WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump can’t get enough of Rep. Ilhan Omar.
As Democrats try to turn the page after the freshman lawmaker’s remarks, criticized by some as anti-Semitic, ignited an embarrassing intra-party fight, the Republican president is trying to prolong and weaponize the issue for his 2020 campaign, asserting during a private weekend fundraiser that Democrats “hate” Jews.
While Trump publicly muses about winning over Jewish voters for his re-election, his motivations are more complicated and expansive. The Republican president’s rhetorical escalation also is designed to unsettle the Democratic primary debate, exploit an issue that can energize his supporters and move past his own history of toying in anti-Semitic motifs.
Trump was slow to condemn white supremacists who marched violently in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. In 2016, he circulated an image of a six-pointed star alongside a photo of Hillary Clinton, a pile of money and the words “most corrupt candidate ever.” And he told a group of Republican Jewish donors he didn’t expect to earn their support because he wouldn’t take their money.
“You want to control your politicians, that’s fine,” he told the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015.
Ultimately, the group and many of its donors backed Trump.
Trump on Tuesday promoted comments by former model and 2016 campaign staffer Elizabeth Pipko, who said on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” that “Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party.”
Pipko, who serves as spokeswoman for the group Jexodus, which bills itself as speaking for “Jewish Millennials tired of living in bondage to leftist politics,” saw her comments amplified by Trump on Twitter. “There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party,” she continued. “They don’t care about Israel or the Jewish people.”
Her comments mirrored Trump’s charge on Friday that Democrats had become an “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” party, responding to the House vote a day before to disapprove of all prejudice in response to Omar’s invocation of “dual-loyalty” charges against American supporters of Israel earlier this month.
Speaking later that evening, Trump went even further in an appearance before Republican National Committee donors, charging that Democrats “hate” Jewish people, according to a person who heard the remarks but spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s comments at a private event.
Omar, D-Minn., had sparked a political firestorm with comments suggesting supporters of Israel have dual allegiances. It derailed the Democrats’ focus on investigations of the Trump administration, including a public back-and-forth over how, or even if, her party should condemn her comments. The ultimate resolution, which passed the House overwhelmingly, didn’t call out Omar by name.
As a small percentage of the nation, American Jews are not a particularly significant voting bloc, nor is Israel their decisive issue of concern. And both major political parties acknowledge the controversy is unlikely to alter dramatically the electoral votes of the American Jewish community, which has skewed decisively toward Democrats for more than a generation.
Even a small shift, though, can be significant.
“We’re slicing the salami very thin, and an incremental shift in traditional Democratic blocs to the other side can have a profound impact,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
He said his group plans to make “the largest investment that we’ve ever had in the 2020 race in terms of outreach, advocacy and independent expenditures on behalf of the president.”
Stoking the fight also gives Trump an opportunity to deflect criticism of his own rhetoric, invigorate evangelical Christians for whom the Israel issue is a powerful motivator and paint Democrats into a radical corner.
It also plays into Trump’s attempt to cast Democrats as radicals ahead of the 2020 campaign, said conservative commentator Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine. He noted that Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed back against efforts to condemn Omar’s comments.
“It makes it very easy to say they’re just adopting whatever the socialist says,” Mandel said.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders kept the controversy alive on Monday by criticizing Democrats for failing to explicitly repudiate Omar.
“It’s something that should be called by name,” she said. “It shouldn’t be put in a watered-down resolution.”
Sanders pointed to Republican condemnation of Rep. Steve King earlier this year, including stripping the Iowa Republican of his committee memberships, after he made remarks defending white supremacy. But King had long espoused racially charged ideas, and the GOP only took action after it lost its majority in the chamber.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, warned that Trump’s politicization of the issue “threatens the bipartisan support for Israel.”
“The problem is that the president sees it somehow as a way to make some kind of political hay and a wedge,” she said. “And he keeps addressing it that way. And I just think it’s a mistake, as someone that’s a strong supporter of Israel, that he keeps doing it.”
Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said her group welcomes Trump’s focus on the issue of anti-Semitism.
“He himself has emboldened anti-Semites in our country by both repeating anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories,” she said. “He has no credibility with Jewish voters.”
Trump has been among the loudest critics of Omar, including last month when he called on her to resign from the House or at least resign her post on the Foreign Affairs Committee over her suggestion that Jewish money drove support for Israel.
With respect to Trump’s own comments to Republican Jewish donors, Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition official, said they were meant obviously in jest and any suggestion otherwise is “unfair and ridiculous.”
Jexodus is hardly the first time Trump has tried to peel away minority voters from the Democratic coalition. He has pushed the WalkAway and Blexit movements to win over black voters to the GOP, but those efforts proved to have limited, if any, impact.
According to AP Votecast, a survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters and 3,500 Jewish voters nationwide, voters who identified as Jewish broke for Democrats over Republicans by a wide margin, 72 percent to 26 percent, in 2016.
Over the last decade, Jewish voters have shown stability in their partisanship, according to data from Pew Research Center. Jewish voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a roughly 2-1 ratio.