Former Trump Official Meets With Arab and Muslim American Leaders

Former Trump Official Meets With Arab and Muslim American Leaders

As President Biden’s support among Arab and Muslim Americans withers over his backing of Israel in the war in Gaza, former President Donald J. Trump is making a long-shot push to take advantage.

On Tuesday, Richard Grenell, a former high-ranking official in the Trump administration, met for more than two hours with a group of about 40 Arab and Muslim American leaders at an Italian restaurant outside Detroit. Mr. Grenell was joined by the former president’s son-in-law Michael Boulos, who is married to Tiffany Trump and is Lebanese American, though the Trump campaign said it had not organized the meeting.

Many Arab and Muslim American voters have said they are so angry with Mr. Biden over his Israel policy that they will sit out the election, despite supporting him in large numbers in 2020. But Mr. Grenell told the group that it had the chance to exercise extraordinary political power by backing Mr. Trump instead, according to six people who attended the meeting. He argued that if Muslim and Arab Americans publicly swung their support to the former president — and helped him win Michigan, a key battleground state — they would demonstrate to both Republicans and Democrats that they could not be ignored.

“The door is open to start to explore,” said Yahya Basha, a Syrian American radiologist from Royal Oak, Mich., who helped organize the meeting. “Let’s go approach and see what Trump has to offer.”

Dr. Basha and others present described the meeting as light on policy details and said they needed to hear more before committing to support Mr. Trump. Several others who attended were already Trump supporters, but some had cast their ballots for Mr. Biden in 2020.

Mr. Grenell, who served as Mr. Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, even asked the former president if he would address the group on speaker phone, but Mr. Trump called back only after the meeting had ended, according to Ali Abdelaziz, who manages fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and attended the meeting as a guest of Mr. Grenell.

“He wanted to talk to everyone at the meeting,” Mr. Abdelaziz said of Mr. Trump. “But he thanked us and promised he would bring peace.”

Details of the meeting were earlier reported by the website NOTUS. Mr. Grenell declined to comment. Michael Boulos and his father, Massad Boulos, who also attended, could not be reached.

Despite the meeting, Mr. Trump is unlikely to win the support of a majority of Arab and Muslim American voters. He was a staunch supporter of Israel during his term in office, called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” as a candidate in 2015 and then carried out a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, which he has talked of reviving.

Abbas Alawieh, one of the leaders of a movement among Democrats pressuring Mr. Biden to change his policy on the war in Gaza, said Mr. Trump was “looking to exploit and capitalize upon the deep pain of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim American communities right now.”

“They’re losers, and they can try all they want,” Mr. Alawieh said of the Trump campaign. “We won’t be taken as fools here in Michigan. Whether or not Trump makes gains here is really more dependent on whether President Biden comes out more forcefully against this war.”

But even a small swing in support could prove crucial in what is expected to be a tight election decided by a handful of voters in a few battleground states.

And Mr. Biden is facing serious backlash from Arab and Muslim Americans over the war in Gaza. Prominent community leaders have said their communications with the White House have broken down in the absence of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. During the Democratic primaries, the protest movement against Mr. Biden garnered significant support in states with large Arab and Muslim populations, including Michigan and Minnesota.

Still, the outreach effort from Mr. Trump’s team is in its early stages.

Brian Hughes, a senior Trump adviser, said the meeting was “not authorized, sanctioned or requested by the Trump campaign or President Trump.” But Mr. Hughes acknowledged that outreach was being made, saying that Arab and Muslim Americans make up a “disaffected Democrat voting bloc” and that “our campaign is working to communicate to that community how successful President Trump was in his term at establishing a more stable, peaceful Middle East.”

Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, called Mr. Trump “the biggest threat to the Muslim and Arab community.”

“He and his allies believe we don’t belong in this country, and Trump is openly speaking about allowing Israel to bomb Gaza without any regard,” Mr. Moussa said. “Trump and his campaign are racists and Islamophobes. Period.”

At the meeting, attendees described Mr. Grenell as saying that Mr. Trump would not call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire, a demand of many Arab and Muslim American leaders, with Israeli and American hostages still being held by Hamas. And he declined to commit to a two-state solution with Hamas still in charge of Gaza.

But he did argue that Mr. Trump would “muscle” his way to peace, ending a war that has claimed tens of thousands of Palestinian lives, five attendees said. He also defended Mr. Trump’s travel ban, saying it was a temporary measure narrowly targeted at nations that required “extreme vetting.”

At one point, Mr. Grenell expressed hopes that Gaza could eventually benefit from economic development, pointing out that it possesses a valuable waterfront on the Mediterranean Sea. (Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s other son-in-law, was criticized after making similar comments this year. Mr. Kushner also suggested that Palestinians be “moved out” of the territory.)

Those who attended the meeting said they expected Mr. Grenell to set up additional meetings, both in Michigan and other swing states. Several attendees also raised concerns over the long-running civil war in Syria.

Bishara Bahbah, who traveled from Arizona to Michigan for the meeting, said he was impressed that people with such close ties to Mr. Trump were making overtures.

“We had heavyweights there,” Mr. Bahbah said.

Jonathan Swan contributed reporting from Washington.

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