Rep. Omar Blasts Trump’s “American Exceptionalism” as US Leads in COVID-19 Cases

As much of the United States is under lockdown, the House votes today on a $2 trillion emergency relief package to address the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. It will generate payments to most Americans and includes protections for workers, but it is also a massive bailout for a number of industries and corporations, and the vote comes as a record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. We speak with Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first Somali American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the first Muslim women in Congress, about the bill, Trump’s response to the pandemic, how she has joined calls for student debt relief and to release immigrants and prisoners facing infection, and the challenges African countries face in responding to the coronavirus.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. We’re broadcasting from New York City. The United States is now number one in the world for coronavirus infections, overtaking China and Italy. The number of cases in the U.S. has surged to 85,000 people. The number is far higher because of the lack of testing. As President Trump continues to defy his scientific advisers and downplay the threat of the highly contagious disease, at least 1,300 people have died across the U.S., and the global death toll is more than 24,000. As much of the United States and the world is under lockdown, the House of Representatives is voting today on a $2 trillion emergency relief package to address the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. The bill will generate payments to most Americans and includes protections for workers, but it’s also a massive bailout for a number of corporations and industries. The vote comes as a record-shattering nearly 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week amidst the coronavirus crisis. This is optician Ali Nelson, who was laid off amidst the pandemic.

ALI NELSON: We stayed open as long as we could, until it just got to be too much, and our boss just pretty much said, you know, “We’re going to have to shut down until further notice.” And so that’s kind of where we’re at right now. So, not fortunately, it’s a small company, so we’re not getting paid. And I’m the primary wage earner in my home. And so, you know, I went ahead and filed for unemployment.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. She’s the first Somali American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the first Muslim women in Congress along with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and she’s the only refugee, a refugee from Africa.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Congressmember Omar. Can you talk today about what you are voting on? Can you talk about this massive, the largest bill, relief bill, in the history of United States? What concerns you most? Why are you supporting it?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Thank you, Amy, for having me. I was just listening to you go through the story, and being the epicenter of this pandemic truly is the wrong kind of American exceptionalism. We would like to be on top of every list. This is the one list we should never really aspire to be on. And I think this crisis and this pandemic really lays bare the kind of inequalities that have existed for far too long in our country. And the conversations we’re having right now as we put forth our third relief package shows us that there is often a prioritization of corporate interests and often not a prioritization of the interests of the people.

So, today I plan on voting for this bill, not because it’s perfect or it’s sufficient, but because I think, in a time where we are facing one of the largest crises we’ve faced in our country, it’s going to be really important for us to do everything that we can to protect the lives and the livelihoods of the people of this country. My home state, just in 10 days, there has been 165,000 people who filed for unemployment insurance. And nationwide, as you said, it’s 3.3 million. And so we have to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to deliver relief.

So, a few of the things that are in this package really align with the progressive vision that we’ve had and some of the bills that I’ve introduced as we’ve gone through this crisis. One is that it will offer cash relief. It’s not the kind of universal or monthly cash relief that I had championed, but it will be helpful to a lot of people. We are also seeing exceptional expansion of unemployment insurance. As you know, that’s thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders, who made sure that we had that in there. For the first time, we saw Republicans get bent out of shape because Americans who are poor might be able to get a few extra dollars, even though they are going to be the most in need during this crisis. We’re also seeing an expansion of the unemployment insurance, where it will cover people who are new — who have had a new entrance into the job market, people who are self-employed, people who are self-isolating or are forced to isolate. And so, it is going to be a helpful package in that regard.

We’re going to see real relief for small businesses. In my district, in the Minnesota 5th, we’re seeing a real squeeze and pain being felt by small businesses. And so I introduced the ABLE Act, and I believe this package currently allows for the vision that I had to be actualized.

