Politics

Trump allies face skepticism as they try appealing to disaffected Arab Americans in Michigan

LANSING, Mich. — (AP) — Facing a room of Arab American activists from across the country angry at President Joe Biden's response to the Israel-Hamas war, a well-known adviser to Donald Trump was asked this week what the former president would have done differently had he been in office.

Richard Grenell, Trump's former ambassador to Germany, repeatedly pointed to Trump's governing record and said that other countries' fear of him decreased global conflict. But two people in the room said Grenell didn't provide the specific policy changes they were hoping to hear, which left at least one leader dissatisfied and unswayed.

The nearly two-hour meeting marked the beginning of increased outreach by Trump allies in swing state Michigan, where key parts of Biden's coalition are angry with him over Israel's offensive following Hamas' Oct. 7 attack. But any apparent political opportunity for Trump may be limited by criticism from many Arab Americans about the former president's ban on immigration from several majority Muslim countries and remarks they felt were insulting.

“We appreciate the outreach," said Khaled Saffuri, an Arab American political activist who was in attendance Tuesday night. "But it won’t be easy to convince the community to switch from Biden to Trump, because even though we are angry with Biden, many still have a bad taste in their mouth from the four years of Trump."

Grenell was joined in the meeting by Michael Boulos, the husband of Trump's daughter Tiffany, and his father, Massad Boulos, a wealthy Lebanese businessman. Palestinian American UFC fighter Belal Muhammad also took part in the meeting, which wasn't an official campaign event.

The nearly 40 Arab American activists in attendance came from across the country. Some already support Trump while others were attending to hear directly from his surrogates, according to Yahya Basha, a Michigan doctor in attendance.

“I think most people were there to hear what specific policy changes Trump would have. It was a lot of back and forth with questions," said Basha, who left the meeting still uncommitted to any candidate in November.

Grenell fielded questions related to a travel ban on majority Muslim countries enacted during Trump's presidency, which he denied was ever implemented, according to Saffuri. He was also asked about recent remarks from Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a key adviser on the Middle East during his administration, on the potential of Gaza's "waterfront property."

Saffuri said the topic of Gaza was “never addressed correctly” by Grenell.

“Most of the questions were not answered directly, and I didn’t expect these issues to be answered in detail in such a meeting. That requires some thought. But at least engaging the community is one step forward,” said Saffuri, who said that he leans Republican but voted third-party in 2020.

Grenell declined to comment.

In a statement in response to the meeting, a spokesperson for Biden's campaign, Ammar Mousa, said that Trump is “the biggest threat to the Muslim and Arab community,” and that he is “openly speaking about allowing Israel to bomb Gaza without any regard.”

“President Biden, on the other hand, is working tirelessly towards a just and lasting peace,” said Moussa.

Massad Boulos, Tiffany Trump's father-in-law, said he gave a speech sharing his experiences as an immigrant and how they shaped his conservative values. He also highlighted a more personal side of Trump, emphasizing his “love and admiration for the Middle East in general,” according to Boulos.

“And then we discussed the need to organize ourselves and get ready for November and to mobilize our respective communities,” Boulos said in an interview.

Tuesday’s meeting in Michigan was just the beginning of a series of larger gatherings between Trump allies and Arab American leaders, according to Bishara Bahbah, chairman of Arab Americans for Trump and organizer of the meeting. Bahbah, present at the meeting, said he is already arranging future meetings.

Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said in a statement that while the campaign didn't request the meeting, they "will continue to communicate to those voters and remind them that President Trump’s policies in the Middle East brought that region historic levels of peace and stability.”

Arab Americans in recent history have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party, but are angry at Biden due to his refusal to call for a permanent ceasefire and cut all aid to Israel. Metro Detroit, where Tuesday's meeting took place, has one of the largest Arab American populations in the country and has become a focal point of pushback due to its electoral importance in the battleground state.

About 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's offensive after the Oct. 7 attack, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, which doesn't separate its death toll between combatants and noncombatants.

The anger has extended beyond Arab American voters to various groups, including young voters, evident in widespread protests on college campuses nationwide. A movement to choose "uncommitted" as a protest in Democratic primaries has garnered hundreds of thousands of votes across the country, receiving 18% of the vote in Kentucky's Democratic primary on Tuesday.

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Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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