Trump's 'Very Fine People' Comment Convinced Biden to Run Against Him, Former Congressman Says

Steve Israel, who is advising the Biden campaign on Middle East policy, tells Haaretz that Trump's defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville is what got Biden join the presidential race

Amir Tibon
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Donald Trump, Steve Israel and Joe Biden.
Donald Trump, Steve Israel and Joe Biden.Credit: Mandel Agan/AFP, U.S. Government Printing Office, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Amir Tibon

Former Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) has an interesting message for Donald Trump: If the 45th president loses on November 3 to Joe Biden, he should place the blame not on any of his cabinet members or campaign advisers, but on the neo-Nazi protesters he described as “very fine people” in August 2017.

“I know for a fact, based on personal conversations with Joe Biden, that what compelled him to run for president was that event,” Israel told Haaretz this week in a phone interview. Trump’s shocking reaction to the far-right violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, caused the former vice president to run against the current president, according to Israel. 

“He couldn’t sit quiet while something like this was happening in America, and the fact that Trump defended them motivated him to enter the race,” Israel says. “When he says that for him, this election is a battle for the soul of the nation, it’s not a campaign slogan. He really feels that way.”

Israel served in Congress for 16 years, representing a competitive swing district on Long Island. He retired from Congress in 2016 but is currently advising the Biden campaign on Israel and Middle East policy. While he is not involved in the day-to-day operation of the presidential campaign, Israel says he senses a big difference from 2016: “This time, we’re not taking anything for granted – no state, district, media market or single voter is being taken for granted.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaking to supporters at the airport in Mosinee, Wisconsin, September 17, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaking to supporters at the airport in Mosinee, Wisconsin, September 17, 2020. Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP

The trauma of 2016, when Trump won by razor-thin margins in several swing states despite a 2.1-percent loss to Hillary Clinton in the national popular vote, is still fresh in Israel’s mind. But now, a month and a half before Election Day, he’s expressing reserved and cautious optimism, mostly based on what he describes as a “total collapse” for Trump’s campaign in America’s suburbs.

“When we talk about the Jewish vote in Florida, for example, everybody talks about Miami, but Biden is gaining a lot of support in the suburbs all across the state of Florida, including from the Jewish community,” Israel says. “That’s a major political development. We saw it play out in the 2018 midterms when moderate Democrats defeated Republicans in suburban districts all over the country.”

Crucial Florida seniors

Florida, a state where Biden enjoys a small lead according to most recent polls, looms large over the conversation. After voting twice for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the state flipped to Trump in 2016 and gave Democrats heartburn in 2018 by electing a Republican senator and governor by margins under 1 percent. Israel believes Biden is better situated than any other Democrat to bring the state back into the blue column.

“Seniors are moving towards Biden in this election, and that could be a huge factor in Florida,” Israel says. He jokes that when he visits Florida, “I meet half of my old district over there,” referring to the famous trend of New York retirees moving to the Sunshine State.

“I know this group of voters quite well, and I understand why they’re going to break away from Trump in this election and support Joe Biden. These voters paid a heavy price for Trump’s failures on COVID-19. Many of them are afraid to leave their home, have not met their grandchildren this year; the president has let them down.”

Congressman Steve Israel addresses students of U.S. Naval War College’s 2016 graduating class during a commencement ceremony, in Newport, Rhode Island, June 17, 2016.
Congressman Steve Israel addresses students of U.S. Naval War College’s 2016 graduating class during a commencement ceremony, in Newport, Rhode Island, June 17, 2016.Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christian Eskelund/U.S. Navy

Israel is also encouraged that Biden is gaining not just among suburban voters but also among white voters without college degrees, a bloc that almost single-handedly gave Trump the victory in 2016.

“People can’t send their kids to school safely, they see a president who admits that he lied to the public, and on the other side is someone who is decent and proved during the Obama years that he can get the job done,” Israel says, noting that Biden led the Obama administration’s successful effort to stop the spread of Ebola in 2014.

But despite his optimism, Israel also warns Democrats against complacency and the temptation to count Trump out. He admits that Republican attempts to suppress the vote and limit people’s ability to cast ballots are keeping him up at night. “That’s the one thing I worry most about,” he says. “Trump is trying to discredit the election; it’s extremely dangerous for our country.”

White nationalist demonstrators clashing with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
White nationalist demonstrators clashing with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.Credit: Steve Helber / AP

The Jewish vote

A poll released this week showed Trump winning 30 percent of the Jewish vote to Biden’s 67 percent, a slight improvement for the president from the 25 percent he received in 2016 exit polls. Israel, however, looks at the glass as two-thirds full: “I’ll take 70 percent over 30 percent of votes any day of the week,” he says with a chuckle.

The same poll showed that a majority of American Jews feel less safe under Trump, and that antisemitism is a major concern for the community ahead of November 3. Israel says the numbers are sad, but not surprising. In an article he published this week in The Hill, Israel gave a list of examples where Trump praised or endorsed antisemitic people and attacked the American Jewish community.

“For the record, I do not believe that the president is antisemitic. But he seems to enjoy dancing with those who are,” Israel wrote.

Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden delivering remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, September 16, 2020.
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden delivering remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, September 16, 2020. Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Israel also believes that Biden is well equipped for any argument with Trump on who would be better for the country that shares the former congressman’s last name. “Just ask anybody in the Obama administration about the role Biden played in securing the supply of Iron Dome batteries to Israel when Israel was under attack from Hamas,” Israel says. “Biden has a long record of supporting Israel and working with different Israeli prime ministers. The level of support and cooperation is going to be very high.”

Biden released a statement this week praising the accords signed at the White House between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, even though Trump used the occasion to mock the former vice president, turning the event into a political gathering. Israel thinks Biden was right to praise the agreement despite Trump’s behavior.

“Biden is an honest man, and he knows that these ties between Israel and the Gulf countries were built quietly, behind the scenes, for years. He did the right thing by congratulating Trump for finishing the process and formalizing those ties on his watch.”

The former congressman’s eyes, however, weren’t fixed just on the White House lawn this week, but also on a major piece of news out of New York: Mike Bloomberg’s decision to invest at least $100 million to help Biden defeat Trump in Florida.

“This decision could have a big impact,” Israel says, praising the billionaire former New York City mayor for “putting his money where his mouth is.” According to Israel, “Bloomberg is very strategic about his political spending. He helped the Democrats win the House of Representatives in 2018. He wants to have the same kind of impact in 2020, and there is no better place to do that than in Florida.”

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