Take yourself back to March 2016: Donald Trump was racking up victory after victory in the Republican Party’s presidential primary. His rivals for the nomination were all trying to position themselves as anti-Trump alternatives, and the hopes of the GOP establishment — much of which was aghast with Trump and viewed him as a surefire loser in November — were pinned on candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich.
Many Republicans seemed determined to stop Trump at any cost. Former Sen. Norm Coleman was one of them, and to that end, he wrote an op-ed in the Star Tribune in March 2016. The headline was straightforward — “I will never vote for Donald Trump” — and so was the content: Coleman called Trump a bigot, a misogynist, a fraud, a bully, and a con artist, in that order.
At that point, this was one of the most scorching anti-Trump items written by someone as prominent as Coleman, a U.S. Senator turned Washington power-lobbyist and GOP money man. Two years after the op-ed ran, there are certainly plenty of people, Republicans included, who still agree with Coleman’s assessment of the man who is now president.
Coleman himself, however, does not. In an interview with MinnPost, the former senator said he would, in fact, vote for Trump in the 2020 presidential elections, and he thinks the president deserves “at least” a pat on the back and a congratulations for what he’s accomplished in office so far.
A big reason why is Trump’s policy in the Middle East — particularly, his moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and his termination of U.S. involvement in the Iran nuclear deal. Since the election, Coleman has taken leadership of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a D.C.-based advocacy organization, which strongly supports Trump’s moves. Coleman has also done lobbying work for the government of Saudi Arabia, a leading opponent of the Iran deal.
Turnarounds on Trump are far from rare in this town: his presidency has seen plenty of Republicans who once harshly criticized him become enthusiastic boosters and allies. But few about-faces have been as dramatic as Coleman’s. For Republicans who remain critical of Trump, his move is another sign of the president’s total takeover of the GOP — and Republicans’ unwillingness to fight back.
Coleman: Trump following in Reagan, Truman footsteps
Coleman remained relatively quiet about Trump through his victory on Election Day 2016. Shortly after the inauguration, in February, Coleman took the reins at the Republican Jewish Coalition, which seeks to aid Jewish Republicans and boost ties between the GOP and the Jewish-American community, which historically skews liberal. (Close to three-quarters of American Jews supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
Policy-wise, the RJC is laser-focused on lobbying U.S. leaders to unwaveringly support Israel. What that means, from the viewpoint of pro-Israel conservatives — and some liberals — is strong military backing of Israel, countering regional enemy Iran, supporting the Jewish state at the United Nations, and bolstering the Israeli government’s political and territorial standing over the Palestinian Authority.
Over the last year, the Trump administration has made high-profile moves in each of these areas, absolutely delighting this pro-Israel faction, and Coleman, who told MinnPost that Trump is perhaps “the most pro-Israel president we’ve ever had.”
He went through a laundry list of things Trump has done to bolster Israel — and by extension, he says, the U.S. — during his year and a half in office: the withdrawal of the U.S. from UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural organization, the withdrawal of the U.S. from the multilateral agreement to relieve sanctions on Iran in exchange for the Iranian regime stalling its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the biggest one, the relocation of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
For the crowd Coleman represents, that last thing might be the most significant: by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the U.S. throws its weight behind Israel’s claim to the holy city, whose status is disputed by Palestinians, who also view the city as their capital. Past U.S. presidents have talked about moving the embassy, but have not gone forward over fears it would derail peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
Trump went ahead and did it, and Coleman was on hand for the new embassy’s official opening on May 14. “The embassy move is one that took a lot of courage, a lot of guts,” Coleman said, adding that it puts Trump on the same level as Harry Truman, who was the first major world leader to recognize the state of Israel in 1949.
Publicly, Coleman was generous in his praise for the president’s decision. In an op-ed in The Hill newspaper, he said that Trump was not only following in Truman’s footsteps, but also in those of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.
In a statement included in the White House’s official round-up of praise for the embassy move, Coleman said “This is a day that the RJC has been working towards for over thirty years. But the credit for today goes to our President, Donald J. Trump.”
When the Iran deal withdrawal came, Coleman also took to the pages of The Hill to praise Trump, saying his move put the U.S. back in the “driver’s seat” to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and safeguarded Israel, whose leaders believe a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia — Iran’s archenemy — agree, and since 2014, Coleman has done considerable lobbying work for Saudi Arabia in his capacity as a leading attorney for the law firm Hogan Lovells. (The Hill initially did not disclose that Coleman was a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia when it ran his anti-Iran deal column.)
Coleman is not alone in being a Republican who has warmed up to the Trump presidency. With some notable exceptions, such as trade, Trump has governed like a main-line conservative, signing into law a sweeping package of tax cuts, undoing scores of federal regulations, seeking to dismantle Obamacare, and advancing anti-abortion policy. The two GOP candidates that Coleman supported in the 2016 primary, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both supported moving the U.S. embassy in Israel and axing the Iran deal.
