

"Omar has repeatedly shown over the last few years that nothing is beneath her in her attempts to vilify the Jewish people and the State of Israel," the board said. "In 2019, she suggested that Israel’s allies in the US were motivated by money that they receive from AIPAC rather than principle, tweeting: 'It’s all about the Benjamins baby,' a reference to $100 bills. A short time later, the Minnesota congresswoman accused Jews of having dual loyalty in the United States. '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.' She added, 'I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the (National Rifle Association), or fossil fuel industries or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?'

"And last summer, she compared Israel to the Taliban. 'We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,' Omar wrote in a tweet. 'We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.' What makes Omar particularly dangerous is that while she spews blatant antisemitism, she pretends not to be an antisemite," the board said. "That is what she did earlier this [week] when she defended previous comments she made that were criticized for their antisemitic overtones by claiming she was not aware that insinuating that Jews wield influence or power was a form of antisemitism."

In The Federalist, David Harsanyi joked "local congresswoman accidentally spends a decade being an antisemite.”

"It’s merely happenstance, Omar would have you believe, that she—along with her bestie, Rashida Tlaib, a woman who gets a 'calming feeling' when thinking about the Holocaust’s aftermath and believes pro-Zionist Jews exploit 'regular Americans' for 'their profit,' etc. — keeps tripping into old-school Jew-baiting. What are the odds?" he asked. "Omar’s been living in the United States since her early teens. She graduated from high school in a major American city. She earned a BA from North Dakota State University in political science and international studies. One assumes she’s consumed plenty of American culture over the years. You’re telling me that in all this time, in all her many interactions as an academic “fellow” and a government employee, she never once heard a stereotype about Jews hypnotizing nations or being motivated by money? That’s quite an accomplishment.

"Of course, Omar shouldn’t lose her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee because she believes rootless cosmopolitans are brainwashing the world for the 'Benjamins.' She should lose it because she downplays 9/11 and equates the United States with theocratic terrorist organizations like Hamas and the Taliban," he said. "She is neither ideologically nor morally prepared for the job. She should be denied a seat because Nancy Pelosi created a new precedent by not only denying Kevin McCarthy his choices for the Jan. 6 committee, effectively creating a show trial, but also stripping Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor-Greene of their committee appointments over ugly things they said. Republicans should unseat Omar using her standards... other than occasional tepid rebukes from some fellow Jewish Democrats, Omar has been exempt from any meaningful criticism."

In National Review, Dan McClaughlin said Republicans are right to retaliate.

"This is political payback," he said. "Democrats broke with the traditional norms of the House when then-speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat Jim Jordan and Jim Banks on the January 6 committee on grounds considerably flimsier than those cited by McCarthy against Schiff and Swalwell, and when the Democrats voted on a party-line basis to deny committee assignments to Marjorie Taylor Greene. McCarthy has cited plausible justifications for each of his moves, but nobody has any illusions that he is taking extraordinary steps on principle due to the urgency of Schiff’s abuse of his position to spread misinformation, Swalwell’s relationship with a Chinese spy, or Omar’s notorious record of antisemitism.

"He is retaliating proportionally for a breach of norms by the other side. Democrats were warned that this would be the particular outcome of breaking this particular norm... It is cheap and easy to oppose 'whataboutism' and insist that Republicans should just always do the right thing no matter what Democrats do. It is not always that simple. To start with, a supposed norm is not a norm at all if it is frequently ignored. Moreover, some norms of behavior, and even some rules, outlive their usefulness; if they are breached by one side, they are better left for dead," he said. "At the end of the day, norms collapse unless they are enforced. In this particular case, Republicans can best enforce the norm by demonstrating their willingness to retaliate proportionally. They have chosen deserving targets. That is how power politics is supposed to be played in order to promote rather than degrade the functioning of the institution."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize the move, calling out Republicans' hypocrisy.
  • Some argue that Omar is a valuable member of the Foreign Affairs Committee with a unique voice worth hearing.
  • Others suggest Jews should not support this punishment.

In The Forward, Abe Silberstein said anti-Semitism is "not the reason" Omar lost her seat.

