President Donald Trump accused Rep. Ilhan Omar of professing a “love” for al Qaeda and talking about “how great” and “how wonderful” al Qaeda is. That is false.
Trump also misleadingly claimed polls showed Omar only has 8% support, not mentioning that a similar figure is from a poll of white likely general-election voters without a bachelor’s degree.
Responding to press questions about his tweets on July 14 telling four progressive Democratic congresswomen known as “the squad” to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested [countries] from which they came,” Trump doubled down, claiming the women “hate our country” and that “if they’re not happy here, they can leave.”
False al Qaeda Claims
In his comments, Trump repeatedly singled out Minnesota Rep. Omar — a Somali American who became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress in November — claiming, falsely, that she has made statements supporting al Qaeda.
Trump said that Omar has talked about “how great” and “how wonderful al Qaeda is.” He claimed that Omar had said, “‘When I think of al Qaeda, I can hold my chest out.'” There’s no evidence Omar has said any of those things.
Trump, July 15: I mean, I look at the one — I look at Omar — I don’t know, I never met her. I hear the way she talks about al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has killed many Americans. She said, “You can hold your chest out, you can … when I think of al Qaeda, I can hold my chest out.” …
And politicians can’t be afraid to take them on. A politician that hears somebody, where we’re at war with al Qaeda, and sees somebody talking about how great al Qaeda is — pick out her statement — that was Omar. How great al Qaeda is — when you hear that — and we’re losing great soldiers to al Qaeda. …
But when I hear the way they talk about our country, when I hear the anti-Semitic language they use, when I hear the hatred they have for Israel, and the love they have for enemies like al Qaeda — then you know what? I will tell you that I do not believe this is good for the Democrat Party.
A tweet sent by Trump later in the day referred to Omar as “pro Al-Qaeda.”
The White House press office did not provide any evidence to back up the president’s claim. But Trump appears to be referring, wrongly, to comments Omar made in October 2013 during a local PBS show in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. The program, BelAhdan, is hosted by Ahmed Tharwat, who described it as a show that “brings Somali Americans to your living room.” Omar’s appearance as a local political organizer came on the heels of a deadly attack at a Kenyan mall by members of al-Shabab, a Somali Islamist militant group that declared its allegiance to al Qaeda in 2012.
Ironically, the main discussion was about Omar’s frustration that the entire Muslim community — and the Somali Muslim community in Minnesota in particular — is asked to respond to violent acts committed by extremists overseas. She said there’s “a difference between the people that are carrying on the evil acts, because it is an evil act” and “the normal people … who carry on their lives.”
Omar, Oct. 3, 2013: The last couple of days, we’re seeing huge interest in getting the community to condemn the acts of al-Shabab and the attack in Kenya. And I find that quite interesting, because you don’t see any other atrocities occur in any part of the world where you have the citizens asked to condemn the act. It does make sense if you have the president or some official to condemn something. But a regular citizen like myself to be asked to condemn an act that I am not part of, or to associate me with something that I have the same reaction to as anyone else, it’s blowing it out of proportion. …
I think the assumption must be that we all are connected to this somehow. Besides the fact that we are ethnically the same, or share the same faith. But I think the general population needs to understand that there is a difference between the people that are carrying on the evil acts, because it is an evil act, and that we do have evil people in this world. And then the normal people … who carry on their lives … maybe there is no such thing. But that’s another day, another subject.
Later in the interview, Omar was even more explicit in condemning al-Shabab.
“These people are taking part in terror and their whole ideology is based on terrorizing the communities that they would like to have an influence in,” Omar said, later adding that she does not share the group’s ideology.
Omar, Oct. 13, 2013: When you have an individual inside a Western society that does go on and does commit mass murders, we have mass shootings that happen constantly here, we investigate that person, and what has driven them to commit that act. When an act is committed by these Muslim, you know, terrorists, what we investigate is that whole community. We investigate that whole faith. We investigate that whole society. And everyone is supposed to have some answer to why these people are doing this, when it is those individuals that people need to be investigating. It is their lives that needs to be under the microscope, not the lives of the rest of the community. Because, I am not part of al-Shabab. I do not participate. … In the context of what al-Shabab stands for, I do not share that ideology. So for someone to require an explanation from me as to why they’re committing these heinous acts, to me is inconceivable. It doesn’t make any sense.
The part of the interview that Trump distorted as Omar saying, “When I think of al Qaeda, I can hold my chest out” — words that Omar never said — arose when Omar described her experience during a college class on the ideology behind terrorism. (Omar graduated from North Dakota State University.) She said the professor in the class — whom she did not name — would raise his shoulders to emphasize words like al Qaeda or Hezbollah to give them extra “weight.”
Tharwat: It’s very interesting that we keep the Arabic name to such a violent or negative entity. Al Qaeda. Al-Shabab. Hezbollah. Have you ever thought about...
Omar: These things don’t really mean. … They don’t mean anything evil, right?
