by Eli Clifton
Over the past month, two mainstream news outlets have done in-depth reporting on the grip that Sheldon Adelson, President Donald Trump’s and the GOP’s biggest donor, holds over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. LobeLog has closely followed this important story, so it’s heartening to see The Guardian and CBC highlighting the apparent capture of U.S. foreign-policy decision-making by a billionaire donor.
But there’s a noticeable gap in the coverage of this topic. U.S. news outlets, which routinely “follow the money” when it comes to domestic issues, are almost completely avoiding any reporting on the clear link between Adelson’s campaign contributions and the administration’s pursuit of policies that hew closely to positions espoused by the billionaire casino magnate.
Adelson’s influence over the Trump administration’s foreign policy is hard to overlook. The Las Vegas-based billionaire, and currently the fourteenth wealthiest American, is outspoken about his political views. He has suggested using nuclear weapons against Iran, declared the “purpose of the existence of Palestinians is to destroy Israel,” promoted John Bolton for a senior foreign-policy post, directly lobbied Trump about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Newt Gingrich, himself a recipient of Adelson’s financial support during his failed 2012 presidential big, said that his benefactor’s “central value” is Israel.
Mainstream Media Coverage
Deep in Adam Entous’s excellent New Yorker feature in this week’s issue, he briefly grapples with Adelson’s influence on U.S. Mideast policy. Entous writes:
No Republican candidate can easily afford to ignore him. Adelson considered Obama an enemy of Israel, and, in the 2012 election, he and his wife, Miriam, contributed at least ninety-three million dollars to groups supporting the G.O.P. Officials in the U.S. and Israel said that they learned from American Jewish leaders that Adelson had vowed to spend “whatever it takes” to prevent Obama from securing a peace agreement while in office.
Entous then returns to the thesis of his article—that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are manipulating Trump’s foreign policy team. But the brief acknowledgement that one donor has leveraged legal political spending to control the foreign policy positions of the Republican Party deserves more attention.
Indeed, there’s ample evidence that Trump, who received $35 million in outside election spending from Adelson and his wife, Miriam, listens to what his biggest campaign supporter has to say.
Before winning the GOP’s nomination, Trump quipped that Adelson was seeking to “mold [Marco Rubio] into the perfect little puppet,” but he quickly came around and echoed Adelson’s hawkish positions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem after winning the Republican nomination and securing Adelson’s financial backing.
Politico reported that the most threatening line in Trump’s October UN speech—that he would cancel Washington’s participation in the JCPOA if Congress and U.S. allies did not bend to his efforts to renegotiate it—came directly from John Bolton, now Trump’s national security advisor, and with the full weight of Trump’s biggest donor. The hawkish language was not in the original text prepared by Trump’s staff. Politico reported:
The line was added to Trump’s speech after Bolton, despite Kelly’s recent edict [restricting Bolton’s access to Trump], reached the president by phone on Thursday afternoon from Las Vegas, where Bolton was visiting with Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Bolton urged Trump to include a line in his remarks noting that he reserved the right to scrap the agreement entirely, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.
That was the only mention of Adelson’s influence in the article.
The day after Trump’s violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last month, Adelson visited Trump in the White House. The week before, Adelson cut a $30 million check to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC exclusively dedicated to securing a GOP majority in the House of Representatives. That contribution made Adelson, again, the biggest contributor to the Republican Party in an election cycle.
Politico broke the story of the $30 million contribution but didn’t mention Adelson’s possible foreign policy motivations. In the mainstream news media, only McClatchy’s Peter Stone, reporting on May 14, dedicated an entire article to the obvious influence that the president’s biggest donor appears to hold over U.S. foreign policy. He wrote:
These are heady days for casino billionaire and megadonor Sheldon Adelson.
A passionate and hawkish advocate for Israel with close ties to its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson was in Jerusalem today for a celebration of the U.S. embassy’s relocation to that city, a longstanding priority for the mogul. Similarly, Adelson had pushed hard for President Donald Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, which happened last week.
Stone went on to report on Adelson’s White House meeting the day after the JCPOA announcement.
And The New York Times only briefly touched on this issue in a February 23 article on the moving of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Adelson’s controversial offer to pay for the new facility:
For years, Mr. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino mogul, has pushed the United States government to move its embassy to Jerusalem, the disputed capital that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their own. With an estimated net worth of $40 billion, Mr. Adelson donated heavily to Mr. Trump’s campaign and gave $5 million to the committee organizing the president’s inauguration festivities, the largest such contribution ever.
