Sheldon Adelson made headlines in early January when he flew non-stop to Hawaii from Israel in his private jet. The 18-hour flight broke the record for the longest haul from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport.
And that’s about all the public has heard about Adelson in recent months.
The Republican kingmaker, who outsmarted nearly all his fellow GOP mega donors by betting on the Trump horse, and whose outsized role in Republican politics played out on front-page headlines throughout the campaign, has now retreated to his favorite position — behind-the-scenes power player.
Fellow mega donors Joe and Marlene Ricketts arranged for their son Todd Ricketts to serve in Trump’s Cabinet, while Robert Mercer convinced Trump to revamp his campaign staff. But Adelson’s role remains away from the spotlight. He took on an honorary position as a member of Trump’s inauguration committee, and will travel to Washington to attend the festivities; otherwise, the Las Vegas Jewish billionaire is focused on policy issues and not on government positions.
Fellow Republican donors acknowledge that Adelson was ahead of the curve this election cycle. Like many others, he initially pinned his hopes on other candidates — in his case, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. But then, while most of the mega donors ignored Trump out of disdain, Adelson saw an opportunity and grabbed it. He became a major contributor to, and therefore a major ally of, a candidate with whom he had little in common.
“He came in late but big,” said Jon Ralston, Nevada’s top political columnist and editor of the soon-to-be-launched Nevada Independent. Adelson poured massive amounts of cash into Trump’s campaign, more than compensating for having ignored him earlier in the year.
At 83, Adelson is once again a member of the very small circle of GOP power brokers, thanks to his political instincts and his partisan largesse. The casino billionaire covered partial costs for the Republican National Convention when other sponsors were reluctant to be associated with Trump. Adelson was out urging fellow Jewish donors to open their pockets even though they oppose almost everything Trump stands for; and he was willing to increase his stakes in the game despite Trump’s refusal to listen to some of his advice late in the race.
In the final weeks before the election, while Trump’s poll numbers were trailing and the media was eulogizing his campaign, Adelson went all in: He added another $10 million to the $25 million he had already given to a pro-Trump super PAC.
The $35 million falls well short of the $100 million Adelson initially pledged to Trump. It’s also significantly less than the amount he gave to Romney’s campaign in 2012, but it was still enough to win the Vegas billionaire Trump’s personal attention.
“Donations aren’t an investment, but Adelson understood that if you stay out, you gain nothing,” said a major Jewish Republican donor who did not support Trump. “If you’re in, you can help shape things.” Even before Trump enters the White House, Adelson is seeing the benefits of having supported Trump.
Adelson’s political giving reflects his views on three issues: support for Israel and for the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government; the battle against legalizing marijuana, and outlawing online gambling, which he perceives as a direct threat to his casino business.
He is already seeing his investment pay off when it comes to all three issues, especially on Israel.
Adelson questioned the idea of a two-state solution even when the Republican Party and fellow Republican Jews made sure to list it as their preferred outcome. Adelson’s belief that establishing a Palestinian state would be akin to playing Russian roulette is, under Trump, taking root within Republican circles. The GOP dropped the call for a two-state solution from its 2016 platform (a move Adelson was not involved in), and Trump’s top Middle East appointees, ambassador-designate to Israel David Friedman and future international negotiator Jason Greenblatt, have expressed their doubts about establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Trump has made other policy statements that reflect Adelson’s view on Israel, including his promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to increase pressure on Iran.
A Jewish activist with close ties to Adelson said these issues came up in the conversations Adelson held with Trump before the elections. The activist noted there is no way of knowing whether it was Adelson’s advice that made Trump adopt these positions, but said the Vegas mega donor “always stresses in every conversation how important Israel is for him.”
Adelson, according to the activist, gives no credence to claims that some of those surrounding and supporting Trump are prone to anti-Semitism. This is why one of Adelson’s first post-election tasks, carried out by a network of organizations and individuals he supports financially, has been to see that Steve Bannon, Trump’s future White House chief of strategy, is exonerated of allegations that he peddled in anti-Semitism when he was chief of Breitbart News.
Adelson has not spoken out publicly on Bannon, but those in the Jewish community who have come out in support of the embattled Trump adviser are all closely tied to him.
The Zionist Organization of America, which not only spoke out in favor of Bannon, but even invited him to its annual gala, received $1 million from Adelson in 2015, based on the most recent available tax filings. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who boasted of his friendship with Bannon in a series of Twitter photos, has received $1.5 million from the Adelson Family Foundation for his World Values Network. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which is the biggest beneficiary of Adelson’s political donations, came outin Bannon’s defense. Adelson sits on the board of the RJC. David Horowitz, who received $50,000 from Adelson for his David Horowitz Freedom Center, has written against Jewish communal officials criticizing Bannon; and Israel Hayom, the Adelson-owned Israeli daily newspaper, published numerous articles disputing claims of Bannon’s involvement in providing a platform for anti-Semitic views.
“When you have a major donor like Adelson, you don’t need to get a direct order,” said a community activist who has been involved in the Jewish not-for-profit world for decades. He said that groups are attuned to “any hint” from their top donors, and will take action based on it.
A spokesperson contacted by the Forward did not respond to questions about Adelson’s involvement in clearing Bannon’s name of accusations that he was involved in promulgating anti-Semitic rhetoric.
On the online gambling front, Adelson is already seeing a return on his investment. Nevada’s attorney general, who had received significant donations from Adelson, recently wrote to vice president-elect Mike Pence, calling for the federal government to step in and prohibit online poker. But Adelson might see progress on this issue even before Trump takes office. Several Republican senators are already trying to pass legislation that will prohibit states from allowing online gambling. Adelson donated $20 million to the Republican Senate campaign during the recent election cycle.
He might be better positioned than ever before to win his multimillion dollar battle against lifting legal limitations on the use of marijuana, even as California and other states vote to legalize the substance. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general, will likely lead a federal crackdown on marijuana users even in states where it’s been legalized, in a move firmly in line with Adelson’s anti-legalization campaign. For Adelson, this cause is personal. Two of his sons struggled with substance addiction, and Adelson views marijuana as a “gateway drug.”
By the 2020 election, Adelson will be 87 years old. He has not groomed a successor to take over either his business interests or his political giving. His political involvement is still extremely centralized, controlled by a two-person team consisting of himself and his Israeli-born wife, Miriam Adelson. “Miriam is the power behind the throne,” Ralston said. “She protects him as best she can. She is his rock and shield.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is 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.