WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's branding of American Jews who vote for Democrats as "disloyal" to their religion and Israel prompted alarms of anti-Semitism. But his ultimate aim appears to be dividing Democrats, peeling off Jewish support and shoring up his white evangelical Christian base.
Digging in Wednesday despite widespread criticism, Trump repeated his controversial assertion about Jews who support the Democratic Party.
"In my opinion, if you vote for a Democrat, you're being very disloyal to Jewish people and you're being very disloyal to Israel," he told reporters. "And only weak people would say anything other than that."
The comment — which appeared to traffic in anti-Semitic tropes about Jews' supposed loyalty to Israel — added a sharper edge to Trump's appeals to another largely Democratic constituency: black voters, whom he challenged to support him in 2016 by asking: "What do you have to lose?" This time, Trump and his allies are trying to lure Jewish voters who they think could be turned off by liberal Democrats' growing willingness to criticize the Israeli government. In a razor-close election, picking up a few thousand votes in key counties in states such as Florida and Pennsylvania could make a difference, they argue.
Trump has focused on four first-term Democratic congresswomen of color who have voiced misgivings about U.S. policy toward Israel, trying to brand them the "face" of their party. It's part of a larger effort by Trump and his team to try to paint Democrats as radical and outside the mainstream, a scarier alternative for undecided voters who may be turned off by Trump's rhetoric.
"Democrats continue to embrace and defend the most vitriolic anti-Semites in their midst, who sympathize and side with terrorist organizations who want to wipe Israel from the map," Trump campaign strategist Michael Glassner said in a statement. "As a Jew myself, I strongly believe that President Trump is right to highlight that there is only one party — the Democrats — excusing and permitting such anti-Jewish venom to be spewed so freely."
But Trump's admonitions are unlikely to sway Jewish voters, who have overwhelmingly voted Democratic for decades. In 2018, AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate, found that 72% of Jewish voters supported Democratic House candidates. And 74% said they disapproved of how Trump was handling his job.
"There is no evidence whatsoever that American Jews are going to be more inclined to vote for Donald Trump and the Republican Party because of these attacks," said Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for the progressive American Jewish group J Street.
Furthermore, Bayroff predicted that Trump would have little success swaying swing voters. "All he's doing is making himself toxic to American Jews and many other Americans who are more and more horrified by what he's doing," he said.
Indeed, even some Trump allies concede that the president's attempt to paint himself as more pro-Israel than Democrats is more likely to resonate with evangelical voters, who polls show are more supportive of Trump's brand of pro-Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu-aligned policies than American Jews are.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April, for instance, found 42% of Jewish Americans said Trump's policies favored the Israelis too much, versus just 26% of Christians who expressed that view. Among evangelical Protestants, who have proved to be among Trump's most steadfast supporters, that number dropped to just 15%
That could explain Trump's Wednesday tweet quoting conservative radio host and conspiracy theory-pusher Wayne Allyn Root saying that Israeli Jews "love" Trump "like he's the King of Israel" and "the second coming of God" when American Jews "don't know him or like him. They don't even know what they're doing or saying anymore. It makes no sense!"
Jews don't believe in a second coming of God. Evangelicals, however, do.
Trump on Tuesday announced in the Oval Office that he thinks that any Jewish person casting a ballot for a Democrat "shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty." On Wednesday, he doubled down, insisting that, "No president has ever done anywhere close to what I've done" for Israel, and blasting the congresswomen of color as "against Israel."
He insisted that his own language was in no way anti-Semitic, telling a reporter: "It's only anti-Semitic in your head."
Neil Strauss, a spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, defended the president's comments and said Trump's critics were trying to distract from the Democratic congresswomen — two of whom, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib — last week were denied entry to Israel by Netanyahu's government in a move endorsed by Trump.
Trump's comments come "from a place of genuine support and admiration as evidenced by the fact that he's the most pro-Israel president in history," said Matt Brooks, the group's executive director. "I'm very pleased with this contrast heading into 2020."
Still, the GOP Jewish group was forced to backtrack one day after suggesting that Trump was referring to the "personal loyalty" of Democratic-leaning American Jews after the president clarified that he had indeed meant those voters' loyalty to Israel.
At the same time, prominent Jewish Democrats pushed back at language they warned would stoke anti-Semitism at a perilous time.
The Anti-Defamation League's Jonathan Greenblatt said he was "staggered to have to deal with this kind of statement, particularly in a moment where anti-Semitism is on the rise." The group's annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents yielded its third-highest tally last year since the group began tracking such episodes in the 1970s.
"When he uses a trope that's been used against the Jewish people for centuries with dire consequences, he is encouraging — wittingly or unwittingly — anti-Semites throughout the country and world," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted about Trump.
One of the Democrats seeking to challenge Trump next year, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, told reporters while campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday that Trump "has fostered anti-Semitism in this country."
But other Democratic presidential hopefuls stopped short of that judgment. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, citing his own study of Jewish theology, said only that Trump was not acting in line with Jewish ideals. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who would be the nation's first major-party Jewish presidential nominee if he wins the party's primary, declared himself "a proud Jewish person" who has "no concerns about voting Democratic."
AP Polling Editor Emily Swanson and AP Television News senior producer Tracy Brown in Washington, AP Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace in Des Moines, Iowa, and AP National Political Writer Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.