Washington, D.C. — Donald Trump wasn’t supposed to have a good night at AIPAC.
Policy conventions aren’t the GOP front-runner’s strong suit. Trump does much better when free-associating for thousands of adoring fans at one of his mega rallies. Worse, this was a convention on foreign policy, an arena where Trump has shown little natural proclivity and even less of a willingness to learn. Hillary Clinton earned thunderous applause Monday morning by condemning him in front of the very same crowd. Pro-Israeli activists were already warily eying his earlier pledge to remain “neutral” in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Most ominous of all was the promise of a mass anti-Trump walkout during his speech, led by a group of rabbis disgusted with the real-estate mogul’s rhetoric and methods.
But the walkout never materialized, at least not on the scale its organizers had hoped. Reporters could see a few empty seats here and there as Trump began his speech, but nothing remotely resembling a mass exodus. For the first time this cycle, Trump delivered a scripted speech with at least some foreign-policy specifics. Some of his off-script deviations got him into trouble: He said a peace deal was “something that we impose on Israel and Palestine,” a statement that both questioned Israel’s sovereignty and elevated the Palestinian territories to nation status. But most of his improvisations elicited laughter from the audience. He received raucous applause and several standing ovations from a crowd that had cheered Clinton less than eight hours before. He even outshone Ted Cruz, his chief rival for the Republican nomination, whose own speech received a rather tepid response.
It was, in short, a pretty good night at AIPAC for Donald Trump.
Trump received raucous applause and several standing ovations from a crowd that had cheered Clinton less than eight hours before.
“I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel,” Trump began, before proceeding to do just that for the thousands of attendees packed into the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The New York billionaire bragged about his participation as grand marshal in a 2004 pro-Israel parade. “It was a dangerous time for Israel and frankly for anyone supporting Israel,” he said. “Many people turned down the honor. I did not. I took the risk.”
Trump warned the audience about the dangers of the Iran deal, adding that he was uniquely qualified to discuss the topic. “I’ve studied this issue in great detail — I would say actually greater, by far, than anybody else,” he said, sparking peals of laughter throughout the audience. Trump smiled and took it all in stride. “Believe me, that is a baad deal,” he said.
After months of teasing the issue, Trump had finally unveiled a group of foreign-policy advisers earlier that day. Though other experts looked askance at the list, the move might be an indication that Trump is now taking more seriously the need to educate himself about geopolitics. It could also mollify those who were worried about his comments to the Washington Post just hours before, when he casually dismissed America’s responsibilities to NATO. “We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore,” he told the paper’s editorial board, adding later: “NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO, but we’re spending a lot of money.”
By far the loudest applause of the evening came during Trump’s ad-libbed diss of the current White House occupant.
The Trump who spoke at AIPAC Monday night wasn’t ready to cavalierly dismiss America’s long-standing commitments, and he spoke repeatedly of the U.S.’s obligation to stand with Israel. He also delved into greater detail than he had before on foreign-policy issues. When he discussed Iran’s illegal ballistic-missile test, he noted specific missile ranges and potential targets. He even referred to a recent test in which the Iranians wrote that “Israel must be wiped off the face of the Earth” on several of the projectiles. “What kind of a demented mind writes that — in Hebrew?” he said, sounding truly flabbergasted.
By far the loudest applause of the evening came during Trump’s ad-libbed diss of the current White House occupant. “With President Obama in his final year — yay,” Trump said, cutting himself off mid-remark to register his satisfaction with the idea. The crowd lost it, with people jumping to their feet for a 15-second standing ovation. “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel,” Trump said with a grin, once the noise had finally subsided.
“I love the people in this room, I love Israel, I love Israel,” Trump said as he wrapped up. “I’ve been with Israel so long, in terms of — I’ve received some of my greatest honors from Israel, my father before me, incredible.”
“My daughter Ivanka is about to have a beautiful Jewish baby!” he concluded, bringing the crowd to its feet once again in a final, successful act of shameless pandering.
#share#Trump’s success contrasted starkly with Cruz’s lukewarm reception. The Texas senator began on a sharp note, immediately cutting into Trump for his earlier gaffe about “Palestine.” “Perhaps to the surprise of the previous speaker, Palestine has not existed since 1948,” he said, drawing enthusiastic applause and standing ovation. But his speech soon lapsed into standard pro-Israel fare, complete with the requisite promise to move the U.S. Embassy to the “eternal capital of Israel,” Jerusalem. After Trump’s shocking and surprising speech, the audience seemed listless.
John Kasich, the Republican Ohio governor and presidential candidate who spoke before Trump and Cruz on Monday night, was much better received. Many in the audience, perhaps recalling Kasich’s long legislative history supporting Israel, were ready to cheer no matter how stilted or maudlin his delivery became. When he said that the Palestinians “cannot continue to promote a culture of hatred and death,” the crowd went wild. But with Kasich no longer a serious contender for the Republican crown, his warm reception didn’t seem half as significant as Trump’s.
Why did Trump have such a good night at AIPAC? It’s not as if his policies are particularly popular with America’s pro-Israel contingent, on either side of the political spectrum. Many attendees expressed their unease with his candidacy, both to reporters and one another. The conference’s de facto leaders, the rabbis who had planned to stage a walkout, were especially quick to share their misgivings.
“I do not think that we can sit silently while he spews his hatred,” Rabbi David Paskin, a Florida rabbi and a leader of the planned walkout, told National Review several hours before Trump’s speech. “Even if he’s able to change his message for this one event — I read a report this morning that said he’s going to surprise everyone with actual policy in depth — the Talmud, the rabbinic writings, teach us that silence is consent. Well I don’t consent to his behavior, and I don’t think anyone else should, either.”
But even before Trump’s speech, Paskin seemed aware he might not be able to mobilize enough walkout participants to have an impact. AIPAC’s fiercely protected bipartisan nature, along with its stated goal of forging relationships with potential future presidents, might have caused many members to think twice before giving Trump heartburn.
“I would love to see thousands of people walk out, and I honestly think that if it were not at an AIPAC conference — if we weren’t here for the purpose of building a strong relationship — I think many of those people would walk out with us,” said Paskin. “We have conflicting interests, and I understand that.”
#related#Still, it feels like a stretch to chalk up the walkout’s failure to the stoicism of AIPAC members listening dutifully to a man whose methods they quietly reviled. Most attendees seemed to be having fun, at times agreeing wholeheartedly with Trump even while they laughed at his outlandish proclamations. They stayed in their seats because they wanted to, not because they had to.
Reached by text message after the speech, Paskin said he’d led a group of about 100 out of the convention hall when Trump began speaking. “The bigger picture is the message we’ve begun to share, that we are bigger than ugliness and hatred,” he said.
If Monday night’s reception is any indication, the rabbi has got a lot more sharing to do before the pro-Israel community gets the message about Trump.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter with National Review Online.