STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Minnesota member of Congress Ilhan Omar says she's received more death threats that came after President Trump shared a video on his Twitter feed. This video included comments that Omar made during a speech on civil liberties, comments that were mixed in with graphic 9/11 footage of the World Trade Center.
NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis is following this story. She's in our studios. Sue, good morning.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What did Ilhan Omar actually say about 9/11? What were her actual words?
DAVIS: So the original context of this was a March 23 speech in which she was speaking to a Muslim civil rights group. And she was speaking in the broader context of Muslim bigotry in the country, particularly after 9/11.
INSKEEP: Anti-Muslim bigotry.
DAVIS: Anti-Muslim bigotry after 9/11. And she said that the group was founded in part because they had recognized that - and this is the phrase that is the center here, is - some people did something, and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. The some people did something, of course, is in reference to the 9/11 attackers. And her critics, particularly on the right, have said that that's just a rather cavalier and disrespectful way to talk about what happened that day.
INSKEEP: I guess her defense is that she says she was trying to highlight that 9/11 was being used for this purpose to discriminate against people. But the criticism is that she was not speaking strongly enough about what a horrible attack it truly was.
DAVIS: Correct. And then this was elevated, of course, because the president takes this context of this and uses the platform of the presidency to tweet out in images that equate her with the 9/11 attacks. She has also been - separate from the president - the subject of other anti-Muslim bigotry attacks in which her image has been used against the Twin Towers.
INSKEEP: I guess we should be clear here. These are words being spoken about someone else's words being spoken. There's no actual policy here. There's no policy consequence. There's no discussion about the future of the country. But by choosing this topic, this remark from some days ago, the president is able to direct coverage at a particular person in a particular way. Why would Republicans want to do that - 'cause other Republicans have taken part - and why would Democrats respond as they have?
DAVIS: I think in her specific case, the reason why there's so much focus now is she's already been the subject of quite a bit of focus. She's a name and someone people recognize because she has prompted other earlier controversies this year for other comments she's made about the U.S.-Israel relationship. She has once apologized for making comments that were seen as anti-Semitic by many, including her Democratic colleagues.
So there is a pattern here that I think Republicans are trying to establish, as she is someone who holds views that is emblematic of the Democratic Party. Other progressive freshmen lawmakers, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have come to her defense and have said that they see a broader strategy here.
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ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We are getting to a level where this is an incitement of violence against progressive women of color.
DAVIS: An incitement of violence. And their argument is that Republicans are raising up people like AOC, like Ilhan Omar, like Rashida Tlaib, who's another Muslim woman serving in Congress, and trying to use them to sort of fearmonger or play off of racial or religious bigotry to gin up the base.
INSKEEP: Is there some dilemma here for Democrats? Because as we've just heard, many are defending Ilhan Omar. But as you also noted, she is a person who's made remarks that she's had to apologize for, that she's been criticized for on other issues. Is it awkward at all for Democrats to come to her defense?
DAVIS: I think it is. But in this case, it was less difficult. There was a quicker and more robust defense of what she said. Because in the broader context of the point she was making, she was - they believe her. They agree with what she was saying, that anti-Muslim bigotry has been a problem in this country. I don't think any party likes when they are constantly having to defend or explain or apologize for the words of another member. I don't think that they like that pattern of being on the defensive about her. But in this instance, it was easier for them.
I will say all of the 2020 candidates, to varying degrees, have come out in her defense. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who initially kind of took a way to just weigh in in, has, of course, now called for the security review to protect not only the congresswoman but her family, as well as her congressional staff.
INSKEEP: Sue, thanks for the update.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis.
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