He made no reference to comments he’d offered just two weeks ago criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and describing Hezbollah as “very smart” in the aftermath of the attacks in Israel that had killed 1,400. Nor did the crowd seem to fixate on them.
“People judge him for what he does,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC’s chief executive officer, referencing elements of Trump’s record like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, “as opposed to the noise.”
Moments earlier, a more vivid illustration of the hold Trump has on the party came when his one-time vice president, Mike Pence, announced he was suspending his campaign. The former vice president had almost no money left and little chance of making the debate stage in less than two weeks. But his departure from the race, for many in the party, represented something larger than tactical hurdles: Proof that there was no reward for those who stood up to Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Trump, in his speech, didn’t even bother mentioning his vice president.
Instead, he acknowledged several of his supporters in attendance, including “Pawn Stars” host Rick Harrison. The former president is expected to have dinner Saturday night with Republican mega-donor Miriam Adelson, the widow of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The planned dinner was first reported by The Messenger.
“He’s got an incredible reservoir of goodwill in the Jewish community,” said Brooks. “He’s the frontrunner in a multicandidate field, and there are people supporting the other candidates as well. … But there’s no question, you saw by the response today, the strength of his support.”
Few, if any, politicians can swim through crises like Trump, who has survived more than a handful of episodes that pundits predicted would cause his political demise. But his primary campaign this go around has been defined less by political missteps (his legal troubles notwithstanding) than how he’s avoided them.
Trump has curtailed his media exposure, eschewed the stadium rallies that marked his earlier campaigns and refused to participate in either primary debate. His appearance at the RJC forum was notable not just because it came after his praise of Hezbollah’s fighting abilities but because he has so rarely been at events attended by his fellow candidates.
For Trump’s rivals, the confab was perhaps the last chance they would have to share a stage with the former president before the Iowa caucuses in January. And in the lead-up to it, there was anticipation of fireworks.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has emerged as one of Trump’s main rivals, took the hardest swings.
“As president, I will not compliment Hezbollah,” she said. “Nor will I criticize Israel’s prime minister in the middle of tragedy and war.”
Haley said the country couldn’t afford “four years of chaos, vendettas and drama” and implied that Trump wouldn’t be the party’s strongest general election candidate.
“Republicans,” she said, “need a candidate who can actually win.”
But others only took swipes more obliquely.
“We’re going to continue to have bad outcomes unless we change horses and have new people elected to leadership,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Trump rival.
But there seemed to be little appetite in the room for attacks on the frontrunner. When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been the most outspoken in criticizing Trump, took the stage, he was booed.
Trump, for his part, stayed above the fray and did not hit his opponents. Instead, he used his speech to promote his record on defending Israel and to assail President Joe Biden’s Middle East policies, occasionally with blemishes and bravado. He said his administration had given Israel “sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” in reference to a proclamation he’d issued saying that the U.S. recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the area. He claimed he would have brought Iran into the Abraham Accords, the diplomatic framework he had used to normalize Arab nation relations with Israel, glossing over his record decrying diplomacy with the country.
The RJC gathering, held at the Venetian resort on the Las Vegas strip, comes at a critical time in the GOP primary. The non-Trump campaigns, predominantly DeSantis’, had looked at the period between Labor Day and the Iowa caucuses in mid-January as the time when ground could be gained on the former president.
But Trump’s lead has remained both steady and daunting. And his decision to avoid the debate stage had deprived his rivals of opportunities to directly challenge him.
The hope, among the non-Trump campaigns, has been that the field would winnow, allowing for a two- or three-person race. For that reason, Pence’s departure is likely to be seen as a positive development in some circles.
“They’ve got to beat each other before they can beat Trump. Trump is far and away in the lead, and so only one person will be challenging Trump, I presume, in a runoff. And so they need to get rid of their real competition before they face Donald Trump,” said Fred Zeidman, a major GOP donor in attendance who is backing Haley.
But the former vice president had very little share of the primary vote, according to the polls. And it’s unclear who will benefit from the suspension of his campaign. At least one prominent Republican used the announcement not to celebrate the possibility of a narrower field but to call on everyone else not named Trump to follow suit.
“I was surprised, but I think that’s the right move,” said Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, who has endorsed Trump. “Because it’s clear President Trump is going to be the nominee for Republicans for president, and the sooner we coalesce around him the better it’s going to be.”