RJC dispatch

Trump receives enthusiastic reception at RJC’s annual summit

Despite criticizing Netanyahu in off-message remarks earlier this month, the former president’s popularity remained sky-high among Jewish Republicans

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump is introduced at the Republican Jewish Coalition's Annual Leadership Summit at The Venetian Resort Las Vegas on October 28, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

LAS VEGAS — There were only a few MAGA hats amid a sea of kippahs at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership summit on Saturday.

But if there was any doubt that former President Donald Trump had fallen from favor among the majority of conservative donors and activists gathered in a packed ballroom of the Venetian Resort here, the sustained applause he received while taking the stage quickly put such speculation to rest.

“I love Israel,” Trump declared over cheers from the crowd of 1,500 attendees, before repeating himself. “I love Israel.”

The rapturous greeting underscored the pull that Trump continues to exert on Jewish Republicans who remain grateful for his record of backing pro-Israel causes — even as he has faced recent condemnation for criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling Hezbollah “very smart” in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack.

Fred Zeidman, a top GOP donor and RJC board member who is supporting former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, told Jewish Insider that he was “shocked” by the crowd’s response to Trump. “I had no idea how people would respond to him,” he said. “It was controversial enough, particularly after his comments” — which Haley had sharply criticized right before Trump’s appearance.

“He gave his check-the-box list and got tremendous ovations for that,” Zeidman said of Trump’s speech.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to Trump — who made a rare appearance alongside some of his GOP rivals — also indicated that RJC leadership is coming to terms with the likelihood that he will again be the Republican Party’s nominee, as polls show him dominating the primary field.

“It’s fair to say that he was the best friend that Israel had in the White House,” former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), the RJC’s national chairman, said in an interview with JI a day before Trump’s speech, adding, “I keep going back to the record, to what he did as president.”

In his remarks on Saturday, Trump — who had not addressed the RJC summit in person since 2019 — touted several accomplishments as president that pro-Israel advocates have celebrated, including his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. “That’s what you and that great man, that’s what you wanted, right?” Trump said to Miriam Adelson, who was seated in the front row, alluding to her late husband Sheldon Adelson, the top GOP donor, casino magnate and RJC patron who built the Venetian.

The former president was reportedly the sole contender to dine privately with Miriam Adelson during the three-day donor confab this weekend — a sign that the billionaire Republican benefactor is now betting on Trump’s candidacy after she and her husband contributed millions to his previous two campaigns.

Zeidman, a longtime friend of the Adelson family, said he had not asked her about the dinner with Trump. “What I know for a fact is that she said she wasn’t going to endorse in the primary,” Zeidman explained to JI. “She’s honored that. She’s given no money to anybody yet.” Meanwhile, he said he had heard that Adelson pledged to be a “significant contributor” once the party picks its nominee.

Trump’s campaign declined to comment on his dinner with Adelson.

Even if Adelson remains publicly neutral in the primary, her one-on-one with Trump represented a setback for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has sought her support. In April, for example, DeSantis had dinner with Adelson on a trip to Israel shortly before he entered the presidential race.

Last year, Adelson also hosted former Vice President Mike Pence for dinner at her home in Jerusalem. 

In a surprise announcement at the Venetian on Saturday, Pence drew gasps as he declared that he was bowing out of the race. “It’s become clear to me that this is not my time,” he said, ending his speech with a thinly veiled jab at Trump. “I urge all my fellow Republicans here, give our country a Republican standard-bearer that will, as Lincoln said, appeal to the better angels of our nature.”

Pence has long been popular within the pro-Israel community and received a long standing ovation as he bowed out of the primary. But it was clear that the audience had little interest in heeding his appeal to the traditional conservative values on which he staked his now-suspended campaign.

Even among some donors who want the party to move on from Trump, there was a sense of acceptance towards the former president, even as he made a number of eyebrow-raising comments on Saturday. 

As he boasted of brokering the “historic” Abraham Accords, for instance, the former president outlandishly suggested that he could have convinced Iran to enter the agreement had he been reelected — comments that were not included in excerpted remarks his campaign shared before the speech.    

Moments later, however, his rhetoric had shifted. “Instead of cuddling up to the killers in Iran as Biden has done,” he vowed, “I will once again sanction them until their ability to fund terror is absolutely gone.”

Barry Funt, an RJC board member who is skeptical of Trump but open to supporting him in the general election, said he found the Iran comments curious but not surprising. “I think he is definitely subject to a lot of hyperbole,” Funt said diplomatically, before adding a more positive interpretation. “In a perfect world, all countries, including Iran,” would opt for peace, he explained. “Prior to the Islamic regime taking over there, Iran had relations with Israel.”

Trump wasn’t the only candidate to energize the crowd, even if he drew the most sustained enthusiasm from the audience. In addition to Haley and DeSantis, who had each made efforts to burnish their pro-Israel credentials ahead of the RJC conference, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) garnered standing ovations as he spoke out against rising antisemitism on college campuses following Hamas’ attack. “We have to cut out the rot of antisemitism from our society,” Scott said in a dramatically worded speech. “We need cultural chemotherapy to fight this cancer.”

Meanwhile, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent Trump critic, faced some jeers as he took the stage on Saturday. And Vivek Ramaswamy, who has drawn scrutiny for opposing increased military aid to Israel, was booed while arguing that the U.S. should “avoid foreign military entanglements that do not relate directly to our homeland.”

“It’s OK,” Ramaswamy said in response to the negative response. “I’m sharing my honest view, and we have to have open debate to find the path forward.”

For many Jewish Republicans at the summit, however, it seemed that such a path would inevitably lead to one candidate.

“I will defend our friend and ally, the State of Israel, like nobody has ever defended it before,” Trump said to growing applause on Saturday, before concluding with a characteristically dire warning. “This is the most important election in the history of our country. If we don’t win this election, I really believe you’re not going to have Israel anymore — and you’re not going to have the United States of America anymore.”

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