Bashing Both Iran and Obama, Trump Scores Points at AIPAC

The GOP front-runner told a skeptical audience exactly what they wanted to hear, calming his critics — and winning some new supporters along the way.

US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

One of America’s most indelicate men tackled some of the world’s most delicate issues on Monday — and escaped unscathed.

In an address to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., Republican front-runner Donald Trump received raucous applause and repeated standing ovations for his self-professed love of Israel and self-declared hatred for its enemies.

In a skillful reading of his audience — a mixture of around 18,000 hawkish pro-Israel activists — the populist real estate tycoon hit all the key applause lines: He slammed the “incompetence” of the United Nations; the fecklessness of U.S. President Barack Obama; the “catastrophic” nature of the Iran nuclear deal; and the “culture of hatred” in Palestinian society. He also promised to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which he referred to as the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

“I am a newcomer to politics but not to backing the Jewish state,” he said. “We will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel.”

Despite vowing that he “didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel,” he boasted at length about his ties to the pro-Israel community, citing such things as his leadership role in a pro-Israel parade in 2004, the time he lent his personal jet to the former mayor of New York for a trip to Israel, and the fact that his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism, is expecting a baby any day now.

“My daughter Ivanka is about to have a beautiful Jewish baby,” he said, prompting a large round of applause.

Trump appeared most comfortable in bashing the Iran deal, which places an elaborate set of curbs on the country’s nuclear program in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in economic sanctions relief. The agreement was secured by the Obama administration and world powers last summer, but Trump has insisted that he could negotiate a better deal.

“I have been in business a long time. I know deal making. And let me tell you, this deal is catastrophic — for America, for Israel, and for the whole of the Middle East,” he said.

Yet he seemed to offer contradictory messages about what he would do with the agreement once in office, promising at one point to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” but at another vowing to enforce the deal.

“We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me,” he said.

On issue after issue — from countering Iran’s rising regional influence to protecting Israel — the mogul gave the audience what they wanted to hear without explaining in detail how he would actually do any of it. “Believe me,” he told the crowd after each chest-pounding promise.

Despite the mixed messages and vagueness of his speech, he received sustained applause from the audience. “We love you Trump!” yelled one attendee.

Trump capped off a day that began with a fiery speech from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who had tough talk of her own about Iran and repeatedly jabbed Trump for his earlier promise to be a “neutral” broker in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who-knows-what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable,” she said.

Clinton, in a speech earlier on Monday, also said she would “vigorously oppose any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution, including by the U.N. Security Council.”

Trump echoed that promise in his own remarks Monday evening.

“Let me be clear: An agreement imposed by the United Nations would be a total and complete disaster,” he said. “The United States must oppose this resolution and use the power of our veto.”

The Obama administration has considered a U.N. proposal by the French aimed at advancing the peace process but has never publicly supported it.

Prior to the speech, it was not clear at all that Trump would garner a positive reception. For weeks, Trump has been criticized by his Republican rivals for saying he would be “sort of a neutral guy” when brokering peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in order to secure the “deal of all deals.”

“It’s probably the toughest negotiation anywhere in the world of any kind,” Trump has said.

Although the position does not stray from official U.S. policy on the Middle East conflict, Trump’s Republican rivals have bucked the long-standing view and repeatedly equated Palestinians with terrorists who are not fit for negotiations. Separately, a number of more liberal rabbis had vowed to walk out during Trump’s speech.

Earlier in the day, Trump, who has long avoided releasing a full list of his foreign-policy team, revealed the advisors helping to shape his atypical worldview.

The advisors, who he discussed with the Washington Post editorial board, are not major fixtures in official Washington, though some have courted controversy.

Interest in Trump’s foreign-policy brain trust has spiked as the real estate tycoon continues to surprise observers with views that challenge Washington orthodoxy, including a deep skepticism of international trade and American military adventurism abroad. The advisors included Walid Phares, Carter Page, Joseph Schmitz, and Keith Kellogg.

Phares has received criticism for his association with Christian Lebanese militia groups in the 1980s during that country’s brutal civil conflict. After being named a foreign-policy advisor to former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, called for his expulsion from the campaign due to his membership in the fighting groups.

Schmitz, a former inspector general of the Pentagon during the administration of President George W. Bush, runs a consulting firm and has worked for Blackwater Worldwide, the disgraced private security firm linked to the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad. It’s unclear what type of advice he has given Trump, but he told the Post that he has consulted with Sam Clovis, another Trump policy advisor, for the past month.

Page, like Trump, has a fair amount of experience doing business in Russia, where he was responsible for opening Merrill Lynch’s Moscow office and advising on major transactions for big companies, including the Russian energy giant Gazprom. According to Page’s company bio, he was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was “responsible for energy-related research on the Caspian Sea region.” It’s unclear how or whether Page has influenced Trump’s thinking, but on the campaign trail, Trump’s unusually favorable views of Russian President Vladimir Putin have stuck out among the GOP and Democratic fields.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia?” Trump said recently. He’s also said he “would probably get along with [Putin] very well.” Page is currently the managing partner of Global Energy Capital.

Kellogg, a former Army lieutenant general, has worked inside and outside the military on communications and computer systems for years. According to the IT trade publication Defense Systems, Kellogg served as a principal advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on issues related to command and control, as well as other Pentagon jobs. He’s currently an executive vice president at CACI International, a Virginia-based IT consulting firm. According to the Post, “he has experience in national defense and homeland security issues and worked as chief operating officer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad following the invasion of Iraq.”

Trump routinely criticizes the Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation, which he has labeled a disaster brought on by Bush’s incompetence and dishonesty.

Photo credit: Saul Loeb/Getty Images