These are heady days for casino billionaire and megadonor Sheldon Adelson.
A passionate and hawkish advocate for Israel with close ties to its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson was in Jerusalem today for a celebration of the U.S. embassy’s relocation to that city, a longstanding priority for the mogul. Similarly, Adelson had pushed hard for President Donald Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, which happened last week.
And the day after that announcement, Adelson quietly slipped into the White House for a private meeting with Trump and three top administration officials: Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and an Adelson favorite, National Security Adviser John Bolton, according to two conservative sources familiar with the previously unreported private event.
Both the embassy move and the withdrawal from the 2015 pact that coupled the lifting of sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s dismantling of its nuclear program have sparked controversy and criticism from some key American allies. On Monday, Palestinian officials said at least 52 Palestinians were killed by Israelis as they tried to break through a fence separating Gaza and Israel, in part to protest the embassy's relocation. The White House actions partially are testament to Adelson’s clout and that of like-minded pro-Israel conservatives, many observers believe.
Mel Sembler, a fellow board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a former fundraising chair of the Republican National Committee, thinks Adelson’s influence was palpable. “I’d say he was an important factor in all these decisions,” said Sembler.
But the moves also raise questions about the appearance of foreign policy being linked to big donations to Trump and other Republicans. Adelson, who will turn 85 this August, has been an influential donor with GOP political leaders who have courted him assiduously for almost a decade. But the casino tycoon seems to have reached new levels of cachet with the Trump administration in office.
At the beginning of this month, Adelson committed $30 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC, to help GOP House members in their fight to keep the majority this fall — and thus protect Trump. Former Sen. Norm Coleman, who chairs both the CLF and the RJC, and House Speaker Paul Ryan flew to Las Vegas to make the pitch. (Members of Congress are barred from asking directly for super PAC funds, so Ryan left the room before a formal request was made to Adelson.) The CLF and an allied nonprofit, the American Action Network, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors, are aiming to raise $100 million to help House Republicans and their priorities.
But Adelson’s cash also helped elect Trump — even though during the campaign Trump often asserted his independence of big donors to portray himself as a self-styled populist.
“I don’t need anybody’s money,” he said in mid-June 2015. “I’m using my own money…I’m really rich.”
In 2016, Adelson gave almost $83 million in publicly disclosed funds to Republican groups and candidates, including $20 million to Future 45, a super PAC that backed Trump. He also threw in a record $5 million to the inaugural committee, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
During the inaugural parties last January, Adelson received a special shout-out from the president himself.
At one big inaugural gala, Trump thanked Adelson publicly for donating, along with his wife, an Israeli-born physician, $120 million to numerous outside groups and candidates in 2016 to help put him in the White House and keep the GOP majority in Congress, two people who heard the remarks told McClatchy. The larger figure likely includes funds given by Adelson to politically active nonprofit groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.
Still, Adelson and his allies had to keep up the pressure on Trump to achieve both of their recent successes. Adelson was upset that Trump didn’t act to move the embassy early on in his tenure, as he’d pledged during the campaign. Likewise, Trump took a long time to decide to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.
But the Las Vegas billionaire — currently rated the 16th richest man in the world with a net worth of $42. 5 billion, according to Forbes — isn’t shy about expressing his views to political heavyweights; at one point, he even offered to help pay for construction of a new embassy building if Trump made the move.
Neither the White House nor a spokesman for Adelson's company responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.
Last week’s visit to the Trump White House wasn’t the first for Adelson; he was also there, meeting and discussing policy with Trump and several advisers, in October.
Today, he was in Israel with a delegation of several dozen board members from the RJC, another nonprofit he has generously bankrolled.
"From an Israeli perspective, rejecting the Iranian deal and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital (show) support for Israel that is unparalleled and deeply appreciated,” said Coleman.
Which explains why Adelson is now in a jubilant mood, say his associates.
After years of pushing hard for the embassy move and tougher policies towards Iran, Adelson and fellow conservatives have a backer in the White House whom they can deal with, and the casino tycoon is enjoying his access.