Progressive Media Coverage
Progressive and left-leaning media have been equally silent about the special interest control over U.S. foreign policy decision-making.
Two days after Trump violated the JCPOA, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes devoted more than eight minutes to the $30 million contribution in which his panelists decried the outsized role of money in politics. Two minutes into the segment, they speculated about how much Adelson’s heirs might benefit from estate-tax reductions in the Republican tax bill, suggesting that Adelson’s contribution might be an investment in influencing tax policy in ways that would personally benefit him and his family.
At the end of the segment, with only two minutes remaining, Hayes said:
There’s also a foreign policy component here. The rich donors might have different foreign policy priorities. Sheldon Adelson has very intense foreign policy priorities as relate to Israel. You can imagine people having intense foreign policy priorities as to Brexit or NATO or Ukraine… You get a US foreign policy where you have to wonder what is guiding it.
None of Hayes’s panelists engaged with that explanation and Hayes did not return to it.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias also speculated about Adelson’s desire to reduce the estate tax and concluded:
Throw in the benefits of the other tax cut provisions and Adelson’s interest in maintaining a business-friendly National Labor Relations Board and the investment is very small and sensible. The same goes for even richer people like the Koch brothers, who are planning to spend even larger sums in the midterms.
There’s no actual evidence that Adelson feels particularly strongly about the estate tax. He hasn’t given public remarks about the estate tax, and he hasn’t contributed large sums of money to think tanks with an anti-estate tax agenda. In other words, Hayes and Yglesias are guessing about Adelson’s motives without acknowledging what Adelson publicly talks about as motivating his political and civic engagement.
ThinkProgress, a site for which I used to work, offers another insight into the progressive media landscape’s refusal to acknowledge Adelson’s capture of Washington’s Mideast policy. Adelson’s name hasn’t appeared in a TP headline for over two years. Housed at the Democratic-Party-aligned Center for American Progress, TP doesn’t shy away from writing about certain other right-wing donors. But it hasn’t put the Republican Party’s biggest donor’s name in a headline since five months before the 2016 presidential election.
By comparison, “Koch” has appeared in 20 ThinkProgress headlines in the same two-year span.
Foreign Media Coverage
It’s not as if mainstream, let alone left-wing, journalists and pundits don’t understand what’s happening. Half of the CBC’s May 20 segment is taken up by Wendy Mesley’s interview with Ken Vogel, a money-in-politics reporter for The New York Times.
Mesley: Why is Adelson so driven on these causes, these mostly Israeli causes?
Vogel: Yeah, he is a cause donor. It’s been really his animating political issue behind his donations for some time. People I’ve talked to trace it to his marriage to his wife Miriam Adelson in the early 1990s. Her parents fled the Holocaust, ended up in Israel where she was raised and so far that reason and others he’s really become a leading donor and a leading figure in this hawkish pro-Israel conservative sort of circle that is so influential in American politics.
Later, Vogel added:
I think what [Adelson] does is act as an enforcer. People are scared, to some extent, to cross him because they fear that if they anger him and fall out of favor with him that his funding, not only funding from him will dry up, funding from this larger circle of Jewish-American donors who give a lot of money in Republican politics.
Vogel’s description of Adelson’s influence was succinct and clearly backed up by Adelson’s own statements, his choice of causes and candidates to support, and the policy positions embraced by candidates who owe their political careers to Adelson’s largesse.
But this explanation was delivered to a Canadian television network instead of The New York Times.
Phil Weiss of the Mondoweiss blog writes that acknowledging Adelson’s motives and influence “smacks of assertions of outsize Jewish influence that were a hallmark of murderous, anti-Semitic campaigns in Europe.” Indeed, Weiss is accurate that discussing Adelson’s influence can often feed anti-Semitic tropes with no basis in facts.
If he’s correct, journalists are actively censoring themselves from discussing how an individual donor, whose views are shared by only a small minority of Jewish Americans, is advocating for foreign policy positions that isolate the U.S. from allies, such as those that supported the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, in favor of a hawkish U.S. agenda in the Middle East.
At the bare minimum, news outlets are expected to report on the facts. In this case, the facts are that U.S. foreign policy is starting to look an awful lot like what Sheldon Adelson has encouraged over the past several years.
Perhaps it’s all a coincidence and Adelson is really engaged in a stealth campaign to reduce the estate tax and pass his $40-billion-plus fortune on to his children.
It makes more sense, however, to take the GOP’s biggest donor at his word. Foreign news outlets have done just that. But the U.S. media appears incapable of wrestling with the new role money is playing in steering Washington’s policy abroad.