Sheldon Adelson’s legacy of underwriting American militarism

Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s biggest single donor, Sheldon Adelson, died at age 87 on Monday night according to a statement issued by Las Vegas Sands Corp, the casino company he built. While Adelson is most associated with the flashy casinos he owns, first in Las Vegas and later in Macau and Singapore, his lasting impact on U.S. foreign policy — particularly U.S.- China and U.S.-Israel relations — and the emergence of far-right figureheads Donald Trump in the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel places Adelson as one of the most influential and impactful political donors in U.S. history.

Adelson, the son of a Boston cab driver, built a globe spanning casino empire. His share of that business was worth $34.9 billion at the time of his death, a fortune Adelson and his political beneficiaries applied toward his self-stated priorities of gaining influence over politicians and steering U.S. foreign policy toward war with Iran and unconditional support for Israel.

Media coverage of Adelson rarely discussed his policy motivations, even while noting his outsized role in contributing to Trump’s election. He and his widow, Miriam, contributed over $100 million to Super PAC’s supporting Trump in 2016 and 2020 and, in the 2020 election cycle alone, wrote about $250 million in checks to support Trump and GOP House and Senate candidates. But Adelson was a straight shooter who made no bones about what drove his political giving or what issues were foremost in his mind.

In 2013, Adelson proposed that then-President Obama should scrap nuclear negotiations with Iran and instead fire a nuclear weapon into “the middle of the [Iranian] desert.” That nuclear strike, said Adelson, should be followed up by a threat of nuclear annihilation and a nuclear attack on Tehran, a city of 8.6 million, if Iran didn’t abandon its nuclear program.

And in 2008, the New Yorker reported Adelson saying, “I really don’t care what happens to Iran. I am for Israel.”

Adelson, whose widow is a U.S.-Israel dual national and who continues to practice medicine in Israel, explained the central role of Israel in his philanthropy and “in our heart,” saying at a 2010 public event that “the uniform that I wore in the military unfortunately was not an Israeli uniform, it was an American uniform.”

“I’m a one-issue person. That issue is Israel,” he said in 2017.

Adelson’s prioritization of Israel was echoed by his political beneficiaries. Newt Gingrich, who was then running in the 2012 GOP presidential primaries, told NBC’s Ted Koppel that Adelson supported his campaign because “He knows I’m very pro-Israel. That’s the central value of his life.”

Then-President George W. Bush, according to an anecdote repeated by Adelson and reported by the New Yorker in 2008, put his arms around Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, and told Miriam, “You tell your Prime Minister that I need to know what’s right for your people-because at the end of the day it’s going to be my policy, not [Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s].”

His views on the Middle East and its ethnic and religious tensions were crude but he had the ears of presidents and many House and Senate Republicans whose campaigns he financed with direct campaign contributions and massive contributions to House and Senate leadership super PACs that distributed campaign funds around the country to Republicans.

Adelson endorsed the view that Palestinians are an “invented” people, said “there isn’t a Palestinian alive who wasn’t raised on a curriculum of hatred and hostility toward the Jews,” and espoused the factually baseless claim that “not all the Islamists are terrorists but all the terrorists are Islamists.”

And on China, Adelson reportedly curried favor with the Chinese leadership and helped secure his initial casino license in Macau by persuading Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX), then the House majority whip, to halt a 2001 bipartisan resolution calling for the United States to oppose Beijing’s Olympics bid due to China’s problematic human rights record.   

He further deepened his ties to Beijing in 2015 when Sands appointed Wilfred Chen, a former member of the National People’s Congress, the new CEO and President of Sands China, whose Macau gaming license is up for renewal in 2022.

“Wilfred has a unique combination of private and public sector experience we think will be invaluable to the company at this point in our history,” said Adelson.

His influence over policymakers was remarked upon by then-candidate Donald Trump in 2015 who tweeted that Adelson was going to “give big dollars to [Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)] because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet.”

As he closed in on the nomination, Trump sought Adelson’s endorsement and his financial backing. Despite Trump’s history of anti-Semitic comments and associations, Adelson endorsed Trump, who quickly changed course on a number of positions, vowing to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and embrace Adelson’s unconditionally pro-Israel approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Even as Trump’s support from the alt-right grew, and evidence of strong support from neo-Nazis and anti-Semites posed challenges for Trump’s candidacy, and later his presidency, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson remained effusive supporters of the administration as Trump ticked off policy achievements they cared about most: abrogating from the Iran nuclear deal; moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and appointing Adelson-favored John Bolton as national security adviser.

The Adelsons applauded Trump, who awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Miriam Adelson, and appeared to be puzzled that American Jews were not more supportive of Trump. (77 percent of American Jews voted for Biden in the November election, according to a poll commissioned by J Street.)

In 2019, Miriam took to the pages of the Las Vegas Review Journal, which is owned by the Adelson family, to express frustration with her fellow Jews and lavish praise on Trump, writing:

By rights, Trump should enjoy sweeping support among U.S. Jews, just as he does among Israelis. That this has not been the case (so far — the 2020 election still beckons) is an oddity that will long be pondered by historians. Scholars of the Bible will no doubt note the heroes, sages and prophets of antiquity who were similarly spurned by the very people they came to raise up.

Would it be too much to pray for a day when the Bible gets a “Book of Trump,” much like it has a “Book of Esther” celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from ancient Persia?

Adelson’s final political act was to ferry Jonathan Pollard — a former U.S. Navy analyst who spent 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to spying for Israel — to Israel on one of his private 737s after Pollard’s travel ban was lifted.

Adelson’s death is an end to one era of the family’s political activism but it is, undoubtedly, far from the end. Miriam Adelson is, in her own right, a political donor whose influence matched — often dollar for dollar in exact, same sized, six and seven figure contributions issued simultaneously with Sheldon — her husband’s and stands as the heir apparent for the family’s political activities and managing the $34.9 billion fortune.

Adelson’s philanthropy also helped shape the foreign policy echo chamber, infusing hawkish groups who advocated for policies ensuring unconditional U.S. support for Israel’s far-right Likud Party as it expanded settlements in the West Bank while maintaining Israel’s status at the top recipient of U.S. aid and pushed for hawkish policies to oppose nuclear diplomacy with Iran and bring the U.S. closer to starting another war in the Middle East.

Hawkish pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Israeli American Council, and United Against Nuclear Iran, enjoyed millions of dollars in support from Adelson, no doubt boosting their influence, especially with a Republican Party whose campaign costs were heavily underwritten by the same donor.

The violent attack on the Capitol last week, fueled by Trump’s calls for his supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn election results, offered disturbing images of a Trump supporter wearing a sweatshirt with “Camp Auschwitz” emblazoned on it, gallows erected in front of the Capitol, and a host of white nationalist symbols on flags and t-shirts, led only a few Trump megadonors — Stephen Schwarzman and Ronald Lauder — to condemn the violence.

The Adelsons never issued a statement.

This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.