A once tepid relationship suddenly blossoms
"You get that with the package," top GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler says
Two top Jewish donors sat before their friends and shared how they would support the new President.
“He has to call hundreds of people,” said billionaire Sheldon Adelson, seated alongside fellow casino magnate and the Republican National Committee new chief fundraiser, Steve Wynn. “I just have to discuss it with my wife.”
No matter the number of zeros behind the checks they cut, both financiers will be focal points in Donald Trump’s new political infrastructure — and are installing unflinching fidelity to the President in their powerful ranks.
Elite Jewish Republicans, once as skeptical of Trump as nearly any other donor group, are quickly locking arms with the new administration and fusing their mission with the President’s.
That’s led to a recalibration at the Republican Jewish Coalition. Outside groups of every ideological stripe are rethinking their identities in Trump’s Washington, and the RJC, out of power for eight years, is no different. That transformation was on vivid display here at Adelson’s luxury Venetian hotel and casino this weekend, as the RJC transitions from an outside pressure player to an inside machinator.
“The difference between being offense and defense,” remarked Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director.
A once tepid and fractious relationship between establishment Jewish donors and an insurgent eager to poke them in the eye has suddenly blossomed into a full-bore embrace. Loyalty to Trump — whom Adelson also called likely to be the “best President for Israel ever” in his remarks, which were relayed by multiple attendees — now reigns supreme.
At the first RJC meeting since Trump was inaugurated, one never had to look too far to find an organization being molded in Trump’s image. Administration hands like Rep. Devin Nunes and communications aide Boris Epshteyn worked the Board of Directors, briefing the 50 most generous RJC donors behind closed doors on the White House’s thinking.
Industry titans like Wynn hunted for donations to Trump’s RNC, even though Wynn hasn’t even said whether he voted for him in November and isn’t technically a member of the RJC (“Did Steve Wynn hit you up for some money yet?” one top fundraiser asked another on Saturday.)
And perhaps most tellingly, top Jewish Republican donors showed little eagerness to blame Trump for occasionally crossing them, such as when he slow-walked acknowledging the anti-Semitism behind the Holocaust this month or the recent threats at Jewish community sites this week.
“You get that with the package,” said top GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler, who chalked up those controversies to mere political naïveté. “We’ve got a new president. We want him to win. We’re here to support him.”
Some elements of the RJC, though, won’t be subsumed by the Trump power structure — including its political deal-making. It unfolds over poker tournaments and Shabbat dinners here as donors ask for an audience and candidates ask for a dollar. Top Senate recruits paced the halls, handing out business cards to top GOP fundraisers and seeking out introductions to potential super PAC donors. Josh Mandel, the Ohio Senate candidate who is particularly close with Jewish Republican givers, hosted possible donors a few miles off the premises of the Venetian, and Jeff Bartos, a wealthy Pennsylvania realtor weighing a Senate challenge against Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, roamed the Venetian to network.
But down-ballot candidates, used to being hot commodities for a party out of power, are now fighting for attention with an administration that suddenly dominates the political oxygen breathed by Jewish Republicans. Their newfound allegiance reached a zenith on Friday evening, when Vice President Mike Pence delivered a steady, well-received address in a dim ballroom over Shabbat dinner.
“Hatred and anti-Semitism have no place in America,” Pence told the crowd, recalling his recent visit to the Missouri cemetery desecrated by vandalism. “If the world knows nothing else, the world will know this: America stands with Israel.”
Yet that kind reaction wasn’t always a guarantee. Trump pursued a topsy-turvy courtship with RJC contributors that to this day elicits head-shakes from top supporters. He spent much of the campaign openly mocking big-money donors — including Adelson, who is almost always sycophantically flattered by presidential aspirants — and telling them that “I don’t want your money” in a December 2015 speech to RJC leadership.
All that however faded to mere political turbulence when Trump staked out a hawkish position on Israel that positioned him to the right of even most Republicans. That’s elated at least one interested party: Adelson, who has dined at the White House during the opening weeks of the administration and earned a private audience with Pence on Friday evening before his remarks to the full ballroom.
But Jewish GOP leaders have already witnessed at least two cultural flashpoints that Trump managed to ignite. At least some Republicans have criticized Trump for a series of cultural missteps, such as his lack of hurry to condemn a recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks and omitting any mention of the Jews in a statement issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which earned him a rare rebuke from the RJC.
“He is who he is,” said former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, the new chair of the RJC Board of Trustees, when asked if Trump had more work to do on Jewish cultural issues. “We’re not shy about speaking out and saying ‘OK.’ If there’s something that we think isn’t exactly the way we would want it to be, we’ll articulate that.”
Both big-money and rank-and-file RJC members, in a series of interviews this weekend, evinced little concern about the miscues, dismissing them as oversights, especially given the number of high-ranking Jews in his family and the West Wing (“enough to make a minyan,” one joked.)
And besides, on their signature issue, Israel — donor after donor said — Trump couldn’t align with them better. That trumps all.
“The idea that he didn’t happen to say the right word, or the word that somebody was looking for,” said Marc Goldman, an influential RJC donor from Florida, “it doesn’t to me change anything about where he’s coming from.”