Uneasy from the start with Donald Trump as their party’s presidential candidate, Republican Jewish activists are fuming and fretting in the wake of revelations about Trump’s lewd character and alleged sexual harassment.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which endorsed Trump immediately after he secured the party’s nomination, has not withdrawn its official support. But behind closed doors, individual members are doing exactly that. The members who spoke to the Forward say they still cannot support Hillary Clinton. But they are focusing their efforts on keeping Republican majorities in Congress — a tacit acknowledgement that she will likely win the presidency.
“My temperature is 105 degrees, this man is a total embarrassment to all of us and to America,” said an RJC board member and major Jewish GOP donor on Tuesday. The donor, who like others contacted by the Forward insisted on not being identified by name, listed Trump’s recent comments about women and his promise to jail Clinton as being beyond the pale and unacceptable.
A spokesman for the RJC did not respond to the Forward’s questions regarding the group’s endorsement of Trump.
The Trump campaign, including Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reached out to several Jewish GOP donors in an attempt to convince them to view Trump’s candidacy more positively, several sources on the board said.
“They weren’t talking to Jews like us,” said one of the donors, explaining that the arguments put forward by the Trump campaign were not convincing and did not address their concerns about Trump’s personality and perceived ignorance of world affairs.
The group’s activities reflect this lack of enthusiasm. It has not put out any ads or emails supporting Trump and has focused instead on criticizing Clinton and on trying to assist vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection.
Just this week, the group made a $500,000 TV ad purchase in Pennsylvania in attempt to shore up support for incumbent Pat Toomey. The group’s ads focus on the Iran nuclear deal; they attack Democratic candidates who expressed support for the 2015 agreement.
“I just focus on what I can do to help us maintain control of the House and Senate,” said another member of the board who has given six-figure donations to Republican candidates throughout the years, explained that during this election cycle he chose to avoid talking about the Republican candidate in any way.
But at least one RJC board member is still fully on board with Trump, and he is, perhaps, the most important Jewish donor currently contributing to Trump. Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul who has pledged upwards of $25 million to a super PAC supporting Trump, has not made any public comment on Trump’s latest scandals and has not retracted his financial support. The Jewish mega-donor appealed to fellow RJC board members earlier this year asking them to pitch in and support Trump, but most turned down the request.
To be sure, Trump still has some supporters in the group. Kenneth Bialkin, a board member and former top leader in Jewish organizations, told the Jewish Week he believes the tape recorded of Trump in 2005 does not reflect his current state of mind. “I think he was tricked into saying things, and he was speaking during a period of time in life when most men are more sex driven,” he said. “He’s now at a different age and nobody should read into it — that was then and this is now.” Bialkin has not decided yet whether to vote for him in the upcoming elections. Trump, now 70, was 59 when he made comments about grabbing women’s genitals during an off-camera conversation with Billy Bush of Access Hollywood in 2005.
Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, has recently renewed its petition urging the RJC to reject Trump. But such a move is unlikely, said members who spoke to the Forward. The issue has not come up in discussions, and one speculated that all members prefer to avoid the issue altogether.
In recent days, Trump lost another Jewish supporter. Former Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a harsh critic of Clinton, was one of a handful of Jewish Republicans who agreed to speak at the Republican national convention. But he expressed his dismay over Trump’s promise made during the second presidential debate to jail Hillary Clinton if he gets elected president. “It would be like a banana republic,” Mukasey told the Washington Post. “Putting political opponents in jail for offenses committed in a political setting, even if they are criminal offenses — and they very well may be — is something that we don’t do here.”
Some RJC members fear Trump’s candidacy will damage the GOP’s brand for Jews even after the presidential race is over.
“None of us want to be tainted with that,” said the board member.
But even as anger at Trump grows within Jewish Republican leadership circles, donors are not willing to entertain the idea of voting for Clinton on November 8. The RJC sources said they know of no top donors or leaders in the group who are willing to cross the line. “If it would be anyone other than Clinton, this could have been a question,” said one donor, adding that he does not trust Clinton’s record on Israel. They associate her with the Iran deal, which they think endangers Israel, and worry that she’ll have a personality conflict with President Benjamin Netanyahu, as President Barack Obama seemed to.
Another board member made clear that even though he cannot bring himself to vote for Trump, Clinton or any Democrat would be even worse in his eyes. Their decision to increase their contributions to Senate and House races is intended to ensure that a Republican Congress can serve as a counterweight to a Clinton White House.
“We need to hold on to Congress because we need to keep Hillary in control,” said the board member.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.