We also heard so much from our local municipalities, big cities, small cities. I represent Minneapolis and 15 suburban cities, and so we know that many of them need the relief that comes — that’s coming in this package toward states and local municipalities. There are many governors and mayors around the country, like our governor, Walz, who are showing exceptional leadership, who are not downplaying this pandemic, who are doing everything that they can to protect the public, provide relief. Minnesota is one of the few states that has put a moratorium on eviction. They’re working really hard to try to make sure that there is support for people. We also have a sort of a lockdown in place that helps curb the spread of this virus — visions that we have for the country that are being carried out by the leadership in Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Congressmember Omar, let me ask you. The bill includes a $1,200 one-time payment to most Americans, with $500 in addition for kids. You have called for getting cash in people’s hands; it should be universal and monthly. How are people going to get this money, even those that get this one-shot deal, people in the gig economy? How is it delivered to them?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah, that really is the one piece that this bill is very divergent from the vision that I had and many others had. We expected that it would go through the IRS and Social Security to make sure everyone would be able to get the money that they need. And now we’re hearing that this process is going to go through the IRS for people who have filed taxes before and people who have accounts and had direct deposits. And so it’s going to be a very messy process and completely disheartening, because we know Americans need this relief today. And so, any administrative delay is going to exasperate the kind of economic anxiety and pain many of our community members are feeling.

AMY GOODMAN: Tour fellow congressmember, Rashida Tlaib, has called for the government to give out debit cards that people can have access to money right away.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Right, because what you want is you want to make sure that you’re making it as accessible as possible and that you are not spending money on administrative costs. And so, when we make this process means-tested, when we make it a process that goes through so many hoops, we know it’s not going to get into the hands of the people that need it the most when they need it the most. And so, that’s the piece in this legislation that’s really devastating, because we know that the corporations that are getting the bailout are not going to have difficulties in extracting the money that they’re being promised, but the people will. And that really is when you get to see how unjust our systems can be and how cruel it is to be poor and disconnected and resourceless in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: You and Congressmember Ayanna Pressley have introduced legislation to cancel student debt as part of the COVID-19 emergency stimulus package. Was that included in the bill? Explain.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: So, what we were calling for was a $30,000 cancellation of student debt. The bill currently does not have that. It has about $10,000. Again, it is not as clean as it would have been with Ayanna and I’s bill, and it, again, will have a huge process. The one thing that I am exceptionally excited about, it’s the fact that there is a deferment for student debt so that people can get relief for a few months in regards to that.

AMY GOODMAN: What about undocumented immigrants, the millions of millions and millions of people who are afraid to come forward, perhaps even to get tested, which is not only protection for them, but for the whole community? When President Trump was asked about this, whether they would be gone after if they went to a hospital or if they got a test, he said, “No, they can certainly do that. It’s important,” he suggested, “before they’re deported to another country.” Your response?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: So, we know that there are many people who are still being subjected to ICE raids, who are being put in ICE detention. Just a few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of my sisters in service, was at an airport due to a tip, where she stopped young children that were being trafficked by an ICE agent, transported from one state to another. And it is really inhumane to see us continue in this process. ICE detention centers are overly crowded. So we’ve called for a halt in deportation. We’ve called for a halt in all immigration court proceedings, because we know that that could be a hot spot for the spread of the virus. We’ve called for a stop in having ICE come into our communities and terrorize people.