"While this may be an unwelcome reminder about the speed of life, it has been four years since Omar’s offending tweet," Silberstein said. "Other than partisan point-scoring, which Speaker Kevin McCarthy desperately needs after requiring 15 floor votes to be elected by his own party, it is hard to think of why this controversy should now be re-litigated. But one reason that is certainly not a catalyst for Omar’s expulsion from the committee is House Republicans’ concern for antisemitism. As Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) stated before the vote today, 90% of Jewish members of the House were set to vote to keep Congresswoman Omar on the committee...These Jewish members of Congress supported Rep. Omar today because they understood this old news was not being dredged up for the benefit of American Jews, but rather for a historically weak Speaker of the House who has chosen to humiliate an opponent loathed by the Republican base.

"That Congresswoman Omar is a member of a religious and ethnic minority demonized by white nationalists ascendant on the American right is also undoubtedly motivating this solidarity," Silberstein wrote. "Hypocrisy is primarily an offense of shamelessness and it was palpable in the Republican vote against Rep. Omar. If the world were a fair place, we would be spared any and all lectures on antisemitism from a congressional majority that relies on the support of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been named to the House Homeland Security Committee and has previously alleged the existence of Jewish space lasers, and Rep. Paul Gosar, an open and proud associate of Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes."

In The New York Times, Peter Beinart said when Ilhan Omar asks questions, her colleagues should listen.

"House Republicans are poised to make a grave mistake by removing from the Committee on Foreign Affairs the only person who consistently describes American foreign policy as it is experienced by much of the rest of the world," Beinart wrote. "In 2021, the Alliance of Democracies Foundation asked 50,000 people in 53 countries which global power they thought most threatened democracy in their nation. The United States came in first. Judging by their public statements, most members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee think these non-Americans are certifiably insane. The committee’s Republicans and Democrats both largely take it for granted that the United States — despite occasional blunders — defends liberty. When discussing threats to human rights, they generally attribute them to America’s foes. Ms. Omar is the exception.

"This pattern has repeated itself again and again in the four years since Ms. Omar entered Congress. The 50 other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee piously condemn the misdeeds of America’s foes. She asks uncomfortable questions about America’s own. In a hearing in May 2021, about Chinese atrocities against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, only Ms. Omar noted that the United States had itself imprisoned 22 Uyghurs at Guantánamo Bay and that China’s president had reportedly cited America’s 'war on terror' as a justification for his own crackdown... Ms. Omar’s detractors might say all this reflects her anti-Americanism. They’re wrong. Ms. Omar speaks idealistically about ‘the moral authority the United States carries on the world stage when we stand up for human rights.’ She just recognizes — as do many across the globe — that the United States doesn’t exercise that moral authority nearly as often as our leaders claim."

In USA Today, Anna Kaufman said the episode did a "disservice" to Jews.

"Republicans postured disavowal of hate feels awfully cheap given it was a riot incited by Trump, their party’s president, the presumptive GOP nominee for 2024 incidentally, that saw blatant Nazi symbolism worn into the halls of the Capitol," Kaufman said. "The very representative whom Republicans hope to avenge with this move – Marjorie Taylor Greene – blamed Jewish space lasers for wildfires, and likened wearing a mask to donning a yellow Jewish star. If I'm not mistaken Rep. George Santos, who falsely claimed to be Jewish and the descendent of Holocaust survivors at that, has failed to be disavowed by McCarthy himself.

"Whether you think what she said was offensive or not the important part is that she apologized. She acknowledged a willingness to listen and learn," Kaufman wrote. "In that vein, I ask who among us has not been unintentionally clumsy with a culture that is not our own, perhaps unaware of its pain points. Omar has been a vocal advocate for progress and acceptance – values that serve the Jewish people. She herself has been the target of highly offensive, ethnically motivated attacks from Republican leaders. This is not a woman unacquainted with prejudice. She speaks strongly against the Israeli government – so do many of us. So when Republicans rise to the pulpit and pontificate on the ‘power of rhetoric’ using it as a cudgel to force Omar out of important government business, we can object."

My take.

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It's a deeply unfortunate turn in this entire fiasco.

A quick reminder, before I say what I'm about to say: I was fine with McCarthy making the decision to boot Swalwell and Schiff. As I wrote, there is a perfectly good case for both of them to get the boot, and McCarthy had all the justification he needed once Democrats decided these kinds of committee power plays were "in bounds." It was an inevitable cycle, one we now appear to be stuck in, though I hope this is the last we have to deal with it.

