LAS VEGAS — The Republican presidential candidates had a rare chance this weekend to lay out how their foreign policy approach would differ from former president Donald Trump’s while appearing back-to-back with him on the same stage before an audience of some of the party’s most influential Jewish donors and activists.
It was Nikki Haley who most forcefully seized that opportunity in a campaign season during which Trump has refused to appear on the debate stage with his significantly lower-polling rivals. In a moment when she is trying to prove to donors and voters that she will be a tough adversary for the former president as the primary field narrows, she argued that Americans cannot rely on a man preoccupied with his own grievances and resentments in a moment when the “darkest forces” are aligned against freedom and want “to wipe out the Jewish people by any means necessary.”
“The stakes couldn’t be higher, and given those stakes, we cannot have four years of chaos, vendettas and drama,” Haley said to applause, noting her role as both a military spouse and a mother. “Eight years ago it was good to have a leader who broke things. But right now we need a leader who also knows how to put things back together. America needs a captain who will steady the ship, not capsize it.”
Touting her work as a champion for Israel as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations — who repeatedly warned about the threats Hamas posed long before the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack — Haley allowed that Trump deserved credit as a “pro-Israel president” who exited the Iran deal and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But she slammed his controversial assertion, shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group, is “very smart” and noted that she would never criticize Israel’s prime minister “in the middle of tragedy and war,” as Trump had done. She accused Trump of being “confused” about the United States’ foreign allies versus its adversaries and mocked him for previously complimenting Chinese President Xi Jinping and for calling North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un his friend.
“These are not good or smart people. Along with Iran’s ayatollah, they’re the most evil dictators in the world,” she said. “They want us to stay divided, distracted and morally confused. … With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
Haley and Trump were among the nine GOP presidential candidates — including former vice president Mike Pence, who suspended his campaign at the event — who addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual summit in Las Vegas weeks after Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing some 1,400 people and taking more than 200 people hostage. Numerous speakers underscored that more Jews were killed on that October day than on any day since the Holocaust. Resting on many of the chairs in a large ballroom at the Venetian Convention and Expo Center were signs bearing the Israeli flag and the message: “We are not alright.”
While Haley ratcheted up her criticism of Trump at the gathering, the glowing reception the former president received from the audience underscored the difficulty his rivals face in trying to outshine an ex-president who can point to the powers he wielded during his presidency — and, in this case, his claim that he was the most pro-Israel president in history.
In his own remarks, Trump declared that his administration would ensure that Hamas is decimated and that “these atrocities will be avenged.” He argued that President Biden’s “weakness and incompetence” caused the attack on Israel, and issued his own warning: “if you spill a drop of American blood, we will spill a gallon of yours.”
“Today the world is blowing up,” Trump said to applause. “If I was president, the attack on Israel would never, ever have happened.”
TJ Ducklo, a spokesperson for Biden-Harris 2024 campaign, noted Trump’s recent “erratic attacks on Israel” and said they were “par for the course for a man who undermined our national security and embarrassed our nation on the world stage.”
“The more Trump speaks, the more voters are reminded just how dangerous and unfit to lead he is,” Ducklo said.
Since the Hamas attacks on Israel, all of the GOP presidential hopefuls have stepped up their efforts to court this powerful Republican constituency — each jockeying to prove that they would be the most ardent champion for Israel. The Republican National Committee also recently announced that the RJC will be co-sponsoring the third GOP presidential debate on Nov. 8 in Miami, underscoring the influential role the coalition has played on the campaign trail. But while Trump’s rivals have floated different policies, such as cracking down on pro-Palestinian rallies on campuses or promising to deport foreign students whom they deem supportive of Hamas, it has been difficult for them to top the impact of his policies in the Middle East.
But Trump was quick to remind his audience this weekend that he authorized the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general; that he recognized Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, a contested strip of land along the Israel-Syria border; and that he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while making the controversial move the U.S. Embassy there.
A year ago, many of the soon-to-be-candidates who argued that it was time to move on from Trump were well-received. But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who had just returned from Israel and was a featured speaker Friday night, said that the Oct. 7 attack has refocused attention on the Trump administration’s work to support Israel.
“He had a lot of doubters here who felt he was too bombastic; there were other choices who were good on policy and maybe better able to win, but now I think they see the value of Trump,” Graham said. “The next president needs to scare our enemies. I can’t think of a person better to scare our enemies than Donald Trump.”
Beyond Trump, other GOP candidates such as Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were warmly received as they continue to battle for a distance second place behind Trump — underscoring how there is still little consensus on a nominee among those who want to see an alternative to Trump.
Scott argued that he would reverse “the Biden policy of American weakness, retreat and rewarding terrorism that cost innocent Americans and Israelis their lives.” He touted his legislative proposals to defund universities “that coddle antisemitism” and to stop sanctions on Iran from sunsetting. He spoke passionately about the rise of antisemitism across the United States and on college campuses.
“We have to cut out the rot of antisemitism from our society,” Scott said, stating that any student who advocates murder and terrorism should be expelled from their campus. “Any university that lets itself become a megaphone for evil should lose every single dime of federal tax dollars,” he added, as members of the audience stood and cheered.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one of the most ardent critics of Trump, was greeted with a smattering of boos, but he waved them away — stating that it was too serious a day for pettiness.
“There is a difference, everyone, between free speech and hate speech,” Christie said. “What’s going on on our college campuses today is not free speech. It is hate speech. What’s going on our campuses today is inciting violence, is inciting fear, and we know the impact it is having on our children.”
Some RJC members had questioned why Vivek Ramaswamy attended the gathering at all after he stirred controversy on the campaign trail by arguing the United States should phase out aid to Israel as he pursues an “Abraham Accords 2.0” as president — a position for which that Haley has excoriated the tech entrepreneur, stating that his approach would make America less safe.
Early in his speech Saturday, Ramaswamy said he wanted to relieve some of the tension in the audience by “calling out the elephant in the room” — the fact that his policy views have been described as “unfriendly to Israel.”
“I think it is at least reasonable to ask the question of whether the supposedly protective blanket that the U.S. provided may have, in any small way, contributed to the intellectual inertia of Israel’s own defenses,” Ramaswamy said, referring to Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
He did not speak in any detail about his previous assertions that the United States should end military assistance to Israel but said the United States must be “crystal clear with the U.N. and the rest of the world that Israel is free to defend itself to the fullest, using whatever means Israel determines to be in its national self-interest.”