Another Day, Another Bizarre Donald Trump Speech
Donald Trump's speech yesterday at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition was as bizarre as anything else we've seen from him.
Yesterday, pretty much all of the Republican candidates for President spoke at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, but unsurprisingly it was the speech by Donald Trump that raised the most eyebrows:
Donald Trump touted his pro-Israel bona fides and tried to connect with the audience of wealthy Jewish donors, repeatedly referring to them as “negotiators” during his Thursday address at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Presidential Forum.
I’m a negotiator like you folks, we are negotiators,” Trump said, drawing laughter before pivoting to how he would renegotiate the Iran deal. “Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them — perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.”
The comments were largely met with laughter and smirks, and RJC spokesman Mark McNulty downplayed suggestions that Trump’s comments pointed to Jewish stereotypes.
“Donald Trump is well aware of the composition of our board and our audience — one that includes many successful businessmen and women as well as deal makers like him,” McNulty told CNN.
But while Trump tried to win over the audience of wealthy Jewish Republicans, the billionaire presidential candidate said he didn’t believe the assembled crowd would support him.
“You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine. Five months ago I was with you,” Trump said, pointing to his recent past as a much sought-after political donor who filled the campaign coffers of both Republicans and Democrats. “I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.”
And while those comments also faced scrutiny, the Anti-Defamation League, a leading hate speech and anti-Semitism watchdog, said Thursday in a statement that “we do not believe that it was Donald Trump’s intention to evoke anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
“Here, context is everything,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. “In this case he is speaking to a group of Jewish Republicans, a significant portion of whom are business people. We do not believe he intended his comments regarding negotiations and money to relate specifically to their Jewishness, but we understand that they could be interpreted that way.”
Greenblatt noted that his group has not hesitated in the past to call out Trump over his comments about Mexican immigrants and Muslims. And he encouraged Trump “to clarify that this was not his intention, and that he rejects the traditional stereotypes about Jews and money.”
Trump also faced boos from the crowd when in the question-and-answer portion of his appearance he would not pledge to keep Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
“I want to wait until I meet with Bibi,” Trump said, referring to his upcoming meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when Trump is scheduled to visit the country later this month.
As he faced boos, Trump fired back at the crowd, singling out one man who booed Trump: “Who’s the wise guy? Do me a favor, just relax, OK?”
As Trump leaned into elements of his standard stump speech, he came face to face with a very different reception than what he is used to on the campaign trail.
Instead of roaring applause, the candidate’s lines touting his front-runner status in the polls and his great successes in business were met with chuckles. And his broad platitudes as to how he would handle certain issues were met with blank stares and not whoops and cheers.
Trump’s refusal to vow Jerusalem would remain Israel’s undivided capital — a sticking point in negotiations with Palestinians — came as Trump defended himself from remarks he made in an interview with The Associated Press.
Donald Trump: I think Obama ‘hates Israel’
Trump in that interview suggested the burden of peace rested largely on the shoulders of the Jewish state, saying a peace deal “will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.”
Trump didn’t back off that statement on Thursday, saying that he doesn’t know whether “Israel has the commitment to make (a peace deal) and I don’t know that the other side has the commitment to make it.”
“It has to be said that Israel has given a lot,” Trump said, adding, “I don’t know whether or not they want to go along to that final step (of making a deal).”
Given the audience, Trump’s speech was bizarre not only for the way he seemed to blithely say things that would seem for all the world to be references to Jewish stereotypes, but also things that quite obviously would not be well-received by a group of Jewish-Americans regardless of their political ideology. The comments about Jerusalem, for example, are something that not even most Democratic candidates for President would say even though the official policy of the United States Government, going back to the Nixon Administration, has been that the final status of the city is something that can only be resolved as party of a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. As a matter of Israeli policy, though, and as pretty much every politician running for President has said for the past 40-odd years, Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel and for a candidate to say anything differently, especially before a predominantly Jewish group, is, well, just really, really strange. As for the rest of Trump’s remarks, I would remind everyone that this isn’t the first time that Trump has said things that border on the anti-Semitic:
In a 1991 book, one of Trump’s former colleagues recalled him saying, “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” (Trump called the things written about him in the book “probably true.”)
Here’s Trump’s full speech, if you dare:
Of course, Donald Trump wasn’t the only candidate who said odd things to the Republican Jewish Coalition yesterday. Ohio Governor John Kasich passed on some advice he supposedly received from his mother to make sure he had a Jewish friend. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore started out his remarks by mentioning that he just happened to be watching Schindler’s List the night before, which makes one wonder if he’d been talking to Jerry Seinfeld’s mother. And Ben Carson seemed to think that hummus is in charge of the Gaza Strip in an appearance that is likely to just reinforce the idea that he is clueless on foreign policy.
