LAS VEGAS — An uncomfortable debate broke out this weekend as the most prominent group of Jewish Republican donors in the country gathered at Sheldon Adelson’s lavish Venetian hotel: Should criticism of President Donald Trump be allowed?
Many Jews have been angered by Trump’s delayed response to anti-Semitic acts and other perceived infractions. But at a closed-door session on Friday, Beverly Hills homemaker Elissa Czuker, who contributed $50,000 to elect Trump during the closing days of the campaign, questioned whether it was appropriate that some board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition had publicly called out the new GOP president. Others, including Florida dental insurance executive Jeffrey Feingold, pushed back on the idea of silencing Trump’s critics, according to two people who described the off-the-record meeting.
The tug-of-war underscored a growing divide over Trump among Republican Jews, a group that counts Adelson as its de-facto leader. Many are elated by their party’s stunning election win and the fact that Barack Obama, who was seen as being openly antagonistic to Israel, is no longer in the Oval Office.
But in conversations here over the weekend, attendees conveyed frustration over Trump’s lack of clarity on the Middle East peace process, his failure until recently to respond forcefully to a rash of anti-Semitic acts since his election, and his administration’s decision to not mention Jews in a statement commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last month, two Adelson-funded groups, the RJC and the Zionist Organization of America, criticized the White House for the latter omission.
Some attendees said they were relieved last week when Trump spoke out after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery. But they’re looking for more.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said one donor, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the White House. “It’s one thing to say there is no place for anti-Semitism in our communities, but what is he going to do about it?”
Others fretted that Trump’s unpredictable temperament will thwart his efforts to reach a peace accord. “People are worried that he’s a loose cannon,” said one attendee. “There’s a real concern that he could slide off the edge.”
Still others were suspicious that the administration will renege on their promises, such as Trump’s oft-repeated pledge that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. When Vice President Mike Pence addressed RJC members at a Shabbat dinner on Friday evening, he would only say that the White House is “assessing” a possible move — a walk-back that drew a decidedly muted response.
“Every White House has missteps,” remarked one conference visitor. “He’s got a different style from George W. Bush and we’re going to have to get used to that.”
Behind the scenes, the White House is taking steps to win over Republican Jews, a small but influential group. It has enlisted the 83-year-old Adelson, whose estimated $30 billion net worth has made him one of the Republican Party’s most sought-after donors, as an unofficial adviser. Two senior Trump aides, Jared Kushner and Stephen Bannon, have been holding regular and detailed conversations with Adelson about Israel, his longtime passion and focus.
Adelson recently flew to Washington, where he dined with the president and offered his views on how an Israeli-Palestinian peace process could play out. The mogul has spoken highly of David Friedman, Trump’s hawkish pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The outreach has gone further. Kushner, a 36-year-old Orthodox Jew who is leading the Trump push for a Middle East peace deal, has been in touch with RJC executive director Matt Brooks about a variety of issues. A few weeks after the RJC criticized the administration over the Holocaust statement, Brooks was invited to the White House and met briefly with the president.
Also visiting the White House recently was Sara Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She met for breakfast with Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn, who has been identified as the Trump aide who wrote the much-criticized Holocaust statement. (Neither Bloomfield nor Epshteyn would comment on the meeting.)
The administration is also working to combat charges that it has tolerated or tacitly condoned anti-Semitic sentiment. Pence last week visited the Jewish cemetery outside St. Louis that was vandalized. And on Friday, during his RJC speech, the vice president delivered a forceful repudiation of anti-Semitism, saying that it had “no place” in America.
Pence’s remarks came a few days after Trump, responding to the toppling of 170 graves at the cemetery, said that “anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community at community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” Kushner played a key role in encouraging the president to speak out on the matter, according to a person briefed on the discussions.
Looking to have a presence at the RJC, the White House dispatched Epshteyn, a Russian-born Jewish immigrant, to Las Vegas for this weekend’s gathering. At Friday’s board meeting, he was asked how the party could refute accusations that the administration was stirring anti-Jewish views.
Epshteyn delivered a detailed answer that included offering an assurance to the group that Bannon is not anti-Semitic, according to two people present. The website that Bannon oversaw before joining the White House, Breitbart News, has been accused of publishing anti-Semitic content. Many attendees agreed that, to the contrary, Bannon has made clear he’s a staunch ally of the Jewish community.
The overtures won some over.
“Whatever conversations I’ve had with people in the White House have been more than satisfactory in terms of the issues I’ve been concerned about,” said Mort Klein, a friend of Adelson and president of the Zionist Organization of America. Klein had criticized Trump several times during his first days in office, but said, “I couldn’t be more sanguine” now.
“If there was a hint of anti-Semitism in this administration,” added Klein, the son of Holocaust survivors, “I’d be all over them.”
Many said they saw Trump’s ascendance — and Obama’s exit — as cause for celebration. And while some Jewish Republicans are concerned about Trump, they contend he has far more support today than he did a year ago.
“We’re thrilled,” said former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who was elected RJC chairman over the weekend. “We’re coming from a place where Obama on the way out kicks Israel under the bus. And then we’ve got a president who comes in and embraces Israel’s elected leadership.”
On the question of whether board members should be permitted to publicly chastise the president, Lew Eisenberg, a Trump ally who oversaw his campaign fundraising operation, suggested a compromise of sorts. During Friday’s private board meeting, he, too, said he was concerned about people not being supportive of the president, but said they should be able to express themselves. If they did so, he argued, they should make clear they were speaking on their own and not in their capacity as members.
Adelson — who spent more than $100 million over the past two election cycles to get a Republican elected commander-in-chief, including tens of millions on Trump’s behalf — was present throughout the weekend event. But if he had strong feelings about Trump’s first month in office, he wasn’t detailing them.
On Thursday evening, Adelson invited RJC board members to his palatial estate nearby. Over a dinner of brisket, the group listened to Brooks moderate a discussion between Adelson and fellow casino mogul Steve Wynn, with whom Adelson has sometimes had a rocky relationship. The two spoke extensively about Las Vegas and business life, yet there was little talk about politics.
It was only during a “lightning round” of questions at the end that Adelson remarked that Trump could end up being the best president for Israel in history.
Three people in attendance said they were struck that Adelson didn’t speak more about Trump, given the intensity of interest in the new president and his pledge to restart the peace process. Some said they suspected that the event was specifically designed so that Adelson wouldn’t have to talk extensively about Trump.
At the Shabbat dinner a night later, Adelson sat at a front-row table with his wife, Miriam, as Pence and former Vice President Dick Cheney, the night’s marquee speakers, thanked them for their benevolence. As he exited the event, Adelson was approached by a POLITICO reporter, who asked him to assess the early days of the Trump presidency.
“Pardon me?” he asked.
The question was repeated. But Adelson didn’t answer. Instead, he turned his motorized scooter around and zipped down the hall, escorted by a handful of armed security guards.