But as I said then, the Omar case is different. The outline of the argument to remove her from the Foreign Affairs Committee has far too many holes in it to be credible. The biggest thing her critics cite is her anti-Semitism. As a Jew, I'll happily concede that Omar has made some comments that make me deeply uncomfortable. Tropes about "dual loyalty" and Jews simply buying political support — rather than winning on legitimate arguments — make me squirm. Her recent defense, that she was “unaware” of these tropes, does not pass the basic sniff test. It is  flatly unconvincing, and makes me more suspicious of the biases she may hold.

At the same time, I also have to practice what I preach about not seeing ghosts everywhere I look. And in that vein, I think far too many people are conflating criticism of Israel with criticism of Jews. But even in the least charitable read of her comments, Omar did something very few politicians who offend have actually done: She apologized. She removed her comments where she could. She committed to trying to better understand why so many people got offended. In short: She owned it. That was nearly four years ago, and nothing of that sort has come up since.

And all of that is before we get into the gross hypocrisy. Guess which member of Congress tweeted this, in 2018: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA.”

I'll answer: Kevin McCarthy.

The same guy who is apparently so upset about Omar’s criticism of pro-Israel lobbying money that he has to kick her off her committee also happens to have tweeted a warning to his followers that three Jews were buying the election for Democrats in 2018. And no, he didn't apologize; he deleted the tweet, doubled down and said it was about their politics not their faith. Which, you might note, was precisely the defense Omar made about some of her comments.

This is to say nothing of Rep. Paul Gosar, who was recently re-seated by McCarthy on the House Committee on Natural Resources despite his repeated appearances alongside an actual neo-Nazi interloper named Nick Fuentes, who openly hates Jews, denies the Holocaust, and praises Hitler (I know the media overuses these descriptors for far-right pundits, but in this case they are actually accurate). Majorie Taylor Greene's past comments on Jews are far less worrisome to me, but she nonetheless once seemed consumed by conspiracies about Jews running the world.

Again: I'm not making the case that Gosar, Greene or McCarthy should be similarly punished for their actions. I'm just making the point that if McCarthy and Republicans really cared about antisemitism — if that’s really what this is about — the record would look dramatically different than it does.

Other excuses for booting her are similarly silly. Accusations that she downplayed 9/11 were taken out of context; it's not as if she suggested it was an inside, government-executed job (again, that'd be Rep. Greene). She did not equate the U.S. to the Taliban or Hamas — she suggested we hold ourselves accountable the same way we do them. Pretending she "hates America" is also an absurd accusation. Omar is a critic and a lover of this country, and she has every right to be both. That's how I would describe myself, too.

At least when it comes to our foreign policy, we need more people like her in Congress — skeptical of our military's talking points, holding us to high ethical standards, and demanding we consider how the world views us. Peter Beinart did an excellent job documenting what a unique voice Omar is in Congress. Many of her questions are the same ones I would ask if I were on those committees. And they make her stand out from her colleagues, whose zombie-like demeanor while conducting "oversight" makes it seem as if it is impossible for them to believe our military ever errs.

All of this, of course, is to say nothing of the discrimination Omar herself has faced from colleagues. Greene and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) have both referred to her as a member of the "jihad squad," accused her of being "bloodthirsty," and a terrorist sympathizer. Boebert once claimed to an audience she met Omar in an elevator as she was being chased by Capitol police, then quipped that "she doesn't have a backpack, so we should be fine." To say Boebert faced any repercussions for her comments would be a vast overstatement.

I also want to be clear that to value Omar's presence on this committee is not to support her views wholesale. You don't have to take it from me. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), an outspoken Trump supporter, well-known critic of all things Democrat, and staunch representative of the new right, made the case as well as I ever could. Before Republican leadership whipped him into voting against Omar, he was undecided. This is what he said on Newsmax:

"I view the Schiff and Swalwell matter somewhat differently than I view the Ilhan Omar matter. Ilhan Omar didn't lie about our intelligence agencies. She didn't say Trump was a Russian agent based on information from a different committee that was just totally bogus. The reason I think a lot of Republicans want to kick Ilhan Omar off the Foreign Affairs Committee is because they don't like what she has to say... It's one thing to do dangerous things to the country with intelligence, it's quite another to say 'I don't like your viewpoint, and thus I want to remove you.'... It makes me uncomfortable that the case against Ilhan Omar isn't being subjected to any due process...

