These Loyalists Have Changed American Politics (For Better or Worse)
Sheldon Adelson, Michael Cohen, David Friedman, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, Steven Mnuchin, Ivanka Trump
Ever since Jimmy Carter served in the White House, every presidential administration has appointed a high-level official to serve as the authorized liaison with America’s organized Jewish community.
Until the Trump administration, where, for nearly two years now, the position has been left vacant. And why not? President Trump probably believes he doesn’t need someone to tell him what the Jewish community thinks and needs. He can just ask his daughter and son-in-law, his administration officials, his (onetime) lawyer and his biggest financial donor.
Never before have Jews enjoyed this sort of access to raw political power in Washington. But, as we saw in 2018, never before have the powerful been so removed politically, religiously and demographically from the majority of American Jews.
Start with the three Jewish senior advisers to the president. Two people who hold that job title are Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, though they are, of course, so much more and, paradoxically, so much less. There was little progress this year in their respective portfolios — women and children for Trump, Middle East peace and other sundries for Kushner — but they clearly exercised power in other ways. News reports said they shaped the president’s response to the Pittsburgh massacre (the scripted response anyway) and Kushner evidently had a hand in persuading his father-in-law to excuse the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Nonetheless, their very presence helped to inoculate the president against charges that his administration is tone deaf — or much worse — to the anti-Semitism spread in its name. How could President Trump hate Jews when his own daughter is photographed shaking the lulav and etrog on Sukkot?
If the first daughter and her family are meant to represent Orthodox Jewish values in the White House, the third senior adviser, Stephen Miller, represents the opposite. When, in June, the administration decided to separate families seeking refuge at the southern border, Miller — architect of the president’s inhumane immigration policy — offered a full-throated endorsement. By doing so, not only did he distance himself from the majority of American Jews who objected to the policy, he also distanced himself from his family’s immigrant history. His own relatives denounced him.
But Miller has had an impact. Even though the courts ordered an end to the separation policy, months later many hundreds of migrant children still have not been reunited with their families.
Another high-profile Jew in Trump’s White House, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, surprised everyone this year by simply holding on to his job. In an administration with an unusually high turnover of senior officials, Mnuchin has managed to avoid Trump’s wrath by keeping selectively silent and unendingly loyal. If his moderate Wall Street predilections are clashing with his boss’s unorthodox approach to tax, trade and fiscal policy, Mnuchin isn’t saying.
Instead, he seems to be surviving by doing what he’s told. Mnuchin displayed a smidgeon of backbone by skipping a conference in Riyadh designed to extol the virtues of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, shortly after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But that profile in courage faded fast. The treasury secretary was photographed awkwardly talking to the crown prince just days later.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman relocated his office to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move with grand political and strategic implications. At a dedication ceremony in May, notable for who spoke (evangelical preachers) and who wasn’t invited (Democrats), Trump fulfilled his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to the contested city, solidifying Jewish claims and negating Palestinian ones. While American Jews were overwhelmingly wary of the unilateral move, Israelis and white evangelical Christians were thrilled.
So was Friedman. The mild-mannered former bankruptcy lawyer with no diplomatic experience has presided over a historic shift in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which the United States has dropped all pretense of neutrality and aligned itself closely with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. We have yet to see whether this will bring about an end to the conflict — and the long-awaited Trump peace plan for the region has yet to be seen.
Meanwhile, this year Michael D. Cohen went from the guy who would take a bullet for his boss to the one who snitched on him. In August, in an extraordinary admission in court, Cohen said that Trump had directed him to pay two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from publicly speaking about affairs they had with the man now in the White House.
In all, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts, including tax fraud and campaign violations. A sentencing date is set for December; he faces up to 65 years in prison. Then on Friday December 7, Cohen got into even more trouble when the special prosecutor’s office revealed that he reached out to Russia to arrange a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in late 2015 — and that Trump knew about it beforehand.
Cohen’s downfall embodied not only the sordidness surrounding Trump’s campaign — Cohen was, of course, not the only top official to face prison time — but also the slipperiness of Trump’s regard. Cohen once embodied the stereotypical street-smart, aggressive personal lawyer whose loyalty appeared unquestioned. But once he turned on Trump, Trump turned on him with a vengeance.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” the president wrote.
Oh, but Trump would never turn on Sheldon Adelson. The billionaire casino magnate, philanthropist and profligate Republican donor solidified his power this year on many fronts. His privileged seat at the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem was merely one illustration of the force with which he has commandeered American foreign policy to align with the Netanyahu government.
But there’s more: Adelson has used his political access to push his financial self-interests, and the Trump administration is more than happy to oblige. While at first he was a reluctant supporter of the renegade presidential candidate, Adelson bet, and bet big — he was the biggest Republican donor in the midterms — and he won, at least personally. “With Trump occupying the White House, Adelson has found the greatest political ally he’s ever had,” ProPublica reported.
Adelson’s hard-line views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his promotion of domestic policies that favor the .001%, put him far to the political right of most American Jews.
No matter. He sits quite comfortably in the constellation of Jews who hold power and sway over the man in the Oval Office.
— Jane Eisner
Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the Forward
This article was updated on December 9 to reflect news about Michael Cohen’s further legal problems.