By STEVE PEOPLES and ARON HELLER, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — The opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem attracted more than a dozen Republican members of Congress, two billionaire GOP fundraisers and the president’s eldest daughter, putting on a display of political muscle and Republican unity rare for the Trump era.
Even as it sparked deadly protests in the Mideast, President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem united a cross-section of the GOP. It injected new energy into the evangelical movement, which has long wanted the embassy moved because of the deep religious significance of the area. And it pleased big donors and allowed Trump to claim another campaign promise kept.
“Above all else, we’ve shown that the United States of America will do what’s right. And so we have,” declared Trump’s chief Mideast adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The celebration underscored the power of the evangelical wing of the party, which has set aside early skepticism of Trump to deliver some the president’s most loyal — and rewarded — backers. The outpouring of support Tuesday, initiated by a president who isn’t steeped in the complex issues, even surprised some of the movement leaders.
“This is one thing that’s most visible, tangible, recognizable by the evangelical community,” said Tony Perkins, who leads the social conservative Family Research Council. “It’s actually taken me aback a bit to see just how strongly this is received.”
At an Israeli Independence Day celebration In Washington, Vice President Mike Pence said Trump had done more to bring the U.S. and Israel “closer together in a year than any president in the past 70 years,” and called him “the greatest defender the Jewish state has ever had.”
“President Trump made history now,” he said.
Top officials with the Republican National Committee, along with a delegation of four Republican senators, 10 Republican congressmen and one Republican governor, cheered Kushner from the gallery. The RNC’s new finance chair Tom Ricketts attended. The GOP’s most powerful political donor, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, watched from the front row minutes earlier as Ivanka Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin unveiled the embassy’s new facade.
“I did it for my constituents — their love and affection for the people of Israel,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who organized the U.S. delegation’s visit. He was also pleased by the Adelson family’s reaction.
“Just to see their joy was a moment of happiness for me,” Wilson said of Adelson, who in recent days donated $30 million to a super PAC focused on helping the House GOP retain its majority this fall.
Amid this week’s parades and receptions across Israel, however, partisan divisions back home were rising to the surface.
Not a single elected Democrat attended the celebration in Israel. Most were silent Monday as the ceremony unfolded on television. A few, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, issued written statements of support.
“Every nation should have the right to choose its capital. I sponsored legislation to do this two decades ago, and I applaud President Trump for doing it,” the top Senate Democrat said in a rare moment of agreement with the Republican president.
Wilson said he personally invited “a significant number” of Democrats to attend the festivities in person, but many cited scheduling conflicts.
The politics on the left are far more complicated.
Liberal groups such as Indivisible have opposed moving the embassy, warning it would be provoke violence and demolish trust with the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as a future capital.
Violence broke out along the Israel-Gaza border Monday, leaving more than 50 Palestinians dead. The move appeared to end — at least for now — America’s chances of becoming a neutral peace broker in the Middle East.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the deadly protests in Gaza “just heartbreaking.” She called on the administration to state its “unequivocal support” for a two-state solution and restart negotiations.
“The location of the embassy is a final-status issue that should have been resolved as part of peace negotiations where both sides benefit, not just one side,” Feinstein said.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, was among the evangelical leaders invited to the ceremony. He called the absence of Democrats “sad.”
Reed had little to say on Pastor Robert Jeffress, the leader of a Dallas-area Baptist church, who delivered the opening blessing at Monday’s ceremony. Jeffress has previously called Islam a cult, called Mormonism “a heresy from the pit of hell” and declared Jews “can’t be saved.”
His participation drew criticism from one prominent Republican, Utah GOP Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who called the pastor a “religious bigot.”
Jeffress told The Associated Press he believed his comments were taken out of context.
“I think it’s sad that Mitt feels the need to lash out in anger on such a historic day, but it’s not going to overshadow what is happening here,” he said.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said he couldn’t explain how Jeffress became involved with the event. But he said those views, “if they’re accurate reflections of what was said, wouldn’t be embraced by this White House.”
Despite the spat, Monday undoubtedly marked a new high-point for the Christian conservatives, already pleased with Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court. Trump, who rarely speaks about his faith and used to support abortion rights, had not been an obvious ally.
Perkins noted that Trump himself was initially confused by the connection between America’s evangelicals and Israel. The issue came up during a recent meeting at the White House.
“He made the comment that in New York, he didn’t think that Christians and Jews got along that well,” Perkins recalled. “But he saw that the evangelicals have a deep appreciation for the Jewish people and for Israel and stand strongly with them. So it’s been kind of an educational process for him to understand how important this is to the evangelical community.”
The impact of the embassy rippled across Iowa, where some religious conservatives have struggled to accept Trump’s comments about women and his three marriages, said Bob Vander Plaats, who leads the Iowa-based Family Leader.
“People are high-fiving. What a historic day,” he said. The historic move overshadows “any flaws or baggage that Trump may carry that evangelicals are uncomfortable with.”
In a video address shown at the ceremony’s opening, Trump said the U.S. still remains “fully committed” to pursing a Mideast peace deal.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Trump said of his decision.
He continued. “May there be peace, may God bless this embassy, may God bless all who serve there, and may God bless the United States of America.”
Peoples reported in New York. AP writers Anne Flaherty, Catherine Lucey, Zeke Miller, Josh Lederman and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.