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Fact Check: Trump falsely accuses Ilhan Omar of proclaiming ‘how great Al Qaeda is’

President Trump defended his tweets Monday in a press conference.
President Trump defended his tweets Monday in a press conference.(Doug Mills/New York Times)

President Donald Trump on Monday defended his tweets suggesting that four Democratic members of Congress “go back” to the countries they came from by assailing one, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for what he said were remarks she had made about Al Qaeda.

“I am watching them, all they do is complain, so all I’m saying is if they want to leave they can leave,” Trump said before launching into a broad attack on Omar, who was born in Somalia but is a naturalized United States citizen.

What Trump said:

“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 America, when I think of Al Qaeda I can hold my chest out.” “When I hear the hatred they have for Israel and the love they have for enemies like Al Qaeda, then you know what?”“A politician that hears somebody, where we’re at war with Al Qaeda, and sees somebody talking about how great Al Qaeda is.”

That’s not true.

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Trump was referring to — and grossly distorting — remarks Omar made during a 2013 interview on a local PBS television show when she was a community activist.

Nowhere in the interview does she proclaim “love” for Al Qaeda or “how great” the terrorist group is. In fact, Omar repeatedly noted that Al Qaeda and al-Shabab had committed “evil” acts and “atrocities” and were “taking part in terror” around the world.

The October 2013 interview on “BelAhdan,” a show about Middle Eastern community issues, focused on the pressures and stereotypes Arab Americans face. Omar and Ahmed Tharwat, the host and producer of the show, discussed the attack on a Kenyan mall by al-Shabab militants that had occurred a month earlier.

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The two expressed frustration that Somalis and Arabs in general were asked to condemn or apologize for the attack because of an assumption, Omar said, that “we all are connected to this somehow.” But, they added, the same is not asked of citizens in other parts of the world for violence perpetrated by governments or by members of their communities like the Iraq War or mass shootings.

The “you can hold your chest out” quote Trump cited inaccurately refers to an exchange about the language used to describe terrorist groups between Omar and Tharwat.

“It’s very interesting that we keep the Arabic names to such violent or negative entities: Al Qaeda, al-Shabab, Hezbollah. Have you thought about that? Can’t you translate that?” Tharwat said, commenting that their English-language equivalents are more benign-sounding phrases like “the base” or “party of God.”

“They are polluting our language, our daily, casual languages,” he continued.

“I think that is a product of the sensationalized media,” Omar responded. “You have these sound bites and these words, and everybody says it with such intensity so it must mean or hold a bigger meaning.”

She then described, while laughing, her experience taking a class about the ideology of terrorism in college and “every time the professor said Al Qaeda, he sort of like — his shoulders went up.”

“You don’t say ‘America’ with an intensity,” she said, commenting on what she believed the professor’s body language was conveying in referring to Al Qaeda. “You don’t say ‘England’ with an intensity. 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.”

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Trump is not the first to take Omar’s 2013 interview remarks out of context. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and Trump’s lawyer, and officials for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have previously shared social media posts accusing Omar of taking “terrorism classes.”

Omar has criticized Saudi Arabia’s royal family for its financial links to Al Qaeda. In congressional hearings, she has also expressed concerns that American weapons “end up in the hands of terrorists” used to carry out attacks in the Middle East and described a “horrific reign of terror” in Africa under al-Shabab and Boko Haram militants.

Asked about Trump’s comments Monday, Omar responded, “I will not dignify it with an answer,” adding that the president’s claim was “ridiculous.” She compared his comment to asking white people whether they “love” an active shooter who is white.

Trump also cited remarks Omar had made about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: “When she talked about the World Trade Center being knocked down, ‘some people.’ You remember the famous ‘some people.’”

In a March speech made to the Council on American-Islamic Relations about discrimination against Muslims, Omar said the group “was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” (The group was founded in 1994, and Omar’s staff said she misspoke.)

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Responding to the criticism, Omar pointed out that former President George W. Bush had similarly described the terrorist attacks when he said in 2001 “the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.