Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Donald Trump was introduced to the Republican Jewish Coalition Thursday by a supporter who touted the presidential candidate’s “chutzpah.”
But the real estate magnate and reality TV personality went beyond mere straight talk in a typically rambling speech to the group. He cracked jokes about Jews being penny-pinchers and made a pointed reference to questions he has raised in the past about whether President Obama is a Muslim.
“Radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump said, referring to the two-person shooting spree Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., which is being investigated as a possible terrorist attack and which killed 14 and wounded 21.
“And I’ll tell you what, we have a president who refuses to use the term. He refuses to say it. There’s something going on with him that we don’t know about,” Trump said.
Trump did not elaborate on his comment, but he has for years raised questions about whether Obama was born in the United States and might be a secret Muslim. The comments drew applause from the conservative Jewish audience, which includes some of the party’s biggest donors.
But the crowd turned on Trump, booing him when, in response to a question, he declined to voice support for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“I’m going to have to wait until I meet with Bibi,” Trump said, referring on a first-name basis to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, whom he plans to meet with soon.
When that line drew disapproval from the audience, Trump shot back: “I know what you’re saying,” holding up his hands. But as a man near the front of the stage inside the Ronald Reagan Building continued to boo him, Trump went after him.
“Who’s the wise guy?” Trump said, looking into the crowd. “Do me a favor. Just relax. You’ll like me very much, just believe me. Then you’ll wonder why you get yourself in trouble.“
Trump also questioned whether the state of Israel “has the commitment” to working toward peace with Palestinians, which also displeased many in the audience. He had told the Associated Press in an interview earlier in the morning that a peace agreement depends on “whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.”
That remark drew withering criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who delivered remarks before Trump to the same audience and called Trump “dead wrong” on his assessment of the chances for a Middle East peace agreement.
“This is not a real estate deal with two sides arguing over money. It’s a struggle to safeguard the future of Israel,” Rubio said.
Rubio’s speech showed a deft ability to please a crowd whose top priority is unswerving support for Israel. He broke with more than a half century of U.S. policy, referring to the disputed territories on the Palestinian West Bank as "Judea and Samaria,” the Biblical name for the lands used by Israelis who reject any idea of a withdrawal to make way for an independent Palestinian state.
When Rubio used those words, “my ears picked up,” said Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary. Like many in the crowd, he could not remember another case of a leading presidential contender (with the exception of current second-tier candidate Mike Huckabee) using similar language.
In fact, Rubio had used the formulation last May in a Senate floor speech that got relatively little attention. But by repeating the language at a high-profile event on the campaign trail, Rubio seemed to signal his opposition to the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Judea and Samaria is an odd formulation, even for a guy who’s a staunch defender and supporter of Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran State Department negotiator who has acted as an adviser on Mideast talks for six secretaries of state. “If he was talking to a bunch of Israeli West Bank settlers or even a Zionist religious group here in the U.S., it might have gotten more resonance. All in all, overkill, even on the campaign trail.”
For his part, Cruz was playing catchup in the wake of a Bloomberg interview this week, in which, attempting to distinguish himself from Rubio, he criticized “military adventurism” backed by “aggressive Washington neocons.” Cruz was referring to Rubio’s past support for the removal of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and for the removal of current Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Cruz drew repeated ovations from the crowd Thursday for his tough talk about the theocratic regime in Iran and the mounting terrorist threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), and for his denunciations of the Obama administration’s response.
“The next president needs to have the fortitude to say to the Ayatollah Khamenei in no uncertain terms, ‘Either you will stop your nuclear weapons program or we will stop it for you,’” Cruz said.
But Cruz may have been suffering blowback from his earlier remarks, at least before a crowd for whom a reference to “neocons” or neoconservatives is more a badge of honor than a black mark.
Historically, “peace through strength” is a theme that works in GOP primaries, noted Fleischer. “I don’t understand how criticizing neoconservatives helps a Republican candidate with voters who believe in peace through strength,” he said.
Trump, for his part, used his speech to tout his Jewish family credentials — his daughter is married to a Jew and is raising her children Jewish — telling the crowd, “I can’t even get in touch with my daughter on Saturdays.”
He also made an ill-advised joke, however, about stereotypes of Jewish attitudes about money. He said he would renegotiate many of the deals that Obama has made, including the nuclear agreement with Iran. He added: “Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? … Perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.“
While Trump’s performance was uneven, he all but told the audience that he didn’t really care what they thought of him.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” Trump said, as many in the audience laughed. “You want to control your own politicians. It’s fine. I understand. Hey, five months ago I was with you.”