Beyond Trump, and beyond the gaffes, there was some substance to the event, but to a large degree is seemed like the candidates were largely pandering to their audience:
All but one of the 14 Republican presidential candidates took the stage on Thursday at the Republican Jewish Coalition forum — a rare moment in the GOP presidential campaign when each White House hopeful can speak at length before the same audience in the same day.
The well-informed, Jewish audience meant that candidates had to bring their A-game on foreign policy and were expected to speak to their pro-Israel stances. The forum also took place the day after the devastating mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which cast a clear shadow across the event.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was unable to make his afternoon speaking time due to votes in the Senate.
The audience’s clear favorites of the day included Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, two senators with demonstrably pro-Israel track records. The two young, Cuban-American senators are also rising to neck-and-neck in the polls behind front-runner Trump.
On the issue of the civil war in Syria, Cruz and Rubio took different approaches to whether Syrian President Bashar Assad should be removed from power. Cruz, speaking first in the day, warned against U.S.-spurred regime change and spoke out against the Obama administration seeking to remove Assad.
“Toppling a government and allowing radical Islamic terrorists to take over a nation is not benefiting our national security. Putting ISIS or Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of yet another state in the Middle East is not benefiting our national security,” Cruz said.
Rubio, taking the same stage about a half hour later, had harsh words for that perspective, saying leaving Assad in place creates the conditions for “the next ISIS.”
“This simplistic notion that, ‘Leave Assad there because he’s a brutal killer but he’s not as bad as what’s going to follow him,’ is a fundamental and simplistic and dangerous misunderstanding of the reality of the region,” Rubio said in a response to a question about Syria.
The two candidates aren’t just duking it out for voters — they are also making a play to appeal to powerful donors, many of whom pay close attention to the RJC forum. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and GOP mega-donor, wasn’t in attendance on Thursday, but the influential Jewish Republican is deciding whether to use his considerable wealth to support Rubio or Cruz.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has seen his poll numbers drop sharply over the past several months, but he found a warm reception at the RJC forum, where he still has many important boosters.
Bush took the stage to a standing ovation and cheering crowd, and the good will continued throughout his speech.
He won applause when he promised to “whup” Clinton if he won the nomination, and got plenty of love for his family, as well.
He name-dropped his brother, former President George W. Bush, who got applause from the crowd. “The person I rely on the most as it relates to U.S.-Israeli policy is my brother,” he said, to loud cheering. “I’ve got a damn good brother.”
The discussion at RJC was always going to have a heavy national security focus, but the event taking place a day after the San Bernardino shooting added an extra emphasis.
Many of the candidates addressed the shooting at the beginning of their remarks, though they differed on whether to call it terrorism.
Cruz said while details about the shooting in the wake of the Paris attacks were “still unclear,” it raised concerns of “radical Islamic terrorism here at home.”
“This horrific murder underscores that we are in a time of war,” Cruz said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a similar tack. “As a former prosecutor … I am convinced that was a terrorist attack,” he said, later adding: “We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war.”
Carly Fiorina also used her comments on the shooting to attack Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for her tweet on Wednesday as the shooting unfolded calling for gun control measures. “Hillary Clinton was tweeting about gun control while we learned that radicalized Islamic terrorists had been building pipe bombs,” Fiorina said.
For the most part, the things the candidates said at this gathering aren’t very different from anything that they’ve said on the stump, in interviews, and in debates, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important, especially when it comes to the developing battle battle between Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. While the Jewish vote is a relatively small factor in Republican politics, issues impacting Israel and the Middle East are important inside the Republican coalition to other parts of the GOP coalition, including most notably evangelical Christians in places like Iowa and South Carolina. When the Presidential candidates speak to a group like the RJC, they aren’t just speaking to Jewish American Republicans, but to a broader audience. Additionally, the fact that terrorism in general and ISIS in particular are becoming more prominent and important issues in the race in the wake of the events in Paris, and what may or may not be an attack in California that was at least inspired by international terrorism, means that we’re likely to hear more rhetoric like this on the campaign trail, at least in the short term.
To get back to Trump, though, it’s unlikely that this speech is going to harm him any more than anything else that he’s said over the past five months. Indeed, to the extent the media is going to attack him over it, it will probably end up helping him just as the fallout from all the other speeches has. It’s a strange year, my friends.