Candidate Donald Trump made a dubious first impression on major Republican Jewish donors four years ago back when he appeared at their candidates forum as the frontrunner in their party’s primaries in late 2015.
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“You’re not gonna support me even though you know I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel,” he said in his maiden appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition. “And I know why you’re not going to support me. You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”
What a difference four years makes.
Today, President Trump no longer has to convince such donors that he “is good for Israel” or that they “just like me because my daughter happens to be Jewish.” And it is also now obvious that he very much wants their money - at a time when his Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden appears to be closing the fundraising gap between the two contenders.
Over the past week – three months ahead of the U.S. presidential election – two clear examples of that desire were on display. First, he reportedly berated his largest Jewish Republican donor for not giving his reelection effort enough financial support. Then, he appealed to Jewish supporters at a deep-pocket fundraiser hosted by a businessman whose father passed away from COVID-19, in which he received rabbinical blessings and showcased his support for Israel.
Trump exchanged angry words with mega-donor Sheldon Adelson over the phone last week, accusing the casino billionaire of failing to sufficiently finance his reelection campaign.
According to reports in both Politico and the New York Times, Adelson had called Trump to discuss coronavirus relief legislation when the president launched into his tirade. Adelson gave generously to Trump’s 2016 effort and underwrote his inauguration ceremony, was the largest single political donor during the 2018 midterm – giving some $113 million dollars to conservative candidates – and is poised to donate into the home stretch of the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns, after already pouring tens of millions into 2020 PACs.
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Reports of the Trump-Adelson exchange – which, the reports said, alarmed Trump’s aides – also caused two congressional Democrats to officially ask the FBI to investigate the phone call, suggesting that it could possibly constitute a criminal act. California Rep. Ted Lieu and New York Rep. Kathleen Rice sent a letter to the intelligence agency on Monday alleging that “a crime may have occurred” in the Trump-Adelson conversation, because any linkage of legislative action to donor funds would be illegal. Trump’s request for campaign support, the two congresspeople suggested, may have violated a law which “directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers or promises anything of value to a public official” with intent “to influence any official act.”
“In this case, Mr. Adelson discussed a specific piece of legislation, the Coronavirus relief bill, with the President,” Lieu and Rice wrote in the letter addressed to FBI director Christopher Wray. “In the same conversation, the President asked Mr. Adelson to do more to support his campaign. Depending on what exactly was said, a bribe or solicitation of a bribe may have occurred.”
On Sunday, the same day as details of the unpleasant conversation with Adelson were published, Trump had a far more pleasant interaction with enthusiastic supporters in the New Jersey Jewish community at a fundraiser hosted by Haim Chera, the son of one of Trump's friends, real estate Stanley Chera, who passed away in April after contracting the coronavirus.
In leaked videos posted on Twitter by the Jewish media outlet Belaaz, the event, which drew over 200 attendees, appeared to have the charged excitement of a Trump rally, with Haim Chera introducing Trump as “the greatest president in our country's history.” and lauding him for calling his family “every single day to do everything in your power” to help his father. Stanley Chera, 78, a Syrian Jewish billionaire and philanthropist was an early and staunch supporter of Trump’s political career, and an investor in Jared Kushner’s purchase of 666 Fifth Ave. before Kushner became Trump’s son-in-law.
Haim Chera now runs the family real estate empire, Crown Acquisitions, which owns, among other properties, the St. Regis Hotel and Cartier Mansion. He expressed sympathy for the challenges Trump faced in confronting the pandemic that took his father’s life. “You are fighting a war against an invisible enemy, recklessly or maliciously released onto our shores from China, and you still made time to offer your assistance to us,” Chera told Trump at the event on the Jersey Shore, which cost between $5,600 and $250,000 to attend – the higher amounts allowing greater access to the president.
In the video excerpts from his speech, Trump appeared relaxed and buoyed by the crowd’s support and Haim Chera’s warm and flattering introduction. When he began to promise the audience that “If we win reelection,” they interrupted him with chants of “we will win, we will win!”
Trump laughed and responded, “You’re right, I gotta have positive thinking, Right? When we win, we will have a deal with Iran within four weeks... I gotta give myself a month”
An Iran deal was an unusual choice of promise to a gathering whose strong support of Trump was bolstered by the fact that he walked away from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Obama administration’s nuclear deal.
Conservative foreign policy analyst Michael Doran interpreted his words as telegraphing “that Iran is in bad shape economically. It's holding out for a Biden victory, because Biden will lift the sanctions and go back to the JCPOA. If Trump wins, Tehran will have no choice but to make painful concessions.”
In another leaked video from the event, Trump was seen waxing nostalgic about his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recounting how he had adamantly refused to take the calls from world leaders objecting to the move until after he made the announcement. Also, according to the Belaaz report, Trump told the crowd that “we need more Jews in the U.S. that love Israel. Unfortunately there are Jews that don’t like Israel.” In December 2019, he made a similar comment to the Israel-American Council. Months before, he said that Jews who vote for Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
From all of the leaked excerpts and reports of Trump’s remarks to the supportive right-wing American Jewish crowd on Sunday, some of the omissions were perhaps as telling as what he actually said. There was no sign of the U.S. president mentioning now-embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a friendship both leaders made a point of continually spotlighting not long ago. And while Trump teased a supposed future Iran deal, there was no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian so-called Deal of the Century, or even a hint of evidence of support for annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Netanyahu recently insisted annexation was “not off the table,” but that the White House still “needs to back it.” Not a word about the controversial move has been uttered by Trump or his aides in weeks.
Even the slightest nod in that direction would have surely earned him a standing ovation in New Jersey – and helped heal any damage done in his reportedly testy conversation with Sheldon Adelson.