(February 11, 2022 / JNS) Former U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, 39, who developed her Jewish identity in the Arab Gulf, announced her candidacy this week for an open, Republican-friendly congressional seat in Tennessee.
JNS chatted with the Florida-born candidate following her announcement on why she’s running for office, whether she can win on a pro-Trump platform, her time at the State Department during an immense period of change in the Middle East, and her unique story of a Jewish conversion that took shape in Baghdad and Riyadh.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What was the impetus here to make this congressional run at this time?
A: I sort of looked around at domestic U.S. policy and foreign policy, and it felt like everything was falling apart. I was with [former] President [Donald] Trump for years in the administration at the State Department as his spokesperson and for [former U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo. And I loved being in the fight. I loved advancing an “America First” foreign policy, and I think I could go around the world in so many ways in which President Trump got foreign policy right. I thought I’d do something, and that’s really always been my mantra—something that I’ve always abided by. I raised my hand and volunteered to serve in the Trump administration. I raised my hand and volunteered to serve in the military and the U.S. intelligence community. And now, for the first time, I’m raising my hand to serve the people of Middle Tennessee and run for Congress.
Q: This is effectively a new congressional district. It’s been redrawn. It was and still is currently a Democratic district, but the likelihood is that it’s going to flip Republican. Where do you fit into the Republican political landscape there in Tennessee?
A: We have so many great people in Middle Tennessee and Tennessee’s 5th district. Really strong pro-life conservatives, people who really stand strong with President Trump, and I think that’s why Trump endorsed me. Because he looked at the field and thought that I would be the strongest person to carry the “America First” agenda forward in Congress in to hold President [Joe] Biden and [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi accountable.
Q: Most people who know you or who recognize your name know you from your time as the State Department spokesperson. Obviously, you have deeper experience than that, working in intelligence at the Treasury Department and your experience at USAID. But, as they say, all politics are local. So how do you present yourself to the voting base as someone who has knowledge of and can handle local issues while bringing your foreign-policy experience into the fold?
A: So my husband and I joined Sherith Israel, an Orthodox temple. We’ve been going there for the past year. When I moved here, I wasn’t thinking about politics at all. I moved to Tennessee for the reason that so many people do, which is a better life for your children. I wanted my daughter to grow up in a place with conservative values. I wanted her to grow up in a place where people aren’t censored and where people aren’t silenced for what they think or what they believe. And that goes on right now around America. It’s actually quite scary that you are silenced for your political beliefs, silenced if you worked for President Trump. When I was the State Department spokesperson, I didn’t let the Chinese, the Russians or the Iranians silence me, and as Middle Tennessee’s representative in Congress, I’m not going to let anyone silence me there either. And I’m going to stand up for the people here who feel like they may not have a voice.
Q: You know, we’re seeing obviously this split that has been magnified over the last couple of weeks within the party as some are starting to peel away from the former president. Already in this conversation, you have brought him up a number of times. Do you feel that the pro-Trump base is there within your district that you can run touting his endorsement and his policies, and feel that’s going to be a winning proposition within that district?
A: I do. Listen, all I see is support from people here in Middle Tennessee for President Trump. In fact, everywhere I go, even before I ran for office, people knew that I worked for him, and they will come up to me and say: “Is he going to run? Please? Let him know we want him back.” And I think that’s because people knew during his four years that his policies were working. But unfortunately, over the last year, everything has just been so exacerbated that people now see that they have to make decisions that they shouldn’t have to make. They have to make decisions at the grocery store, about filling up their cart of groceries or filling up their gas tank—that shouldn’t happen in America. President Biden treats our southern border as if we’re a failed state, as if we’re some country that can’t protect itself. We do have policies where we can protect ourselves. President Trump had them. We just have to implement them.
So, immigration is a very, very strong issue in my district. It matters to me. The economy, inflation, supply chain. This is disrupting people’s lives here in Middle Tennessee, and more than anything, I think that my friends and neighbors here that I hope to represent in Congress just want someone who will stand up for them and for their conservative values.
Q: Bill Hagerty in Tennessee is a first-term senator jumping right into foreign policy (Hagerty sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), which is rare for a first-termer. I assume if elected, you’re going to do the same. If so, what do you intend to bring to the table in terms of foreign policy and, specifically, Middle East foreign policy?
A: Well, I think Middle Tennessee will certainly have an interesting representative in Congress in me. I am a mother, a wife, a veteran. I’m Jewish. National security experience, business experience. So, I think that there’s something in my bio and my background that a lot of people can relate to. And certainly, in foreign policy, I could go around the world.
But let’s start with the Middle East because that’s was so important for me. As you know, I was a part of the Abraham Accords with President Trump, [his son-in-law and senior adviser] Jared Kushner and Mike Pompeo. It’s so funny because when I first started out in my career working in foreign-policy issues, I always thought and hoped that one day in the culmination of my career that we’d be able to have some sort of peace in the Middle East, some sort of breakthrough that I worked on. I didn’t expect it to happen midway through my career and when we were able to, with the Abraham Accords, get four peace deals between Israel and Arab nations—all of this happened, by the way, while I was very pregnant. I had a baby girl two days after the election, and it will be forever ingrained in my memory of sitting in the Oval Office with President Trump twice when he conducted calls between former [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and the leaders of the UAE, and Bahrain and Sudan.
I remember looking around the room and hearing President Trump conduct the call. This is before we had the really big outdoor event that everyone saw. And when we were in the Oval Office, I thought, how am I going to explain to my daughter what the Middle East used to look like before President Trump? I’m going to have to tell her stories about, well, if you wanted to go to Jerusalem and you wanted to go to Dubai, you had to carry two different passports. And she’s going to look at me and think that’s as odd as a landline phone. And that’s because of President Trump that the world that my Jewish daughter will grow up in is one in which it’s perfectly normal to go to Israel for spring break or it’s perfectly normal to see an Israeli at a shuk in Manama, and for me to be able to be a part of that society.
But … it’s not magic. As you know, you don’t just get there by happenstance. You get there from four years of putting policies in place that were counterintuitive in Washington.
Q: You mentioned the rapid changes in the Middle East, and we’re seeing flourishing Jewish communities—open communities—in Bahrain, in the United Arab Emirates. You grew up in an evangelical Christian household and started dating a Jewish man who later became your husband and developed your Jewish identity starting in Baghdad while on assignment there. Later, you took your conversion courses online while you were in Saudi Arabia, which at that time was definitely not an open place to be a Jew and still very much isn’t. Give us a sense of what it’s like, as a Jew who essentially becomes a Jew in the Middle East, to see what Jewish life is like there now and see those changes. What does it mean for you?
A: Well, my husband always laughs and says that I’m probably so ferociously pro-Israel because I am a convert, and yes, my Jewish identity was not, you know, it’s not normal. It wasn’t the normal process that typical converts go through. And, in fact, I did my beit din and my mikvah in Washington, but I was in Baghdad on what we call a TDY, which is a short, temporary assignment. And you’re in a war zone and you start looking around, and you think, maybe I should find some religion here. There were Shabbat services on Friday night. It was a very small group of people, but we met in [deposed Iraqi dictator] Saddam’s [Hussein] palace. The first time I attended a Hanukkah celebration or Shabbat service was in Saddam’s palace, which we were still in in 2007, when I was there. I remember when we lit the menorah. I thought, my goodness, if Saddam Hussein only knew what we were doing in one of his palaces right now. So that was my first Hanukkah experience.
And then I came back from Baghdad. I was working in the intelligence community and decided to convert. I started taking some intro to Judaism classes at the JCC [Jewish community center] and then the Treasury Department offered me this job in 2010 to be their attaché to Saudi Arabia, and I said to my husband, who was only my boyfriend at the time, “Oh my gosh, I can’t take this job. I’m trying to convert.” And he said, “No, Morgan, you have to do it.”
So, I went to the rabbi, and it wasn’t like during the COVID pandemic. Doing things over Skype was still a little bit new. But we did my classes for a year every Friday. My boyfriend at the time went to the rabbi’s house, and we Skyped together for an hour. And it’s interesting because the rabbi said to me one time, “Oh, I wish that you had an experience where you were in temple every weekend.” Obviously, I wasn’t going to temple in Saudi Arabia, and he sort of said that he wished I had a more traditional conversion experience. And I said, wait a minute: If you look at the history and the totality of the Jewish people, I am having actually the most authentic Jewish experience. I’m in a place where I’m hiding the fact that I am Jewish—where when certain people come over, you have to hide your religious identity.
I had diplomatic immunity, so I had a lot more leeway at the time than other people in Saudi Arabia. Even Saudi has changed a lot since then. But I thought that even though my experience was unique for modern times, it was certainly not unique in the history of the Jewish people. And we could go back over generations where we had to keep the Jewish tradition alive, sometimes in secret. And so, that was back in 2011, when I did my beit din and mikvah, and have been a proud American Jew ever since. Proud to have a daughter who is going to grow up to be, I think, a very strong, fierce Jewish woman.
Q: You talk about your experience in Baghdad. And you met their Sam Vinograd, who is a well-known TV commentator and now works in national security for the Biden administration. You two became close friends in Baghdad. It’s an example of a Republican and a Democrat with very different points on the political spectrums able to actually have conversations and be friends. Can that actually occur in Congress nowadays because we’re seeing so much fighting, and everything becoming such a political point-scoring issue? If you’re elected to Congress, do you feel you can work across the aisle and actually find common ground?
A: Listen, democracy can be messy, of course. People fight because they’re fighting for things that they believe in, for the values that they believe in. Something that I’m particularly worried about in Congress when you talk about bipartisan issues is the waning support from the Democratic Party for the State of Israel. It’s downright scary, some of the comments that come out of some members of Congress. And so, we need more Jewish members of Congress, and that’s exactly why I’m running.
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