There were a few things Donald Trump made clear when he met with a select group of Jewish reporters on April 14, almost all of them Orthodox, at his corporate offices in Manhattan.
Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was the one who initiated her April 13 one-on-one powwow with Trump to mend fences, not him. He’s a great friend of Israel. He has many Orthodox Jewish friends, including his chief lawyer, Jason D. Greenblatt. And he considers himself a very loyal boss.
But in a 20-minute question-and-answer session that touched on religious liberty in the workplace, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and federal education tax credits, Trump offered scant details.
On some substantive policy questions, the Republican front-runner for president didn’t answer at all, instead delegating the question to Greenblatt, a real estate attorney from Teaneck — one of two people he said he’d appoint as his White House Israel policy advisers.
Here’s Trump’s answer to a question on whether religious employers should have the right to discriminate on the basis of religion when it comes to hiring:
“That’s the question that’s been asked and discussed very brilliantly on many different levels over the last short period of time,” Trump said. “And I’m going to really leave that decision to you. That’s your personal decision. What would your answer be to that question?”
When asked about tax-exempt status for religious groups, Trump said, “It’s really become a very big point of discussion and a very complex point of discussion and it’s something that I’m very interested in and I’m really forming policy on it and I’m actually going to be announcing something that I actually think you’re going to be very happy with. OK?”
On a question about Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Trump turned to Greenblatt and said, “How do you feel about that, Jason, the settlements?”
Greenblatt: “I think the settlements should stay but I think they have to work something out so that both sides are able to live in peace and safety.”
There were some issues on which Trump offered a glimpse into what kind of presidency he’d run. He named two men he said would be his chief advisers on Israel: Greenblatt and another real estate lawyer, bankruptcy expert David M. Friedman of the Kasowitz law firm.
“I don’t think I can find better,” Trump said. “Jason’s very much a consultant to me on Israel, on everything. He’s a tremendously talented lawyer, one of the great real estate lawyers of the City of New York, and he has tremendous passion for Israel. When he goes on vacation, he goes to Israel.”
Trump did field some Israel questions himself. He said he supports a strong Israeli response to rocket attacks: “When missiles are being shot at a country, whether Israel or any other country, I don’t know what ‘disproportionate force’ is supposed to mean.”
He said he likes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he was disappointed by Netanyahu’s public rejection last December of Trump’s comments about barring Muslims from entering the United States. Trump clarified that it was he who canceled his planned visit to Israel last December, not Netanyahu.
Trump said the world would be much better off if Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muamar Gadhafi of Libya had been left in power rather than ousted by U.S.-led attacks.
“We had Saddam Hussein, who was not a good man, but you would have been a lot better off if that wasn’t done, because now you’ve destabilized the entire Middle East,” Trump said.
“If our elected officials went to the beach and didn’t do anything, the Middle East would be a lot better right now,” he said. “It’s worse than it’s ever been. You look at the migration, you look at what’s going on in Europe, you look at all of the problems. So we don’t believe in authoritarian, but the fact is that if we would have done nothing with Iraq and Libya and other places, we would be better off.”
It was one of the few substantive policy responses during the meeting. Trump spent a chunk of time speaking — unsolicited — about his loyalty to his chief spokesperson, Corey Lewandowski, who was charged with battery after an aggressive encounter with a reporter at a campaign event last month. Lewandowski interrupted to inform Trump that he had just learned that the case against him had been dropped.
“Oh, good,” Trump said. “Tell my friends from, in some cases Israel, how loyal was Mr. Trump to you, Corey? I’m proud of you Corey, you took it. It wasn’t easy.”
Trump also talked about his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who helped write the pro-Israel speech Trump delivered last month to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, DC.
“You probably know, many of you, Jared Kushner, who’s my son-in-law, and he’s happily married to my daughter Ivanka,” Trump said. “So he sends his warmest regards, and she does.”
Trump talked briefly about his Jewish philanthropy, mentioning that his father used to buy Israel bonds, and wrapped up the meeting reiterating his befuddlement about why Jews are so supportive of President Barack Obama.
“In my opinion, Barack Obama has been tremendously disloyal to Israel, and yet my Jewish friends go out and have fundraisers for him all the time,” Trump said. “Someday you people will explain to me what you’re doing.”