What was Kellyanne Conway trying to say when asking a Jewish reporter, “What’s your ethnicity?”
During a press gaggle on July 16 at the White House, Breakfast Media correspondent Andrew Feinberg asked the White House counselor a question about President Donald Trump’s recent tweet condemning four Democratic congresswomen for “loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”
In the same tweet, Trump suggested that the lawmakers, all woman of color, should “go back” to the “places from which they came.”
At the subsequent press gathering, Feinberg asked Conway which countries she thought the president had in mind.
Conway responded with a question: “What’s your ethnicity?” When Feinberg responded, “Um, why is that relevant?” she continued, “No, no, because I’m asking you a question. My ancestors are from Ireland and Italy.”
Feinberg later said he hadn’t a clue why Conway asked the question.
So what exactly did she mean?
Twitter liberals played this as Conway trying to “other” a Jewish reporter, or at least insinuating that perhaps Feinberg had an ethnic affinity for “The Squad,” as the four freshman lawmakers have come to be known.
“It feels as though Conway is asking for proof of some sort of lineage before she is willing to answer the question from Feinberg,” wrote CNN’s Chris Cillizza.
Feinberg, for the record, didn’t see it that way.
Although he felt Conway’s question was “bizarre,” he tweeted, “No, I don’t think she was being anti-Semitic.” (Trump, meanwhile, has been defending his own remarks by saying all four of the congresswomen are anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.)
In a sorry-but-not-sorry follow-up tweet, Conway tries to explain, “This was meant with no disrespect. We are all from somewhere else ‘originally.’ I asked the question to answer the question and volunteered my own ethnicity: Italian and Irish. Like many, I am proud of my ethnicity, love the USA & grateful to God to be an American.”
Conway no doubt was prepared to defend Trump from what had become the widespread critique of his remarks: That they were racist, and/or a signal to nativist followers that, as columnist Charles Blow interpreted them in a New York Times essay condemning Trump, this is “a white country, founded and built by white men, and destined to be maintained as a white country.”
Why else, after all, would he single out four women of color in this way?
By acknowledging that Americans are “all from somewhere else ‘originally,’” Conway seems to suggest that the president didn’t care which countries the women come from. It was their criticism of America that stung.
(For the record, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a refugee from Somalia who came here at age 12, is the only one of “The Squad” who is not native-born. Rep. Rashida Tlaib is a Detroit-born Palestinian-American; New York native Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s father was born in Puerto Rico; and Rep. Ayanna Pressley is an African-American who hails from Chicago.)
In a quick pivot from her exchange with Feinberg, Conway went on to say of Trump, “He’s tired, a lot of us are sick and tired of this country — of America — coming last to people who swore an oath of office.”
In other words, the president doesn’t see ethnicity. He just sees a lack of patriotism. He would have directed his remarks at any lawmakers who, in his words, “loudly and viciously” attacked the government.
Bess Levin, writing in Vanity Fair, interpreted Conway’s reply that way.
“The point Conway seemed to be trying to make was that Trump, who does not have a racist bone in his body, might have told any Democratic critic to ‘go back’ to the ‘crime infested places from which they came,’” she wrote. “The fact that none of the four women he targeted are white, and that two of them are Muslim, had nothing to do with it!”
If that was what Conway was trying to say, she’s likely to get some pushback back at home. In an essay for The Washington Post, her husband of 18 years, George Conway, an attorney and frequent Trump critic, expressed his own opinion about the president’s remarks.
“Telling four non-white members of Congress — American citizens all, three natural-born — to ‘go back’ to the ‘countries’ they ‘originally came from’? That’s racist to the core,” he wrote. “It doesn’t matter what these representatives are for or against — and there’s plenty to criticize them for — it’s beyond the bounds of human decency. For anyone, not least a president.”
Andrew Silow-Carroll is JTA’s editor-in-chief.