ST. PAUL — Contrary to a theory circulating on the Internet, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar did not participate in or attend protests the evening President Donald Trump rallied in Minneapolis.
Omar was overseas, according to her boarding passes obtained by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, as well as statements by witnesses who saw her on Thursday, Oct. 10 — the day that Trump rallied in the Target Center while protests — some violent — raged outside.
The false theory, which has gained national attention, was based on videos of the protests that show two people who look to some to be strikingly similar to Omar and political strategist Tim Mynett. Mynett has worked for Omar and is accused of being her lover by his wife in divorce papers — an allegation both Omar and Mynett have denied.
While it appears to have begun as a case of mistaken identity and coincidence, the idea was quickly seized on by influential figures in conservative social media, including a Trump campaign adviser, supported in chat rooms and forums, and amplified by a few conservative media outlets, gaining both traction and, in places, the hallmarks of conspiracy theories that seem bent on proving the improbable by trying to create constellations from irrelevant facts rather than accepting the most likely explanation.
A quick and dismissive denial by Omar was itself dismissed by supporters of the erroneous theory as lacking evidence, while others went so far as to use facial recognition software in an attempt to establish their presence.
Omar was in Africa
On Oct. 6, Omar boarded a 10 p.m. flight from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., to Casablanca, Morocco, according to a photo of her boarding pass that her office provided.
The trip was part of a Congressional delegation to Africa that included several other elected officials. One of them, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., confirmed that she was with Omar during the evening of Oct. 10, according to Zach Seidl, communications director for Bass.
On Oct. 11, Omar boarded a 4:10 p.m. flight from Casablanca to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, according to a photo of her boarding pass also provided by her office.
Omar, a Somali-born Democratic House member representing Minnesota’s 5th District, which includes Minneapolis, has been the target of frequent attacks from conservatives, including Trump. In his speech Thursday at the Target Center, he called her an “America-hating socialist,” remarks she used on Twitter that evening, watching from Africa, as a fundraising pitch.
Mynett was in Washington
Mynett is a political strategist from Washington, D.C., whom Omar hired in 2018 to work on her election campaign. He came under the media spotlight when allegations surfaced that he was having an extramarital affair with Omar.
Marcus Robinson, who works at Mynett’s E Street Group and serves as the firm’s spokesman, said he saw Mynett in Washington Oct. 10.
According to a statement Robinson provided: “We should not have to respond to baseless allegations that a member of our team was in Minnesota at an antifa rally, but that is the world that we live in. Tim Mynett was not in Minneapolis on Thursday, October 10, 2019, during President Trump’s hate filled rally. He was in Washington DC. I saw him leave our office late in the afternoon to get dinner with his son who spent the night with him. They wanted to celebrate the Nationals win the night before.”
Additionally, through an intermediary, Mynett provided the St. Paul Pioneer Press with two electronic receipts from two D.C. businesses establishing that he used his credit card there on Oct. 10.
What was the claim?
The theory that Omar and Mynett were at the protests was centered around video of the scene livestreamed by Andy Mannix, a reporter for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.
At various moments, a woman with an olive headscarf covering much of her face can be seen. At other times, a man whose face is covered by a black balaclava with glasses similar to Mynett’s can be seen. For a brief period, they’re in the frame together, and the man pulls down part of his balaclava to reveal his face. He walks off, and the woman follows after glancing at the camera.
Neither Mannix nor J.D. Duggan, a St. Paul Pioneer Press intern whose videos also captured the woman, said they noticed anyone resembling Omar. When Mannix began to see his video at the center of the theory, he, too, began fact-checking it, also concluding it was false.
“It’s disappointing and troubling to see my real on-the-ground reporting used to prove a false premise that’s not being vetted by the people who are sharing it and who are essentially trying to legitimize it by saying it’s from a legitimate source, the Star Tribune,” Mannix said Tuesday.
How the claim spread
Some Twitter users raised the idea that the pair was Omar and Mynett, and within 24 hours the idea was gaining traction among influential social media users.
Among them was Mohamad Tawhidi, an Australian commentator who has positioned himself as a reformer of Islam. On Twitter, he goes by “Imam of Peace” and has more than 575,000 followers. He spends much of his efforts criticizing Omar, and has gained credibility among some on the right, including bloggers, journalists and commentators who scrutinize Omar.
