Rep. Dean Phillips: Omar committee ouster was 'reckless' and 'dangerous'

A man sits in a U.S. Congress meeting room, listening.
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who is Jewish, butt heads with Rep. Ilhan Omar over her past comments on Israel. But he defended her ahead of a vote this week to remove her from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Kevin Dietsch-Pool | Getty Images

Before the U.S. House voted along party lines to oust Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday, several of her colleagues spoke out against the move, including Rep. Dean Phillips.

“She has never posted a video depicting herself decapitating and killing fellow members of Congress. She does not wonder if school shootings in America are staged. She has never equated vaccine mandates with Adolf Hitler. And she has never, ever expressed support for executing leaders of the United States Congress,” Phillips said, alluding to social media posts by some far right members of Congress.

They’ve since apologized for the posts, or tacit support of such posts by others. And so has Omar, who faced criticism — including from Phillips — for statements on Israel that many interpreted as anti-Semitic.

Phillips joined All Things Considered host Tom Crann Friday to talk about why he defended Omar this week.

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As a a critic of the remarks then, what changed to have you support her so firmly yesterday?

To draw some comparison or false equivalency between Ilhan Omar and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar is a disservice to the Congress and to the country.

And as I said in my floor speech yesterday, I believe in the human capacity to learn from mistakes and to make amends, and that atonement should be rewarded not punished. Rep. Omar and I disagree regularly on policies, both domestic policy and foreign policy. She has made statements that have been hurtful, painful and we spoken about those. I do not believe that's grounds for removal from a standing committee in Congress.

In fact, as I also said on the floor, if there were more voices like Ilhan Omar's when my father went to Vietnam in 1969, I think that would have saved lives. And that's why I believe dissent is important, even if you disagree with the fundamental perspective of another member of Congress. I think it's reckless. I think it's dangerous.

And last of all, and most importantly, the Republican House leadership, which does not include a Jewish member as far as I'm aware, has weaponized anti-Semitism in a very dangerous and, I think, disingenuous and, frankly, despicable manner. And that's why I spoke out so strongly yesterday.

What do you mean by that?

Anti-Semitism is real and I want every listener right now to recognize that we must mobilize to defend all human beings, no matter their faith, their skin color, their socio-economic status, their political perspectives. There is anti-Semitism on the left and there's anti-Semitism on the right.

And what I mean by weaponization is what I said in the very last paragraph of my remarks on the floor yesterday, which is: “If people really want to understand how to be an ally to the Jewish community, people really wish to defeat anti-Semitism in the United States, please ask the community what it needs. Don't impose. Don't remove people from committees arbitrarily. Don't tell us, if you will, what needs to be done. Ask us, and listen and learn. “

I've had to do that time and time again. And every time I do I learned something. And I think that's what our country more broadly should be doing right now as it relates to so many of the challenging issues that we face, as we hope to be the best America we can. And that is to protect everybody, including my Jewish community.

Republicans say that they removed Rep. Omar from the foreign affairs committee because of anti-Semitic remarks. What do you think is really going on?

She has made remarks that are damaging and hurtful and painful. And we've spoken about those. I believe she's listened to those concerns. She has addressed those. She continues to learn from those.

And Rep. Omar and I come from very different backgrounds. Tom, she was born in Somalia and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to this country. So her world experience is different than mine. I have a great love for Israel despite its fallibilities. She is deeply troubled by Israel, for reasons I think she has expressed. But that's different than hardened anti-Semitism.

I believe and I think this was a very dangerous and misguided effort to use that as the reason to remove her despite the fact that 90 percent of the Jewish members of the United States House of Representatives voted to maintain her on the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday.

And I said also that, to me, grounds for removal should be predicated on people who threatened violence against fellow members, against others. She has never done so. She has never done the more obnoxious and despicable things that Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar have done, including supporting an insurrection against the United States of America. I draw the line quite differently. Most of my colleagues do, as well.

I just hope that this political tit for tat, if you will, is done and that the United States Congress can start behaving as an adult institution moving forward, because this was an embarrassing week for it.

You sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee. What does it lose?

I have to say, I defend Israel despite grave concerns on occasion about its policies and its government.

My Republican colleagues effectively removed a voice of dissent, if you will, from a committee and an institution that is predicated on providing different voices and providing different perspectives. And what the committee has lost is one of those voices, despite it being a voice that I did not like all the time.

I'm not gonna lie. I did not like her perspective on Israel and on some other issues that came before our committee. But my goodness, if we become a country that cancels or silences or removes people because they don't see things the same way we do or they didn't live the same life experience, they don't share the same perspective, then we have undermined the entire system of governance that our founders set up and that has served this country remarkably well for almost two and a half centuries.

This is a new GOP majority. Do you think this is an indication of how this coming session will go?

No. In fact, this might surprise listeners. I want to be complimentary to those in the Republican party in the House that have, to me, a much more effective and efficient manner. And over the past three weeks, our votes are starting on schedule, they're ending on schedule. The Republican side has allowed what we call “open rules,” which allow members of Congress from both sides to offer amendments to bills that come to the House floor.

I call it like I see it. Sometimes the Democratic side is right. Sometimes the Republican side is right. I'm pleased so far with how the House has operated except for this egregious misdeed, if you will, by the removal of Rep. Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.