Full disclosure: true to my public promise, I did not watch Donald Trump’s AIPAC speech live in the arena, but instead from the comfort and relative quiet of the Capital Hilton bar. Even if watching Trump speak like a politician (teleprompter and all—sad!) was unusual, the underlying theme of his speech wasn’t. And to be clear, Trump’s theme had nothing to do with the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
I believe in AIPAC’s mission; the organization and its employees are doing vitally important work. The premise of their annual conference, however, is pretty simple: pack an arena full of 18,000 people who agree on some basic positions — support of Israel and the bolstering of the U.S.-Israel relationship — and they’ll react positively when speakers say those things. This is far from an unusual phenomenon: any advocacy organization aims to energize its base at its convention; just watch what happens when marriage equality is mentioned at the Democratic Convention or gun rights are mentioned the Republican one.
However, in AIPAC’s case, these conditions set a spectacularly low bar for Trump. Even more importantly, they allowed him to keep his speech true to the running theme of his campaign: Donald J. Trump will say whatever his audience wants to hear in order to be rewarded with applause.
Before Monday, Trump had been flexible on the Iran deal. He had, of course, co-starred in Sen. Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin’s anti-Iran odyssey on Capitol Hill (alongside Duck Dynasty’s Phil Roberts), but the focus of his message was always to lambast the stupidity of America’s diplomats rather than promise that he would actually abdicate the deal. Yet in his speech to AIPAC, Trump reversed course, promising to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” (Doing so would leave Iran with no constraints on its nuclear program and only isolated U.S. sanctions, but that’s apparently beside the point to any and all of the GOP’s would-be commanders-in-chief.)
Trump’s previous character, the “sort of a neutral guy,” in any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, was also long gone. Trump’s new position is that “The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable,” and that there is “no daylight between America and our most reliable ally.” These are full-throated (and in my mind, important) sentiments for sure, but they weren’t backed up by any semblance of policy; Trump offered no details as to how he would actually approach what he’s previously called “the toughest negotiation of all time.”
What Trump left out of his speech was noteworthy, too. His main foreign policy shtick for some time now has been that there is little advantage to U.S. bases abroad, and that the allies we help defend—particularly well-off allies—should pay tribute for protection. In fact, Trump said the same about Israel in a press conference on Monday afternoon (yes, you’re reading that timeline correctly), arguing that Israel “can pay big league” for its own defense. Yet this issue was entirely absent from his speech just hours later: Trump made no mention of demanding that Israel pay, “big league” or otherwise, for its defense.
These are all issues that can be discussed and debated. We can have conversations about how the Iran deal could be strengthened, or what diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians should look like, or what the United States can do — in terms of military hardware and beyond — to help Israel stay safe. That’s all fine. What’s not fine is Donald Trump rattling off these stances like stock language with no forethought or credibility. All that shows is that Donald can read—and he’s the best reader, believe me!
As far as I’m concerned, Trump never should have been given a prime speaking slot at AIPAC. It is absolutely vital for AIPAC to learn about his views and policies, but they needn’t have hosted a rally for him; no other candidate who spoke mentioned their poll numbers. Moreover, his willingness to whip the alt-right into a frenzy and play footsie with anti-Semites, white supremacists, and the Klan are all disqualifying in my mind.
But, fundamentally, hearing his speech told us nothing new about Trump—we don’t know if his past positions (keep the deal, be neutral, and ask Israel to pony-up) or new ones (break the deal, be pro-Israel, and fund defense without question) will be the course he charts in office.
All we learned from Trump at AIPAC is that he’ll say whatever you want to hear in exchange for a pat on the head and some applause. But we knew that already, too.
Elie Jacobs is a NYC-based public affairs and public relations consultant as well as a Partner with the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.
Photos: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) afternoon general session in Washington March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts