Donald Trump has equivocated in condemning violent neo-Nazis, he was slow to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and a host of white supremacists say they have been encouraged by his rhetoric.
But he has also acted to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he’s taken a harder line on Iran, and his administration has strongly defended Israel at the United Nations.
Jewish Republicans are deeply conflicted about this White House, as evidenced by this weekend’s gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition here in Las Vegas. Many donors who have long been fixtures of the organization were absent—for a wide range of reasons, but in part, one explained, because of “mixed feelings on RJC’s embrace of [the] Trump administration.”
Yet those who did show up were vocally supportive of Trump’s agenda, reflecting a broader Republican reality: some moderates have been alienated by Trump—but those who are staying involved are often all-in for his policies, if not for his tone.
“I think they’re feeling thrilled,” said former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, the chairman of the RJC, when asked how the center-right Jewish community feels about the Trump administration one year in. “If you look at the change of what has happened with Israel, in terms of moving the capital to Jerusalem, the tough approach to Iran, holding the UN finally accountable…I think there’s a great deal of enthusiasm in the center-right, pro-Israel community about President Trump.”
That’s a far cry from Coleman’s position two years ago, when he described Trump as “a bigot. A misogynist. A fraud. A bully,” in an op-ed headlined, “I will never vote for Donald Trump.”
Asked about that evolution, which one major GOP donor described as a “bellwether” for the RJC crowd, Coleman replied, “there are things I agree with the president on, things I disagree with. When it comes to Middle East policy, when it comes to what he’s doing in Iran, absolutely I’m thrilled he’s doing it, I’m thrilled he’s here.”
Trump’s presidency has forced nearly every GOP constituency to weigh stark trade-offs.
Evangelical Republicans have had to reconcile Trump’s tawdry personal history with his appointments of conservative judges. Congressional Republicans have tolerated Trump’s unpredictable governing style to secure his support for prized issues such as tax reform. And Jewish Republicans, a small but influential and strongly pro-Israel slice of the party, cringe at his divisive rhetoric and waffling toward white supremacists. But they are overjoyed by his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a priority for Sheldon Adelson, a GOP mega-donor and major benefactor of the RJC.
“Donald Trump’s style is not a good fit for Jewish Republicans, and because of his insensitive comments during both the campaign and in Charlottesville, there has been concern about his style,” said the major GOP donor, who is involved in the RJC, referencing Trump’s insistence that “both sides” were to blame when white supremacists violently rallied in that Virginia college town. “Having said that, people are very happy with his actions in office.”
And on the ground at the RJC gathering, held at Adelson’s Venetian resort, the emphasis was strongly on those actions.
“People here think he’s the best president for Israel we’ve ever had,” said Morton Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, another organization Adelson heavily supports. Klein, speaking to McClatchy from a plush chair in the Venetian’s VIP suite, went on to add of RJC attendees: “On Israel, they’ve surely been won over, there’s no question about it. His policies have been tremendous.”
Others weren’t quite so effusive. But the attitude toward the Trump administration was undoubtedly positive as attendees mingled with several prominent defenders of the White House at the off-the-record gathering. That list included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who addressed a Thursday evening dinner, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who attended a gathering of the RJC board Friday morning, and Anthony Scaramucci, the White House communications director who was fired after 10 days for extreme profanity, but praised Trump’s pro-Israel bona fides in a well-received speech on Saturday.
Beyond the walls of the Venetian, however, some Jewish Republicans are more deeply conflicted—while their coreligionists, the vast majority of whom are Democrats, remain appalled by the administration.
In August, after Trump’s Charlottesville controversy, he drew a rebuke from the RJC—but a bipartisan group of 11 former White House Jewish liaisons went much further, signing a long letter blastingTrump’s handling of the situation.
Noam Neusner, a signatory of that missive who served under George W. Bush, said that six months later, he is still troubled—even as he thinks Trump’s approach to the Middle East has been a significant improvement over his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who had a tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“For center-right Jews such as myself, that’s been the problem, is that on certain things he’s been overall positive—on the U.S.-Israel relationship, no question he’s better than Obama,” Neusner said. “But on so many aspects of how he’s handled the presidency, how he’s conducted himself, perhaps certain issues of leadership, fitness—it’s been a challenge.”
A longtime RJC donor and supporter who declined to attend the meeting this year decried the direction of the party under Trump, saying that concerns about the president’s tone and leadership style outweighed genuinely positive policy developments.
"On policy, there's a lot for Jewish Republicans to be happy about,” the source said, pointing to Israel policy as well as a business-friendly climate that many Republicans across the board are cheering. But, the donor continued, “When you take it in totality with other things, the way the president comports himself, the moral ambiguity around Charlottesville, race, religion, those types of issues where the president failed to lead with moral clarity, a lot of us find it offensive to our Jewish core values."
Meanwhile, according to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents are up 67 percent for the first three quarters of 2017 over the same time period in 2016—contributing to the unease some Jews are experiencing in the Trump era.
“I’m talking about harassment, vandalism, violence against Jewish individuals, institutions—I’m not even talking about social media,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, as he relayed those statistics. “Is the president to blame? No, I’m not saying that. However, do extremists feel emboldened in this environment? Yes, they absolutely do.”
Anti-Semitism is certainly not confined to one political party, but this year, two overtly anti-Semitic, longshot candidates—Paul Nehlen, who is primarying House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Arthur Jones, a congressional hopeful in Illinois—are running as Republicans, though they have been roundly criticized by others in their party.
Then there was Roy Moore, the GOP Senate candidate and accused child molester who faced accusations of insensitivity toward Jews. To that, his wife replied, “Fake news would tell you that we don’t care for Jews…one of our attorneys is a Jew.” Moore was backed by Trump.
"The party has left me,” the longtime RJC donor said. “My disappointment is not only in the president but in those folks in office who are Republicans who have chosen to shill for him...who are willing to tear down the institutions, presumably, to do the president's bidding. A lot of repair needs to happen before I raise money, advise, or otherwise support Republican candidates. I'm sitting out elections for the foreseeable future."
Trump’s allies, including some at the RJC, hotly dispute the idea that Trump has helped create an uncomfortable situation for the Jewish community.
“The people who were leaning toward the Republican side who are Jews, especially people involved with the RJC, are very positive about Trump and his treatment of Israel, anti-Semitism and so forth,” said Ronald Krongold, an RJC board member who has been close to Jeb Bush—a frequent Trump critic—for years.
And indeed, even many donors and activists who skipped this year's RJC did so for personal reasons, from back surgeries to bar mitzvahs—not to rebuke Trump. Adelson, who has a strong relationship with the White House, had to miss the RJC to attend a funeral.
Ari Fleischer, an RJC board member and former George W. Bush press secretary, also couldn’t make the gathering, but in an interview ahead of time, he correctly predicted that the crowd would be “quite upbeat for the administration.”
Like a host of other high-profile Jewish Republicans, Fleischer did not vote for Trump in November of 2016, leaving his choice for president blank. But, he said, “if Trump is running for reelection now, I would vote for him, absolutely, as of today.”
Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.