Tharwat: Hezbollah: part of God; Al-Shabab: the youth. The madrasa. … Nobody in the Arab world wants to go to the madrasa anymore. ‘Cause it means school. … They are polluting our language, our daily casual language.
Omar: But that is, I think, a product of the sensationalized media. You have these sound bites, and you have these words, and everybody says it with such an intensity. And so it must mean, it must hold a bigger meaning. … I remember when I was in college I took a terrorism class. …
Tharwat: There was a lab for that? … You go on a field trip?
Omar: No, we learned the ideology of …
And so, the thing that was interesting in the class was every time the professor said “al Qaeda,” he sort of, like, his shoulders went up.
Tharwat: He’s in command here.
Omar: Al Qaeda. You know, Hezbollah [smiling, raising her shoulders].
Tharwat: He’s an expert. …
Omar: But it is that. You don’t say “America” with an intensity. You don’t say “England” with an intensity [each time raising her shoulders and gesturing with her hands]. You don’t say, “the Army” with an intensity. But you say these names because you want that word to carry weight. You want it to leave something with the person that’s hearing that.
Tharwat: It has a cultural meaning. Not just …
Omar: Exactly. So it’s said with a deeper voice. So yes, a lot of it is diluted, I think. When you hear a lot of people speaking in Arabic, suspicion arises. People start to pay attention and think, “What must be they are talking about?”
Nowhere in the interview did Omar say, “When I think of al Qaeda, I can hold my chest out” — a phrase that suggests some sort of pride in the group that Omar never conveyed.
In a press conference the same day Trump made his remarks, Omar refused to respond to Trump’s accusations that she harbors pro-al Qaeda leanings.
“I know that every single Muslim who has lived in this country and across the world has heard that comment, and so I will not dignify it with an answer, because I know that every single Islamophobe, every single person who is hateful, who is driven by an ideology of ‘othering’ as this president is, rejoices in us responding to that and us defending ourselves,” Omar said. “I do not expect every time there is a white supremacist who attacks or there is a white man who kills in a school or in a movie theater or in a mosque or in a synagogue, I don’t expect my white community members to respond on whether they love that person or not. And so I think it is beyond time … to ask Muslims to condemn terrorists. We are no longer going to allow the dignification of such a ridiculous, ridiculous statement.”
We could find no evidence that Omar has ever made any public comments supportive of al Qaeda.
On Nov. 8, 2016, the day she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, Omar wrote a letter to a federal judge — posted online by Snopes — seeking sentencing leniency for a Minneapolis man convicted of plotting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, and conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization and to commit murder overseas. The man faced a 30-year prison term. In her letter, Omar didn’t offer any supportive words about ISIS, acknowledging the man made “a consequential mistake.” But she called on the judge to employ a “restorative approach to justice” and argued, “The best deterrent to fanaticism is a system of compassion.”
As the New York Times pointed out, Omar called out Saudi Arabia’s royal family via tweet for helping to fund al Qaeda. And as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted via tweet on April 11, Omar is a cosponsor of H.R. 1327, a bill that seeks to fully fund the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
In his public comments, Trump also criticized Omar for referring to the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks as “some people.” When a controversy erupted in April over those comments — with some arguing her phrasing was dismissive of the attacks and others arguing her words were being intentionally misconstrued — we wrote a story to put her remarks in context.
But there is no evidence that Omar has ever said al Qaeda is “great” or “wonderful” or that she could “hold my chest out” when thinking of the terrorist group, as Trump claimed. To the contrary, in the interview central to Trump’s claim, she criticized al-Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliate, saying, its “whole ideology is based on terrorizing.” Omar described the group as “evil” and “taking part in terror,” and she explicitly said, “I do not share that ideology.”
Misleading Poll Numbers
In his comments and in a tweet the following day, Trump cited low polling numbers for Omar and Ocasio-Cortez of 8% and 21%, respectively. But numbers similar to those are from a survey of white voters with no more than two years of college education, not voters overall or voters in the lawmakers’ districts.
In his July 15 comments, Trump said, “One of them is polling at 8%,” and his July 16 tweet claimed, “Omar is polling at 8%, Cortez at 21%.”
Axios published information about this poll on July 14, without naming the group that conducted it per an agreement with that group. The story said that a poll “making the rounds of some of the most influential Democrats in America” showed swing voters who had supported Trump in 2016 didn’t have favorable views of Omar and Ocasio-Cortez. The poll of 1,003 white likely voters for the general election who also had no more than two years of college education showed 53% recognized Omar, with 9% having a favorable view of her, and 74% recognized Ocasio-Cortez, with 22% having a favorable view.
We don’t know whether those 1,003 voters were a nationwide sample or from certain states or regions. But it’s worth noting that both lawmakers were quite popular with voters in their congressional districts, winning their seats in 2018 by large margins. Omar won Minnesota’s 5th District and Ocasio-Cortez won New York’s 14th District, each with 78% of the votes.
A Siena College poll taken in late March and early April of 607 registered voters in Ocasio-Cortez’s district found 52% had a favorable opinion of her, and her job approval rating was 47%. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.