The reservations Coleman expressed in his Star Tribune op-ed, however, would seem to outweigh whatever Trump achieved on policy. He wrote that Trump was “a fraud wrapped in the veneer of being a businessman, who has slapped a slogan on a baseball cap and is closer to being president of the United States than any bigot, misogynist, fraud and bully in modern American history.”
Referring to a February 2016 incident in which Trump blamed his failure to disavow the support of white supremacist David Duke on a “lousy earpiece,” Coleman said “it became clear that it is not in his ear where there is a problem — it is in his heart.”
Despite his pro-Israel moves, as president, Trump has continued to show a reluctance to distance himself from white supremacist and anti-Semitic elements of his support base, famously declaring that there were “good people” on “both sides” of a deadly clash between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
Coleman says he does not excuse comments like that; in the aftermath of Charlottesville, the RJC demanded “greater moral clarity” from Trump. “I have concerns about some things he tweets, things he says,” Coleman said. “I don’t give him a blanket endorsement of each and every thing he does… Nobody’s perfect.”
Ultimately, though, Coleman says that the embassy and Iran deal moves are too important, too fundamental to Israeli and U.S. national security. “It’s not like sitting in a Poli Sci 101 policy discussion,” he said. “We’re talking about the existence of the Jewish state.”
“In terms of the president, when he ran, I didn’t believe him. Yet, he ran, and he’s kept his word. For that, I’m very, very pleased. A lot of people promised a lot of things on the campaign trail.”
“I would hope Trump detractors applaud that,” he said. “You make tough promises and you keep them, and he’s done that on two things that I thought were essential to American security.”
Win at all costs
Some Republicans who remain critical of Trump, however, are less charitable in their interpretation of Coleman’s evolution in his opinion on the president — and sense in his about-face just how embedded Trump is in today’s GOP.
Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, a Republican who represented Minnesota from 1978 to 1995, told MinnPost that Coleman was right in his first assessment of Trump. “And Norm should stick to it,” he added.
Durenberger, who backed Kasich for the GOP nomination, questioned the wisdom of separating Trump’s policies from his comments and behavior, like Coleman and other supporters have done.
“I do think character matters. I do think it’s not to be measured by your success at the negotiating table, or the policy enactment table, or whatever it is,” he said. “This line that seems to be drawn by a lot of Republicans, the line they artificially draw between the person and his policies is just not appropriate for the president of the United States.”
“I can’t believe that you bring the same Donald Trump you criticized in 2016 to public office and it seems to work with, China, North Korea, farmers, whatever blanks you want to fill in. Come on.”
Former Gov. Arne Carlson, the Republican governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999, had harsher words for Coleman. “I assume this position pays well,” Carlson said in reference to Coleman’s current employment. “Once he lost his Senate seat, I think he sold out to the worst instincts of Washington, which is to sell your soul to the highest bidder.”
Broadly, Carlson believes Coleman is the latest example of a phenomenon of Republicans supporting Trump because they fear the consequences of criticizing him. “What I don’t see inside the Republican Party is courage,” Carlson said.
Durenberger was careful to say he doesn’t question Coleman’s motives and understands he has a job to do. But he lamented his commitment to what he framed as the current ethos of the GOP: “Basically, win at all costs.”
To Steven Schier, longtime professor of politics at Carleton College, Coleman’s turnaround dramatically underscores the extent that Republicans have accommodated Trump’s behavior, from the tweets to the scandals, because they now believe the president is central to their hopes of retaining power in Washington. In addition to his work at the RJC, Coleman is chairman and founder of the American Action Network, a leading Republican 501(c)4 organization that has raised over $40 million so far this cycle to protect the GOP’s congressional majority.
“He’s not an isolated example of this,” Schier said of Coleman. “He’s a money guy, and his job is to raise money and get as many Republicans elected to national office as possible. He knows the only way to that is supporting Trump, at this point, and he’s not alone in approaching it that way.”
Indeed, a political contemporary of Coleman’s — former Gov. Tim Pawlenty — called Trump “unhinged and unfit” ahead of the 2016 election. Now running for another shot at the governorship, Pawlenty has declared support for the president.
Pawlenty will have to spend time answering for that on the campaign trail. But Coleman will not, as he remains at the helm of the RJC, helping to boost pro-Israel Republicans, and in practice at Hogan Lovells, advancing his clients’ interests in D.C.
To be successful in those areas might require a positive relationship with this White House. Trump and his allies are well-known for nursing long grudges, leaving in the cold Republicans who didn’t support Trump or abandoned his candidacy in the dark days of 2016.
Coleman, for his part, says he’s only spoken briefly with Trump since he became president, at an event celebrating Israel’s 70th year of statehood. It’s unclear if Trump knows or remembers Coleman’s opposition to his candidacy, but that’s all water under the bridge now.
“He’s now taken office and provided leadership in areas that are fundamentally important to me,” Coleman said. “I would vote for him in 2020.”