Media outlets scrambled to prove false the accusation that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) married her brother after President Donald Trump mentioned it, but none have been able to definitively reach an answer, largely due to Omar's unwillingness to provide information.
Trump was asked about the accusation that Omar's husband, Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, was also her brother during a scrum with reporters last Wednesday and said he had heard talk that she married her brother but knew "nothing about it."
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National media had largely kept away from judging the merits of the accusation that she was related to her second husband, which have circulated since her entry into politics in 2016, but after Trump's comment many came to quick conclusions. CNN's Jim Acosta jumped in immediately to criticize Trump for diving in on "disgusting lies." The Daily Beast‘s Will Sommer published a lengthy piece on Friday that did little to nothing to debunk what he calls a "baseless smear."
The closest thing to evidence against the claim presented in Sommer's piece is a reference to a time Omar showed a Star Tribune reporter pictures on her cell phone of immigration documents with a list of members of her family. Sommer's piece fails to mention that Omar declined to provide copies of any of the documents to the reporter or allow him to make record of the information he was briefly allowed to view.
Omar didn't respond to requests for comment from the Daily Beast. Her congressional office currently is alerting reporters through auto-reply that it's not responding to press inquiries, including one from the Free Beacon, into whether any other outlets have been shown documents Omar purports to be evidence against the claim she married her brother.
That one time Omar allowed a reporter to view documents on a cell phone was also the extent of substantial evidence against the claim presented in the New York Times fact-check of Omar's marriage. (The Times also uses faulty math to indicate, based on their dates of birth, that it's impossible for Omar and Elmi to have the same mother. It's not.)
PolitiFact, perhaps wisely, didn't dive into the marriage question after Trump's Wednesday remark, but rather went to the Star Tribune to ask about its attempts to gather facts needed to reach a conclusion. The Minnesota paper's political editor told PolitiFact his interest in the marriage controversy began because his reporters "were not getting a lot of answers" from Omar on her incorrectly filed tax returns, in which she claimed to be married to her current husband, Ahmed Abdisalan Hirsi, when she in fact was not.
"My interest as an editor began with the silence she has maintained about her improper tax filings," said editor Kevin Diaz. "She would say only that she had corrected the 2014 and 2015 tax filings and would not divulge anything about why she had filed taxes with a man she was not married to when she was separated but still married to someone else."
After reviewing the dearth of evidence collected by those suggesting that Elmi was Omar's brother, Diaz assigned two reporters to come to a conclusion.
"We felt as journalists, if there was smoke, it's our job to look behind it to see if there's fire," Diaz said.
The paper's biggest impediment to finding the truth was Omar, Diaz added.
"What's really made it hard is that she's been unwilling to address any of these questions," Diaz wrote. "That has fueled the controversy."
"We've asked her these questions, and also asked her to make her father available. We've tried to reach Elmi. We've tried to reach her sisters. Her family could put this (the question of Elmi's relationship to Omar) to rest easily. No one will talk to us. I wish we could send a reporter to Mogadishu (Somalia) but we don't have the bandwidth."
Diaz currently says there is "circumstantial evidence that begs for some kind of explanation from a member of Congress," but his team is unable to reach a conclusion either way without more information from Omar. The Free Beacon has also been unable to come to a conclusion.
There is substantial evidence that her marriage to Elmi wasn't legitimate. Official records show, for example, that Omar continued to live with her current husband while she was married to Elmi, who is now living in the United Kingdom.
There is also a significant amount of evidence, in the form of official documents and scrubbed social media posts, suggesting there's a lot more to the story.
The Times wrote on Thursday that "no proof has emerged" to substantiate claims regarding Omar's marriage. It also did not speak to Omar, though it's unclear whether it requested any information or comment from her for its fact-check.
Omar has consistently been unwilling to answer questions since the allegation first surfaced. Her team's first on-the-record statement regarding whether she was married to her brother, to a PowerLine reporter in August 2016, was a refusal to answer questions.
"There are people who do not want an East African, Muslim woman elected to office and who will follow Donald Trump's playbook to prevent it," a campaign spokesman said, months before she was first elected. "Ilhan Omar's campaign will not be distracted by negative forces and will continue to focus its energy on creating positive engagement with community members to make the district and state more prosperous and equitable for everyone."
Continuing her pattern of selectively choosing what she wants to comment on, Omar last week refused to answer whether she would denounce al Qaeda terrorists.
Her office's only recent comment on the marriage issue has been an attempt to dissuade "legitimate media outlets" from investigating it.
"Whether by colluding with right-wing outlets to go after Muslim elected officials or hounding family members, legitimate media outlets have a responsibility not to fan the flames of hate," her office said. "Continuing to do so is not only demeaning to Ilhan, but to her entire family."