Former US president Donald Trump refrained from addressing a widely criticized private meal he shared last month with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and a rapper who has spewed antisemitic conspiracies, while speaking Friday at a conference of Orthodox Jews.
The former US president told the audience that he was “the best ally you’ve ever had,” in his first address to a Jewish crowd since the dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Trump repeatedly heaped praise on the Jewish people and highlighted his support for Israel during his speech at the annual President’s Conference of Torah Umesorah at his National Doral club in Miami. He alleged Congress was now “almost anti-Israel” and claimed that some Democrats in Washington “hate Israel with a passion.”
Trump is struggling for political momentum a month after becoming the first candidate to officially enter the 2024 presidential contest. He hoped the early announcement might scare off potential challengers, but a series of political setbacks have instead left him deeply vulnerable as he launches his third presidential campaign.
The 76-year-old Republican faced pointed criticism from within his own party in late November after dining with Holocaust-denying white supremacist Nick Fuentes and rapper Kanye West, who now goes by Ye. Shortly after the meeting, West said, “I love Jewish people, but I also love Nazis.”
Former US vice president Mike Pence called on Trump to apologize for the meeting, saying he had “demonstrated profoundly poor judgment.”
Trump at the time said he was not aware of who Fuentes was, but did not denounce him.
On Friday, Trump ignored the episode altogether, while quoting a segment from his 2019 State of the Union address in which he highlighted the importance of speaking out against antisemitism.
“We must never ignore the vile poison of antisemitism or those who spread its venomous creed,” Trump said, reading from his own past remarks. “With one voice we must confront this hatred; we must confront it everywhere; we must confront it very, very strongly.”
The 28-minute speech largely consisted of Trump reading an article by a right-wing Jewish supporter who listed the pro-Israel steps that the “philosemite” former president took while in office.
The Orthodox crowd repeatedly cut him off with applause, with the loudest cheers coming after Trump recalled his decision to commute the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, a kosher meat executive convicted of dozens of counts of bank fraud.
His sentence of 27 years was much longer than others convicted of similar crimes, and there was at least one instance of prosecutors in the case making Jewishness an issue, calling him a flight risk to Israel although there was no indication Rubashkin had plans to flee there .
“That gets a bigger hand, think of that, that gets a bigger hand than Jerusalem?” Trump said, referring to his 2017 decision to move the US embassy.
“That’s bigger than Sholom, I love Sholom, but this is bigger than Sholom, for me that’s the most important,” he said later of leaving the Iran deal, which traded sanctions relief for Iran rolling back some of its nuclear activities.
Trump reiterated his dismay over the roughly three-quarters of American Jews who back Democrats, despite what he feels are all the positive steps he took for Israel.
“How do you do that? How do you do that when they’re really inducing possible destruction of Israel?” he said.
Trump regularly refers to Israel as “your country” in speeches in front of American Jewish audiences and says he deserves more support from the community.
He concluded his speech with a “little piece of advice” to those in the room, which was largely the same as a social media post last week in which he blasted “Jewish leaders” for their “lack of loyalty” after facing a flood of condemnations for dining with West and Fuentes.
“You have to treat your friends with dignity, and you have to be loyal to those friends. Because [others in Washington] aren’t there for Israel like they used to be,” Trump said. “There’s a group that’s very much opposed to Israel and frankly to Jewish people. And you just can’t let that happen.”
“So when you have an ally, and I believe I’m the best ally you’ve ever had…” he continued before being drowned out by applause, at which point he decided to conclude his speech.