On January 15, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) shared a video of a 2015 CNN interview in which Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called then-candidate Donald Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” commenting that Graham had since been “compromised.” (Her tweet was a retweet of another that linked to the video, noting, “I can’t even imagine what they have on Graham.”) Two days later, Omar clarified her comments on CNN, arguing that Graham’s shift in rhetoric on Trump over the past three years is evidence that he is “compromised to no longer stand up for the truth.” Some right-wing media figures twisted Omar’s tweet and claimed that the congresswoman was suggesting Graham was being blackmailed over his sexuality.
Omar did not come close to making this argument. In fact, during her interview with CNN she suggested three things that could be held over Graham’s head in order to change his behavior: “his funding when it comes to running for office,” polling information from his district, and leadership positions in the Senate. But that didn’t stop Breitbart and right-wing media figures from putting words in her mouth. Tom Elliott, founder of the TV monitoring platform Grabien, tweeted Omar’s interview in which she explained her original tweet, but still suggested that she had claimed Trump was blackmailing Graham over “his homosexuality.” (Graham has previously said that he is not gay.)
Many right-wing figures picked up Elliott’s tweet and ran with it:
Radio host Buck Sexton claimed Omar insinuated “Graham is gay to undermine him, which is grossly homophobic.”
Conservative host Steve Deace shared Elliott’s tweet and added: “Just imagine if this were an evangelical Republican saying this on television about a Democrat’s sexual proclivities…”
Commentary magazine’s Noah Rothman also shared Elliott’s tweet and commented: “The best part about this clip is that it begins with Omar offering some unobjectionable bromide about ‘inclusive societies.’”
Conservative CNN host S.E. Cupp also retweeted Elliott, writing, “This is ignorant, homophobic and unacceptable, @IlhanMN. Democrats, this is becoming a very bad look.”
Mediaite’s Pardes Seleh: “A sitting member of congress publicly theorizing, with ZERO basis, that senator lindsay graham is secretly gay and trump is blackmailing him for being gay. watch this video and tell me she doesn't sound like a kook.”
The Daily Wire’s Amanda Prestigiacomo: “Homegirl is batshit crazy pushing homophobic conspiracy theories abt Graham.”
Other right-wing media figures, including right-wing troll Jack Posobiec, Newsmax’s Joe Walsh, and National Review’s Rich Lowry re-tweeted Elliott and wrote disapproving comments without noting that the original tweet was fallacious. Fox’s Lisa Booth replied to Elliott’s tweet, writing, “WTH is wrong with this woman. This is reprehensible.”
Omar herself responded to the bad-faith criticism:
I love how revealing the Right is in their assumptions of me.
Pro-tip- just because you are homophobic, doesn’t mean everyone else is.
Deal with your own bigotry and Islamophobic views of me, and stop with the hateful smears. pic.twitter.com/vWtEmI72n2
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 17, 2019
You’re bias is showing, the only thing baseless here is your tweet.
Do better! https://t.co/brTKBXsewE
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 17, 2019
Intercept columnist Mehdi Hasan added:
And yet some conservatives have spent the past 24 hours trying to paint @IlhanMN as a homophobe. It's all about distraction and deflection. Same with the focus on @RashidaTlaib for swearing rather than Steve King's defence of white supremacy. https://t.co/rHlLe4dM3n
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) January 17, 2019
The Atlantic's Adam Serwer pointed to another reason right-wing voices were eager to run with a lie about Omar:
There’s a lot of people insisting it’s a ”dogwhistle” but I think the assumption that a Muslim woman in a hijab is necessarily homophobic is a big part of why so many people are retweeting, assuming it’s true without actually watching. https://t.co/H9bwslRFQE
— Judah Maccabeets🍝 (@AdamSerwer) January 17, 2019