LOS ANGELES, December 21, 2015 — Of all of the presidential candidates who have ever spoken to the Republican Jewish Coalition, businessman Donald J. Trump is by far the most confounding.
Like radio host Howard Stern, people either love or hate Trump, and they never know what he will say next. Being indifferent to Trump is impossible. Being neutral about him is unthinkable. And when he spoke at the RJC 2015 Presidential Candidates Forum, he did not change his script. He did not pander to the audience.
His speech thrilled some, angered others, but was talked about afterward by everybody. He was introduced by RJC member Abby Friedman, who described Trump as a “mensch (well-mannered righteous person) with chutzpah (moxie bordering on unctuousness).”
Trump’s daughter Ivanka (through an Orthodox conversion) and her two children are Jewish, allowing Trump to begin with humor.
“You just like me because my daughter happens to be Jewish.”
He joked about being unable to reach his daughter on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath). He then told the crowd that he has done more for Israel than all the other candidates.
“I want your support, but I don’t want your money.”
Then came the bravado.
He bragged about the polls.
He gave $100,000 to Israeli disaster relief and said his father was an Israel supporter. He joked that he has received so many awards from Jewish groups but that “the Christians are finally catching up.”
He then went hard after the Obama administration, tossing out red meat. “Obama is the worst thing that has ever happened to Israel.”
He ridiculed other countries, pointing out that we in America do not build $43 million dollar gas stations in the Middle East and then use the wrong type of gasoline.
He attacked the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange.
“We don’t even get our prisoners back.” John Kerry is “probably the worst negotiator I have ever seen. … If I win, before I take office, I guarantee you those prisoners are going to be back.”
He talked about “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Regarding Obama, “There’s something going on with him that we don’t know about.”
Trump lit into Hillary Clinton. “She shouldn’t be allowed to run. What she did was criminal with the emails.” Hillary can’t go against Obama because if she does, he goes “boom” and she’s indicted. “He owns her.”
“She’s been involved in corruption her entire life. Her entire life is corruption. … She did a horrible job as Secretary of State. The world blew up around her.”
Trump mentioned that he did a campaign commercial for Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.
“I built a great company and I like to brag about it whenever possible. … That’s the kind of thinking we need in this country to bring us back.”
Trump again excoriated the Bowe Bergdahl deal. “I want to drop him smack dab in the middle of where he came from.” He called Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” and called our leaders “stupid people.”
Turning to domestic issues, Trump said he will repeal and replace Obamacare. He criticized Republicans who arrive in Washington, D.C. and just “lose all of their courage and let us down.”
Then came more bravado. “I am the best thing that ever happened to Israel.”
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”
He went after Jeb Bush for having “low energy.”
“I gave $350,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association and I didn’t even get a thank you letter.”
He spoke about how being a successful businessman requires attention to detail that would make him a successful president able to negotiate peace in the Middle East. “You have to watch to make sure the contractors are not stealing and ripping you off. … I believe I can get both sides together.”
“I’ll be able to know if I can put that deal together.”
Then came the remarks that had the crowd very concerned. He said of peace in the Middle East, “I don’t know that Israel has a commitment to make it and I don’t know if the other side has a commitment to make it.”
As for what he would require of each side, Trump wants to go in with a clean slate, but he made it clear that he will not reveal his cards in advance, only saying that, “Israel has given a lot.”
“The public relations for Israel hasn’t been so great. … Israel has not been given a lot of credit for what they have done.”
Trump refused to promise to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. One or two attendees even booed at that point. In the past, candidates have promised to move the embassy and then did not follow through. Candidates are frequently criticized for pandering, so it would be strange to castigate Trump for refusing to pander.
However, this was a pro-Israel crowd wanting a pro-Israel message. Trump was opening up concerns that did not exist before his speech.
He returned to the topic of Iran, where his remarks were well-received. He said that the Iran deal is the single worst thing that has ever happened to Israel. It is a catastrophe for Israel.
“If I get in, I will straighten it out.”
He has not worked with the Arab leaders, but he thinks the King of Jordan “seems like a nice man.”
Shifting briefly to domestic issues, Trump noted that being a businessman requires being able to get along with everybody. He then offered his knowledge of the problem of corporate inversions.
Asked about the greatest threat to the world, he said it was radical Islam. “I tell you the one thing I know is, it isn’t is global warming.”
Trump makes for great theatre, but his brutal honesty was a bold gamble. As expected, his critics overreacted so egregiously that they created sympathy for him. Salon Magazine, which despises Republicans for existing and breathing air and finds bigotry in everything, declared Trump’s remarks anti-Semitic. This assertion was as ludicrous as it was ironic, given that Salon has written pieces that fit in comfortably with the anti-Jewish left.
Trump caused consternation among his leftist critics by pointing out that the RJC attendees understood business and were tough negotiators. While the linking of Jews and money can be as odious as linking black people with fried chicken and watermelon, context is everything. Blacks have used the n-word with other blacks in a way that conveys great love, a controversial practice. Trump felt he was among friends, allowing him to be comfortable in his speech rather than scripted and guarded. He was among his fellow businesspeople, and he does have plenty of experience dealing with successful Jewish businesspeople.
What remains uncertain is whether the friendship runs both ways. This was a largely Neoconservative audience, and Trump has been very critical of that foreign policy vision. He could best be described, to paraphrase the late New York Jewish Mayor Ed Koch, as a Libertarian Paleocon with sanity.
That may not be good enough for the RJC crowd that categorically rejects that approach. Then again, with Trump, one never knows. Maybe it will be good enough.