“What were you doing with Antifa last night in the violent riots against President @realDonaldTrump’s speech?” he posted the next day as part of a series of tweets that included collages and snippets of the video. Tawhidi could not be reached for comment.
The next morning, Tony Shaffer, a campaign adviser to Trump with more than 87,000 followers, tweeted “yes… @IlhanMN participated in the Antifa riot to attack Trump supporters…no surprise…but Congress should investigate and she should be held accountable…”
Shaffer couldn’t be reached for comment.
Like the Zapruder film that captured the attention of Kennedy assassination theorists, Mannix’s video began to be picked apart, frame by frame, by social media users who superimposed images and even used facial recognition software to analyze the two people, as well as Omar’s oldest daughter, a climate activist who seems to appear in some videos of the protests and posted photos of the happenings.
The Gateway Pundit, a conservative outlet that claims to be “More Accurate than The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC for Two Years and Counting!’ published a story headlined “CONFIRMED!… Ilhan Omar and Lover Tim Mynett Were Seen at the MN Trump Riots!” However, the false story doesn’t appear to have cracked larger media outlets.
Omar's denial doesn't sway some
In fact, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the claim on its face. To some, the woman doesn’t look enough like Omar. In some videos, she can be seen standing close to police on horseback, a precarious spot to be if violence were to erupt.
The very idea that Omar would attend incognito seems strange, since the protest was generally against Trump — someone she’s wanted to impeach since shortly after taking office. And Omar isn’t known to be shy about being in front of cameras in crowds that would appear to be supportive to her.
While some characterized the protesters as violent members of the “Antifa” movement, in fact, the crowd was a mix. The woman whom some thought was Omar isn’t seen acting violently, although at one point she stands by as a Trump supporter is briefly attacked by a protester who smacks his head to knock his hat off — part of the violence against some Trump supporters that some protesters carried out throughout the evening.
After learning of the theory, Omar dismissed the idea, tweeting a reply to Shaffer, in part, “They are clearly insane, the cult of fake photos and stories is at it again,” and also this: “Glad to be back home, having survived these snakes in Morocco I am ready to survive these right wing lurking snakes.”
They are clearly insane, the cult of fake photos and stories is at it again.
First they said I was at 911 party that never happened, this time I was at their klan rally while I was in Morocco.
Their obsession is going to have deadly outcome, hope these platforms can step in. pic.twitter.com/atOm9DzVDR
They are clearly insane, the cult of fake photos and stories is at it again.
The denial didn’t sway some. In fact, it seemed to give fuel to the idea, as theorists attempted to reconstruct — or poke holes in — Omar’s denial by scouring a patchwork of tweets from various members of Congress and African officials, leading to erroneous travel timelines, and some applying faulty logic to time zone differences.
Why some believed
But for Victoria Balfour, a former fact-checker for New York magazine, Esquire and other publications and a former reporter for People magazine, Omar’s tone didn’t sit right.
“I think what got me hooked in and kind of irked me was that she put the picture up of the snakes from Morocco, and that bugged me,” Balfour, now retired and living in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “It just seemed odd that she didn’t immediately put her flight tickets online. I would have done that.”
Like many Twitter observers, Balfour amplified the theories by retweeting or commenting, admittedly, she said in an interview, spending time on scouring posts on the issue as a “distraction” while she was in the process of moving. As a former fact-checker, she said her instinct started simply as “Let’s get to the bottom of it.” But eventually, she said, she had seen enough of the images, especially those showing the protesters side-by-side with real images of Omar and Mynett, that she found herself coming to the belief that the two really were at the protest, and that Omar wasn’t being truthful.
When the St. Paul Pioneer Press presented Balfour with our findings, she said she changed her mind. “I look at the (boarding passes), and I guess I have to believe it,” she said. ”At least we got to the bottom of it it. But I think there are probably going to be people who still don’t believe it.”
Indeed, one blogger preemptively laid out a scenario: “There is a possibility that this was a publicity stunt with a look-alike in order to crowd source a false identification. One possible reason for doing this might be to use this incident and the friendly MSM outlets to discredit the ‘conspiracy theorists.’”