Trump plays to evangelical base with hard-line support for Israel

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s recent push to win over Jewish voters faces an uphill battle, but his hard-line support for Israel may be aimed at a different audience altogether: evangelical Christians.

Trump last month embraced the moniker "King of Israel" after a conservative conspiracy theorist argued that he is "the greatest president for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world."

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But instead of galvanizing the support of American Jewish voters, Trump's self-designation as a champion of Jewish causes — including charges that those who don't support him are being "disloyal" to Israel — prompted backlash from the same Jewish Democrats he's seeking to attract to the GOP tent in 2020.

Many of those critics now argue that Trump is not speaking to Jewish voters at all but aims simply to employ a hard line on Israel policy — and attacks on those who oppose it — to rally evangelical Christians.

"It is about pandering to his base of voters. And the base voters, the Trump voters who care about this issue are, the vast majority, Republicans, Christians and in many cases fundamentalist evangelicals," said Logan Bayroff, spokesman for J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group.

"Trump [is] expressing frustration that while the evangelical community is on board with his far-right policies ... the vast majority of Jewish voters are disgusted by it, broadly disgusted by Trump [and] are going to vote against him and his party," he added.

Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchBipartisan lawmakers condemn Iran, dispute State Department on number of protesters killed Bipartisan lawmakers introduce amendment affirming US commitment to military aid to Israel Ethics sends memo to lawmakers on SCIF etiquette MORE (Fla.), a prominent pro-Israel Democrat, offered a similar assessment.

"It seems pretty obvious that everything the president does is meant to cater to his base," Deutch said Wednesday by phone.

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"Given that his base is 40 percent of the American people or less, I guess we'll have to see if that's a good political judgment," he added. "But clearly there was no thought about trying to win over some of the three-quarters of the members of the Jewish community who voted against him in the last election."

Trump won just 23 percent of the Jewish vote in 2016 and since taking office has sought to win over that bloc by aligning himself squarely behind the policies of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE.

Last year, he fulfilled a campaign promise by moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a step rejected by previous administrations for fear of undermining a Middle East peace deal. He also pulled out of an international nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by former President Obama, over Netanyahu's objections and took the controversial step of recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights region.

But Trump recently raised eyebrows when he tweeted praise from Wayne Allyn Root, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who questioned the intelligence of American Jewish voters.

"The Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God," Root told Newsmax. "But American Jews don’t know him or like him. They don’t even know what they’re doing or saying anymore."

Joel Rubin, a deputy assistant secretary of State during the Obama administration, said those messages stirred echoes of historical sentiments, held by some evangelicals, that American Jews should return to Israel. In some Biblical interpretations, only intense conflict in the region will bring about the second coming of Christ.

"He's sort of aping their argument that the Jews somehow should be in Israel. Like, we're not loyal because we don't like what he's doing on Israel," Rubin said. "It's sort of an evangelical-right approach to having the Jews go back to Israel as part of the rapture, for the end of days."

Bayroff, of J Street, agreed.

"He's clearly in tune with making these decisions and making policies toward Israel and talking about Israel in a way that aligns with the end times, rapture ideas of a portion of his base," Bayroff said. "He probably doesn't really believe it. But ... I think he's using that language because he knows it resonates with the people who already like him."

Recent polls indicate a clear divide between Jewish and Christian voters when it comes to Trump's Middle East policy. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 42 percent of Jewish voters think the president sides too favorably with Israel, while 26 percent of Christians expressed a similar concern. Among evangelicals, the number dropped to 15 percent.

Trump in recent months has sought to divide Jewish voters by attacking a small band of minority Democratic congresswomen who've been fiercely critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. That strategy has prove effective, highlighting the divisions between members of "the squad" and the pro-Israel Democrats accusing them of anti-Semitism.

A key moment in that conflict took place in March, when Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarIlhan Omar responds to 'Conservative Squad': 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' Biden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire MORE (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, suggested Israel supporters have an "allegiance to a foreign country," invoking a decades-old trope questioning the loyalty of Jews to any country but Israel. In response, Democratic leaders passed a resolution condemning hate speech in all forms.

Michael Glassner, chief operating officer for Trump's reelection campaign, said there's "no bigger ally" of the Jewish community worldwide than the president.

“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," Glassner said in an email. "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."

Yet Trump's more recent actions have united Democrats in their opposition to his Israel policies.

Last month, Trump pressed successfully for Netanyahu to deny a scheduled visit by Omar and Rep. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibIlhan Omar responds to 'Conservative Squad': 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers Biden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll MORE (D-Mich.), a daughter of Palestinian immigrants — a move condemned by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful Jewish lobbying group that typically sides with Netanyahu.

And later that month, Trump lashed out at American Jews who would vote Democratic.

"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 said from the White House. "And only weak people would say anything other than that."

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers MORE (D-Md.) said it's unclear what message Trump was trying to send in questioning the loyalty of Jewish voters. But he hammered the president for thinking in "primitive, tribalistic terms."

"The inside of the president's mind is a scary place," Raskin told The Hill. "In there, you will find a series of blanket stereotypes of different ethnic racial and religious groups."

Scott Wong contributed.