Trump Stuck Between Ending Endless Wars and his Hawkish Megadonors
President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to withdraw the United States from its ongoing wars in the Middle East, and avoid the kind of military adventurism, like the Iraq war, that has destabilized the region. Trump’s track record, however, is largely detached from his promises — a disconnect perhaps at least partially explained by his largest campaign contributors’ consistent advocacy for U.S. military action in the Middle East and support for starting a preventive war with Iran.
Trump appears to understand that the American public is largely supportive of ending the endless wars in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” said Trump in his 2019 State of the Union Address to bipartisan applause. But Trump’s actions haven’t lined up with his words. Despite his reckless Syria withdrawal announcement and blessing a Turkish invasion into northern Syria, total U.S. troop levels there are expected to remain at around 900, a small reduction from the 1,000 soldiers in Syria at the time of Trump’s announcement. Meanwhile, despite Trump’s repeated claims that he’ll end the war in Afghanistan, U.S. troops will stay there “for several more years,” as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said last month.
Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and a mission creep in Syria that’s expanded stated U.S. goals from containing ISIS to an “effort to push back against Iran,” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are also a far cry from moving away from Middle East military adventurism, as Trump has always said he wants to do.
Yet as a candidate for president, Trump talked a different game. At that time he broke with GOP/neocon orthodoxy on Iran and Israel. Then, his main critique of the Iran deal wasn’t its very existence — as was and is often the right-wing attack line — but that the Iranians weren’t buying enough commercial airliners from American companies, and instead spending more in Europe. And in another move that firmly put him on his own in the race, Trump even committed to being a “neutral” party on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of that changed, however, as Trump drew closer to clinching the nomination and as he turned to some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors to fund his general election efforts — thus evaporating his claim of being a “self-funded” candidate.
Three GOP megadonors, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Paul Singer, and Bernard Marcus contributed more than a quarter-of-a-billion-dollars to boost Trump’s 2016 campaign and support Republican congressional and senate campaigns in 2016 and 2018.
Candidate Trump even warned that the money from the biggest of these donors, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, comes with strings attached. In 2015, Trump mocked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for pursuing Adelson’s endorsement and financial support, saying, “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”
Adelson, and his wife Miriam, are the GOP’s biggest donors, and they’re relatively transparent about why they are engaged in politics. The Adelsons contributed $35 million to the Future 45 Super PAC that supported Trump’s presidential bid and spent $205 million on GOP Republican House and Senate races in the past two political cycles.
Sheldon Adelson has a history of using his ties to U.S. politicians to shape U.S. foreign policy. In 2001, Adelson reportedly curried favor with the Chinese leadership and helped secure his casino license in Macau by calling Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX), then the House majority whip, and persuading him to halt Republican opposition to Beijing’s Olympic bid.
And those views can take an extreme militarist tone regarding U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Adelson publicly advocated launching a preventive nuclear attack on Iran as a negotiating tactic and following up with a threat to nuke Tehran, a city with a population of over 8 million, if Iran did not abandon its nuclear program. The Adelsons pushed the Trump White House to fulfill a campaign pledge of relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and bankrolled efforts to push out then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster and replace him with John Bolton, who would take a harder line on Iran and oversee U.S. abrogation from the Iran nuclear deal.
Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus — who contributed $7 million to groups supporting Trump’s candidacy, over $13 million in campaign contributions supporting GOP House and Senate races in 2016, and nearly $8 million to GOP midterm campaigns in 2018 — also made clear that his political engagement is driven by a militarist worldview.
In 2015, Marcus slammed the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, because, he said, Iran “is the devil.” Marcus even once accused Holocaust victims of being weak and submissive in the face of their own mass murder in concentration camps, which he also referred to as “detention centers” and “concentration centers.” The Israelis, said Marcus, “weren’t like the other Jews” and “didn’t walk into the ghettos, didn’t walk into the concentration camps, didn’t walk into the ovens.”
Hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer had set himself apart from Marcus and Adelson, and was the biggest Republican megadonor to identify with the “never Trump” wing — that is until Trump won the election when he donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
Singer rarely speaks publicly about his foreign policy views, but his money, alongside Marcus and Adelson’s, supports some of the most hawkish institutions in Washington, including the now defunct Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies whose experts promote economic pressure and military strikes against Iran. Bundled together, employees of Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management, were the second largest source of funds supporting the candidacy of the Senate’s most outspoken proponent of preventive war with Iran, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), in 2014.
FDD donor rolls showed that by the end of 2011, Adelson contributed $1.5 million, Singer $3.6 million, and Bernard Marcus — who still sits on FDD’s board and whose family foundation continues to provide approximately one-third of FDD’s budge t—contributed $10.7 million.
Trump and Republican members of Congress are effectively bound to take the words of these hawkish donors under consideration when soliciting campaign funds. In some cases, Trump and other Republicans appear to be torn between their instincts to avoid needless wars and campaign megadonors who hold radical foreign policy visions and expect their campaign dollars to shape the foreign policy of the politicians they fund.