Before he was president of the United States, Donald Trump was a hard-driving businessman who expected his employees to be always available.
But not David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who sometimes broke up meetings with Trump to observe Jewish holidays and Shabbat.
“I have been with him at critical times on business deals where I had to leave the room and go home,” Friedman said in an interview during the presidential campaign last May, describing his years-long relationship with Trump. “I’m sure it was very frustrating for him that I just disappeared.”
That Trump permitted such a dynamic is evidence of an uncommonly close and respectful partnership that has now propelled Friedman to one of the most high-profile positions in global diplomacy — as Trump’s newly confirmed, albeit controversial, ambassador to Israel.
It’s a relationship that heartens conservatives in the United States and Israel, who hope Friedman will push Trump to the right on foreign policy issues relevant to Israel — from support for new settlements to shredding the nuclear deal with Iran. And it’s a relationship that worries more moderate and liberal voices within the Jewish American community, who see Friedman’s appointment to this crucial role as a threat to the hard-won bipartisan support Israel has secured in Washington for decades, given Friedman’s record of inflammatory remarks about progressive Jews.
“One of the things Israel has been so successful in cultivating over the years is a sense of bipartisanship . . . with respect to support both from within the political elites and also within the broader American community,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush and is one of five former ambassadors to Israel who signed a letter advising the Senate not to confirm Friedman.
“It would be horrendous for friends of Israel, who may not agree with some Israeli policies but still want to support Israel, to have it become a Republican-Democratic issue,” he told McClatchy.
Friedman and Trump have worked together on and off for years, with Friedman helping Trump handle bankruptcies of his casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and getting to know the Trump family in the process. He attended Ivanka Trump’s wedding to Jared Kushner and, according to Friedman’s friends and other longtime associates, is close to the first daughter — he’s even been known to text with her.
Friedman is comfortable being direct with the president in a way that might be challenging for newer members of the Trump orbit, who are navigating a White House with constantly shifting power centers.
“You have to give it to them straight,” Friedman told the publication Super Lawyers in 2011, of his approach to working with people like Trump. “You can really hurt a client, like a Donald Trump or a Carl Icahn, if you tell them what they want to hear.”
Despite a record of making incendiary statements about liberal Jews and President Barack Obama, for which he expressed regret in his confirmation hearings, the ambassador’s friends note that he is an accomplished lawyer who could steady a president seen by critics as erratic.
“In the few places in life the president has been vulnerable, David has been by his side,” said one source who has known Friedman for years and requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the sensitive relationship between Friedman and Trump.
“David has had a long-standing, very legitimate relationship with the president. Not a professional ‘you’re my attorney, not my peer,’ but a mutually respectful relationship, which I think is probably pretty rare for the president,” this person said. “I don’t believe it’s anybody’s impression that the president is all that interested in people who push back frequently.”
Conservatives, eager for improved relations between Israel and the U.S. after a sometimes-tense period under Obama, are counting on that relationship to facilitate rightward shifts in both the message and actions from Washington on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Friedman’s personal views on that struggle have been far more conservative than those expressed by the rest of the Trump administration. In fact, the White House’s policies toward Israel so far look fairly consistent with those of the last several administrations, said Daniel Shapiro, who was Obama’s ambassador to Israel and is now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“I have many differences with the Trump administration on many issues, both international and domestic,” said Shapiro, speaking to McClatchy in his new office here in Tel Aviv, less than 4 miles from the U.S. embassy that Friedman and Trump have said they want to move to Jerusalem. Trump has been more equivocal since taking office.
“But so far the approach on the question of Israelis and Palestinians, how others in the region can be involved in creating a productive regional atmosphere, has been much more cautious, much more responsible, much closer to historical norms of U.S. policy than on almost any other issue.”
Friedman won’t be the only voice on these issues speaking to Trump; the president is certainly getting views from Kushner, his son-in-law, who is a top adviser on the Middle East, and Jason Greenblatt, the chief legal officer at the Trump Organization-turned-special representative for international negotiations, was already wading into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process before Friedman was confirmed.
“It’s very likely that an ambassador with a close relationship to President Trump would retain that voice,” said Shapiro, who has such a relationship with Obama. “It’s not the same as sitting in the White House and being part of the conversation day in, day out.”
Yet in a region where perceptions of strength are paramount, Friedman automatically has credibility because of his very public ties to Trump — and that alone will help cement his influence.
Measured lawyer or firebrand ideologue?
Friedman, the son of a rabbi, is a Long Island native who also has an apartment in Jerusalem described as “magnificent” by friend Philip Rosen, who was briefly his law school roommate and has since worked with him on Trump bankruptcies.
In the past, Friedman has contributed to both Democrats and Republicans, including to former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and former Vice President Joe Biden. That’s not unusual in his circles, where politically minded Jews give to pro-Israel candidates on both sides of the aisle.
But it is his giving in Israel that bothers his critics, who fear that his strong support for Jewish settlements — including major backing for one deep in the West Bank, where the Friedman name is plastered on multiple buildings — will make it difficult for him to relate to anyone beyond the American and Israeli hard right. Worse, they fear that he will have no interest in doing so.
Fueling those anxieties is Friedman’s record of provocative statements about those who struck him as insufficiently pro-Israel, including liberal Jews. Last summer he accused the progressive J Street organization of being worse than Jews who aided the Nazis. He walked back those remarks during his confirmation hearings, but that wasn’t enough to quiet concerns from everyone.
“It’s a signal from Donald Trump, like so many other things, that it’s ‘my way or the highway,’ ” said Andrew Weinstein, the finance director of the Florida Democratic Party, who helped Obama with Jewish outreach. “I have concerns, as reflected by a confirmation vote in the Senate, which was closer than for any other ambassador to Israel in history.”
Indeed, ambassadors to Israel typically enjoy broad bipartisan support. But Friedman was confirmed by the Senate in late March largely along party lines and over the objections of even strongly pro-Israel Democrats who were bothered by his past rhetoric.
But in Israel, said Stephan Miller, an American-Israeli public opinion research analyst and campaign operative, that’s all inside baseball. What matters more is that Friedman is considered influential with Trump.
“The personal policies of an American ambassador matter very little,” Miller said. “His personal relationship with the president and senior staff is key, and the Israeli government will be grateful to have someone with a direct line, much like Shapiro had — irrespective of anything else.”
Meanwhile, Greenblatt could offer something of a template for Friedman. He was another Orthodox Jewish Trump lawyer with scant relevant policy experience in the Middle East, and he worked with Friedman to help dismantle language in the Republican Party platform calling for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet Greenblatt has impressed in diplomatic circles by making an effort to meet with constituencies on all sides of the issue, and he just returned from a summit hosted by the Arab League. He and Friedman already have a relationship going back years, and they spearheaded Trump’s Israel Advisory Committee during the campaign.
“Mr. Trump very much relies upon people he trusts. He trusts David. David’s very close with Mr. Kushner, with Mrs. Kushner,” Rosen said, referring to Ivanka Trump. “That will also reflect itself in how people deal with him. It’s going to be very much a positive for his job because of his closeness. It will reflect itself in how seriously they take him.”
At the same time, Friedman’s friends say he knows his place as ambassador. That means ultimately answering to the president, who, despite the hopes of conservatives in Israel and the United States, has so far not moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has not unraveled the multilateral Iran nuclear deal and has advised the Israeli government to cool it on the settlement building.
They point to Friedman’s background as an attorney with a major New York law firm to argue that he understands the meaning of going to bat for the client — in this case, for the Trump administration.
“I don’t think there will be that many differences between the U.S. policy that Mr. Trump puts forth from what (Friedman) believes,” Rosen said. “But if there are, David is going to be, as he was as a lawyer, a great advocate for his client’s interests.”