Former congressman Keith Ellison has a theory for why President Donald Trump is working to make Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) public enemy number one.
“She, simply by her existence, is a person who he doesn’t believe belongs,” Ellison said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. “She’s a Muslim, she’s a woman, she wears a hijab, she’s black, before she ever opens her mouth she’s offensive to him."
Omar has been a constant lightning rod for controversy since arriving in Washington, where her comments about the Israel lobby have drawn intense criticism from her Democratic and Republican colleagues alike.
After conservatives seized on a snippet of a speech in which Omar appeared to downplay the September 11th attacks, the president took his criticism of her to a new level, tweeting to his millions of followers last weekend a video of the congresswoman’s remarks, superimposed with images of the Twin Towers burning.
Ellison, now the attorney general of Minnesota, has an idea of what the freshman lawmaker who holds his old seat is going through. He arrived in Congress in 2007 as the first Muslim to ever serve in that body, and faced suspicion and allegations of disloyalty from his colleagues from the moment he was sworn in on a copy of the Quran. Twelve years later, there are three Muslim members of Congress, and more Muslim-American officeholders around the country than ever.
But the environment that Omar faces, said Ellison, is probably the most hostile one ever for a Muslim elected official – which is saying quite a bit, considering that Ellison faced death threats of his own and casual suggestions from his colleagues, like former Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rep. Steve King, that he was aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and failed to sufficiently renounce Sharia law.
Since Trump tweeted the video of Omar, death threats on her have increased exponentially, her office has told media. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is moving to increase the congresswoman’s security detail, as Trump insists he was right to go after the congresswoman and claims she has “a way about her” that is “very, very bad for our country.”
Asked if he worried for Omar’s safety, Ellison sighed. “Sure I do. There’s crazy people out there,” he said. “We live in a very dangerous political environment and she’s in the danger zone as much as anyone. I pray for her and I urge people to calm the rhetoric down.”
Ellison also urged Twitter to do more to censure Trump’s video. “That is incitement, that’s violent incitement,” he said of the video. “There’s no two ways about it.”
“Everyone knows what happened to Gabby Giffords,” he went on, referencing the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head during a constituent event in 2011. “It makes it difficult for you to engage the public because you don’t know where the hostility is coming from, and it is unnatural to be the target of that much unwarranted hatred. It’s strange, it’s weird. She’s bearing a burden.”
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the number two Republican in the House, Ellison noted, was also shot at a baseball practice in 2017.
To congressional Republicans who have spent months going after Omar and forcing all Democrats to answer for her, Ellison also had some choice words. “It’s wildly irresponsible,” he said. “I don’t know if they don’t realize they’re risking her safety or they just don’t care… ‘Just don’t care’ is a real option, because they have every reason to suspect their rhetoric could lead to some very negative, foreseeable consequence. They should know it.”
Ellison predicted things would get worse before they get better, and tied Trump’s rhetoric on Omar to his 2020 reelection strategy. “I keep thinking there’s gotta be a floor with him but there absolutely simply is no floor, there’s no low depth he won’t go to,” he said. “It’s clear to me he is trying to whip up nativism, tribalism, bigotry of all kinds, and turn the country against itself for his own benefit.”
He cautioned Omar against getting pulled into these spats, advising that she focus instead on why she came to D.C. in the first place.
Omar, said Ellison, “should pivot back to those issues that made her want to be a member of Congress, and just stay on them. She wanted to do something about student debt, jobs and the economy, the environment… Get back to that, and don’t let them pull you off. Use the heightened profile to raise the issues you’re passionate about.”