And go watch Ilhan Omar question Elliot Abrams about some of the neoconservative foreign policies that were very detrimental in South America. Sometimes there is a view on foreign policy that isn't "invade everywhere" or "try to turn every foreign land into a Jeffersonian democracy," and there are times Ilhan makes those arguments. And those are arguments that, at times, align with America First policies."

Credit to Dan McClaughlin, who at least made the honest and straightforward argument that this was about political retribution and it was justified. Some of his points were quite compelling, including that McCarthy has been forced to respond in kind to Democrats. It's just a shame Omar got caught in the middle.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Have you seen the recent Project Veritas video about Pfizer and Jordan Trishton Walker? I'd like to hear your thoughts as a non-partisan journalist. I know Veritas has a reputation for being deceptive, but this story seems to have largely been ignored and Walker's online presence scrubbed, even while Pfizer's decision not to deny Walker is their employee basically means that he is.

— Anonymous from St. Louis, Missouri

Tangle: I did see it. I'm unsure what to make of it. I follow Project Veritas and regularly keep an eye on their work, but usually with some skepticism. I've had some public spats with James O'Keefe, their founder, and tried to engage him in public conversations about the misleading nature of some of his work, but he has declined.

Edited, undercover videos are always difficult to parse. Project Veritas is funded by conservative donors and has been caught trying to plant fake sexual assault accusers into stories. That kind of stuff is not journalism.

That being said, I do value some of what they put out. This latest video appears to show a Pfizer employee, Jordan Trishton Walker, conceding that Pfizer is attempting to mutate Covid-19 to get ahead of it with their own vaccines. He also suggests we may find out down the line that the vaccine is doing a lot of damage to people. Both of these are frightening confessions, though I don’t think either are particularly revelatory. It's still unclear exactly what his position at Pfizer or qualifications are.

Project Veritas set Walker up on a fake date, and when they outed their undercover crew, he said he was simply trying to impress a date, and that most of what he said was exaggerated or a lie. I'm not sure that's the most convincing defense, but it isn't totally absurd either. Unfortunately, very few news organizations have tackled this story, so we don't have much journalism out there about it. I thought this blog post from Forbes, whose tone I did not like, did a good job of at least presenting the counter-arguments to Project Vertisas's framing.

The video contains some genuinely shocking moments, but there are a lot of unanswered questions and missing context — as is typical with Project Veritas's work. I'll be curious to see the full, raw, video, which they typically release at some point after the edited version. Maybe the “vaccine coverup” is worthy of a Tangle deep dive?

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The influential, billionaire-backed Koch network plans to oppose former President Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election. In a memo released by the network's primary advocacy group, the ultra-wealthy donors said they are going to push for a new candidate. Americans for Prosperity, the primary advocacy group, helped bring the Tea Party movement to national prominence in 2004. Now it says "the best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter." In 2022, Americans for Prosperity spent $69.4 million on the midterms. Fox News has the story.


  • 75.1%. The percentage of the vote in Minnesota's Fifth District that Rep. Ilhan Omar won in the 2022 midterms.
  • 57%. The percentage of Minnesotans statewide who said they had an unfavorable opinion of Omar, according to an October poll.
  • 27%. The percentage of Minnesotans statewide who said they had a favorable opinion of Omar, according to an October poll.
  • Four. The number of Muslim Americans who have been elected to Congress.
  • One. The number of naturalized citizens who were born in Africa that have ever served in Congress (Ilhan Omar).
  • 14%. The percentage of the 117th Congress that were immigrants or children of immigrants.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

A young man from Bucks County, Pennsylvania (where I grew up) is being heralded as a prodigy. David Balogun, a nine-year-old, just graduated from high school. Balogun recently received his diploma from Reach Cyber Charter School after taking classes from home (remotely) in Bensalem. The achievement makes him one of the youngest known children to ever graduate from high school. His parents say they are now looking into Ivy League schools for their child. “I want to be an astrophysicist, and I want to study black holes and supernovas,” David told a local TV station. His parents, who both have advanced degrees, say it has been challenging raising such an intelligent kid — but they are finding outside-the-box ways to keep up with David’s many interests. WGAL has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.