We want people to feel comfortable enough to seek medical attention when they need it. The reason sanctuary cities exist is because it allows those that are most vulnerable in our communities to be able to access the services that they need. When you have vulnerable communities hiding, not seeking the service that they need, you put all of us at risk. And so we want people to lead with humanity. We want for there to be a just society. And so, when we’re asking for clemency for those that are ill, that are elderly in our jails and prisons, we’re asking for people to be saved who need to be saved. And so, it is really devastating to know that the “party of life” really devalues human life, regards to class or ethnicity or gender. And that, I think, is the center of the conversation we’re having.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Omar, we had on the former director of ICE, John Sandweg, who is calling for ICE, which has the ultimate authority in this particular case, to release thousands of detainees. How is this being addressed right now?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: It’s not. We’ve put out a letter. My office led a letter to the administration, to the Department of Homeland Security, asking them to do precisely what the former director is calling for. We know that there are so many people who are caught up in this unjust immigration system. Not everybody is the violent murderer that the Republicans talk about. There are so many people who have a right to seek asylum, who have a right to come and look for opportunities to start anew. And we need to give them that opportunity, and we need to protect their life at the moment. And again, like I said, it’s really quite astonishing to see that the “party of life” does not advocate for all human life to be uplifted.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Omar, you have been very critical of the $500 billion, what some people are calling a corporate slush fund, that it has very little oversight, though it was strengthened somewhat in this latest bill. Others said, “Why wasn’t it just sliced out of the $2 trillion package?” That you have the president saying he’ll be the oversight on what corporations are bailed out. How do you feel that there are some now protections and safeguards in this bill that you’re voting on today, about who gets this?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, first of all, nobody trusts Trump and his administration to have oversight over anything, let alone this kind of corporate welfare. And we know, in previous bailouts, money has been misused, and it took years to be able to regulate it and make sure that it was going into the hands of the right people. And so, there are some protections in place, and I look forward to what the follow-ups are going to be as we strengthen the kind of check and balances that we want to put in place. This is when it’s going to be really important for Congress to exercise their oversight powers to make sure that this independent agency that we’re going to put in place has the right people at the table to be able to make sure that they are protecting American tax dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Omar, you are the first African refugee to be elected to Congress. You are from Somalia. Africa has been called a ticking time bomb in the coronavirus pandemic. What needs to happen there? What are your deepest concerns there?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah, I mean, it’s really a privilege when we talk about social distancing, right? I recently read an article that was shared by my sister, who’s currently living in Africa. And she said, you know, in Africa, social distancing is just not possible. And so we know that they don’t have the privileges in many spots in Africa where they can go and get a week’s worth of groceries and have it be refrigerated. Many of Africa doesn’t have the broadband capacity or internet capacity, electricity capacity, to be able to work from home for a mass population. And so, my hope is that the efforts that are being put in place by some of the leaders there really do work, the people try to take as many precautions as they can, and that we don’t stop thinking about those that are in countries that are not as fortunate as ours. If we are struggling this much as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in providing urgent and proper healthcare to people who need it, in providing financial relief to people who need it, in stabilizing our economy, in delivering much-needed services to our most vulnerable, can you imagine what countries that are heavily populated but don’t have any of those resources may be dealing with?

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember, we have to go, but I wanted to ask your overall assessment of how President Trump has handled this, from the egregious lack of tests that are available in this country, that go to the core of public health strategies to find hot spots, to know how to deal with people, to the issue of protective gear being available to the bravest in this country, the doctors, the nurses, the people who are doing sanitation in hospitals, being protected. Can you assess what President Trump has done?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. In the experts we trust. In Donald Trump we don’t. It is really devastating to watch how much he is downplaying this crisis, how much he’s driven really by his poll numbers and what is going to happen in the upcoming election. This is the time for bold leadership. This is the time to make sure that you are protecting every single American. When we think about war, one of the first things that happens is that you are told to leave no one behind. And so we want this president, this administration, to stop fooling around, to stop downplaying this crisis, to really take this pandemic serious, to protect —

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump saying he’s going to try to open the country up by —

REP. ILHAN OMAR: — the American people, to put in place proper policies.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump saying he’ll try to open the country up by Easter, when the doctors and the —

REP. ILHAN OMAR: That is — that is extremely irresponsible and dangerous. We want to make sure that people are being protected. Lives are much more important than this economy, regardless of what the president or some of Republican talking heads might say. It is really quite devastating to see people have a conversation about what it looks like to prioritize anything other than preserving the lives and the livelihoods of the people we were elected to preserve. And so, I ask vigorously of every single American to have a conversation about the lack of leadership that is being shown and the kind of danger that we are being put in by a president who certainly doesn’t know how to trust scientists, who some have even asked if he knows what a ventilator is, and someone who clearly doesn’t have a clue what it means to put country first.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Ilhan Omar, I want to thank you for being with us, representing the 5th Congressional District in Minnesota, one of two Muslim women, now the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress and the first African refugee to serve there.

When we come back, we speak with author Matt Stoller, who says, “The coronavirus relief bill could turn into a corporate coup if we aren’t careful.” Stay with us.