TRENTON, NEW JERSEY/NEW YORK – A gathering of GOP presidential candidates before major donors on Thursday prompted predictable condemnations of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and a surprise bill of attainder against the Republican Party.
In an appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition forum in Washington, billionaire Donald Trump predicted that “you are not going to support me because I don’t want your money even though I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel” as he gave a stump speech filled with insults about his rivals that had the audience at times laughing like a crowd at a comedy club. “I’m gonna win,” said Trump, who bragged about coining the term “low energy” for competitor Jeb Bush. He seemed to be preparing a similar line against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
“She doesn’t have the strength or the energy to support Israel,” Trump said, contending that Clinton disappears from the campaign trail for three or four days at a time. The former secretary of state is appearing Thursday in New Hampshire, during a week of public appearances that has taken her to Washington, Alabama and Florida. On Friday, Clinton will make two appearances in Iowa.
Trump’s rivals at the RJC forum spent the bulk of the day vying for the title of most pro-Israel, though New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned the audience’s attention to the killings in San Bernardino, California, by late afternoon.
“For the first time since 9/11, I think we’re going to have to confront the loss of Americans lives on American soil to terrorism,” Christie said. “I am convinced that was a terrorist attack,” he continued, saying, “the president continues to ring his hands.”
Sen. Ted Cruz compared Obama to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and former President Jimmy Carter; Sen. Marco Rubio accused Obama of trying to use “diplomacy and engagement” with “people who have an apocalyptic vision of the future”; and Sen. Lindsey Graham said he was throwing out his prepared remarks on the Middle East to warn that his competitors’ views on immigration and social issues are jeopardizing the Republican Party’s chances of taking back the White House.
“I believe Donald Trump is destroying the Republican Party’s chances to win an election,” said Graham of the Republican front-runner, who spoke later. In an apparent reference to Trump’s frequent vows to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the Mexican border, the South Carolina senator called for an end to “hateful rhetoric” against Hispanics. Graham criticized 2012 nominee Mitt Romney for endorsing the concept of “self-deportation,” which holds that undocumented immigrants will return to their native countries if laws against them are tough enough.
“You think you’re going to win an election with that kind of garbage?” Graham asked. Referring to the common phenomenon of American-born citizens with parents in the U.S. illegally, Graham asked, “Is the Marine Corps American citizen going to vote for a party that’s going to deport his mother? I don’t think so.”
Graham also took aim at Cruz, saying the Texas senator’s no-exceptions position on banning abortion will cost the party voters. “Telling a woman who was raped you will have to carry the child of the rapist? Good luck with that,” Graham said. “We will lose in droves.”
Among the other candidates who spoke, most stuck to foreign policy, especially as it pertains to Israel.
Cruz called Obama “an unmitigated socialist who won’t stand up and defend the United States of America,” likening the president’s “feckless foreign policy” to that of Chamberlain, who infamously accommodated Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in a futile attempt to avert World War II. He criticized the president’s nuclear deal with Iran and accused him of ignoring “the gathering storm of homicidal maniacs who tell us they want to kill us.” He repeated his criticism of the president for not inveighing against “radical Islamic terrorism.”
In another proposal that won applause from his audience, the Texas lawmaker said that if he is elected president, he will cut off federal funding for any university supporting the BDS movement, a pro-Palestinian effort to back “boycotts, divestment, and sanctions” against Israel.
Rubio ducked a question about whom he might tap to be his secretary of state, saying it is “premature,” and dismissed the idea of negotiating with Palestinians. “Israel has no partner for peace in this conflict,” he said. But unlike some conservatives, he also dismissed the idea of maintaining Syrian President Bashar Assad in power to counter the Islamic State, calling it a “simplistic notion” that ignores Assad’s role in the region. Rubio called the Syrian dictator “an Iranian puppet” who has “actively facilitated anti-Israel and anti-American terrorism.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former member of the U.S. House who has been emphasizing his years in government in his bid for the Republican nomination, seemed to criticize some of his competitors for intemperate rhetoric on Iran. “If you’re inexperienced, you say ‘I’d go and blow the place up,'” Kasich said. “Executives have to be tough and calm and decisive.”
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has received criticism about his grasp of foreign policy, broke from his off-the-cuff style to read from a prepared speech so he didn’t “miss any points” he wanted to make. Looking down at his notes for much of the time, Carson spoke about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the need to address a long list of issues in the Middle East, and his recent trip to Jordan to visit Syrian refugees. A few times during the speech, Carson appeared to mispronounce “Hamas,” the name of the Palestinian political party and terror group, prompting a response from RJC board member Ari Fleischer on Twitter: “Poor Ben Carson. … He sounds like he’s not familiar with the group.”
Fourteen Republican presidential contenders were set to address the group, which includes a number of active donors. For the candidates, the stakes are high as they make their pitches to more than 600 attendees.
“I would say 75 percent are undecided at this point,” Lewis Eisenberg, the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in an interview with Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin. “That’s the value of the forum.”
The gathering took place amid signs that the party establishment is growing concerned about the continuing lead of the controversy-cultivating Trump for the party’s nomination. Trump told attendees at a rally in nearby Virginia on Wednesday that he plans to visit Israel “very soon.” Trump in his speech emphasized his ties to the Jewish state, saying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “asked me to do a commercial” during his last campaign for re-election. “I think our president has been unbelievably rude to Bibi,” said Trump, referring to the rocky relations between Obama and the Israeli leader. The audience applauded that remark.
Trump got briefly heckled, however, when he ducked a question about whether he’d recognize Jerusalem, a city claimed by three religions, as the capital of Israel. “You can’t go in to do a deal and just shove it down their throat,” he said.
Asked about Trump, past Republican Jewish Coalition donors Mendy Klein and his wife, Heddy, both 68 and hailing from New York, said the forum was “about positives, not the negatives.”
Both said they are concerned about Trump and are leaning toward Rubio and Cruz, but haven’t committed to any particular candidate.
“Rubio and Cruz are a little more polished,” Heddy Klein said as the two filed into an auditorium to hear a full day of speeches. “Don’t get me wrong — if he runs against Hillary Clinton I’ll vote for him.”
Mendy Klein, who described himself as an independent salesman and past president of the Hebron Fund, said he was concerned by Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border — vague and unrealistic — and his corporate bankruptcies, which he said should only be used as a last resort rather than a standard business practices.
“I would say he’s hurt more people than he’s helped in business,” he said. “I think he’ll fizzle out anyway — there’s no substance.”