Donald Trump’s top foreign policy adviser has quietly opened backchannels within Muslim and Middle Eastern communities in the U.S. in an attempt to win over a small but increasingly important voting bloc.
Walid Phares, a top national security adviser for Trump, has been courting prominent Muslim Republicans and conservative Middle Eastern activists in the U.S.
Some Muslim Republicans and conservative Middle Eastern activists have also engaged with other top campaign officials about furthering Trump’s outreach to those communities.
In a Friday phone interview with The Hill, Phares said Trump campaign officials had not directed him to engage with the groups. Rather, he described the talks as a natural extension of the relationships he’s built over decades of policy work on Middle Eastern affairs.
Phares said that he initiated contact with several individuals and groups to ask them to organize for Trump or to sell them on Trump’s positions in hopes that they’d at some point support the likely GOP nominee.
But the bulk of the discussions, Phares said, were initiated by curious Muslim Republicans or Middle Eastern conservatives seeking additional information on Trump’s views or hoping to influence his policies – particularly as they pertain to the temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
“Most of those who reached out said they want to support Mr. Trump, but they’re not clear about some of the statements he’s made,” Phares said.
“These people know what they want – they’re concerned about the well-being of their communities and believe that Trump has the right economic and social agenda,” he continued. “But they’re trying to get a handle on how he’ll deal with the Middle East.”
The behind-the-scenes discussions come as Trump continues to deal with blowback over his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.
The presumptive GOP nominee has also said he’s considering convening a commission headed by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) to examine the “problem“ of “radical Islam.”
Trump’s critics have cited those remarks as evidence he’s racist or xenophobic. Trump has since softened his rhetoric on the ban, saying it’s merely a “suggestion.”
Phares described the ban as a statement about how seriously Trump views the terror threat, rather than a statement of policy. He said Trump will further explain and refine his position as he takes government briefings and meets with interested parties.
“Right now the ban is just a few sentences in a foreign policy announcement and a tweet, it’s not like he’s written books or published articles or delivered lectures on this,” Phares said. “He’ll continue to add context and distinction to his position as he gets new information.”
Phares said the campaign is only in the early stages of outreach to Muslims and Middle Easterners, and that a more public outreach effort – along the lines of Trump’s recently announced meetings with Hispanic groups – can be expected later this year.
Phares, who also advised 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney on foreign policy, is an unlikely surrogate to the Muslim community.
The Beirut, Lebanon-born Christian has been demonized by the left over allegations of past ties to Lebanese insurgent groups. And some Muslims have expressed concern about his rhetoric on Islam as a political doctrine, or “Islamism.”
Some of those that Phares reached out to are still trying to wrap their minds around Trump’s candidacy.
One longtime conservative activist who is a Muslim told The Hill that he has been approached by several prominent members of the Muslim American community, all of whom asked for advice on how to respond to overtures from Phares or others within the Trump campaign.
“They approached me and said – ‘what should I do’?,” the source said. “I said – by all means, engage. Meet with the campaign. Speak with the campaign. Address the community’s concerns.”
Some of those Phares reached out to have already come on board.
Shireen Qudosi, a California-based Muslim writer, said Phares first reached out to her before the Indiana primary. Qudosi at first declined to endorse Trump, saying that too many of her close friends supported Ted Cruz and that she was unsure if it was “worth the risk” at that point to endorse him.
After speaking with Phares – and after Cruz dropped out – Qudosi declared her support for Trump in a blog post that encapsulates the mixed feelings some in her community have toward the likely GOP nominee.
“His mannerism and language doesn’t always paint a pretty picture – but neither does the idea of a nuclear Iran, Yazidi sex slaves, more terrorist attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood, gross human rights violations, drone wars, etc.,” Qudosi wrote.
As a self-described “reform Muslim,” Qudosi told The Hill she’s attracted to Trump’s eagerness to challenge those Muslims she believes are turning a blind eye to “Islamism” and radical jihad.
Qudosi said she feels like she has the ear of the Trump campaign through Phares.
Others said they are communicating directly with Trump’s central headquarters in New York.
Saba Ahmed, who founded the Republican Muslim Coalition and shot to fame after debating a Trump surrogate on Fox News Channel while clad in a stars-and-stripes hijab, said she texts and emails with campaign manager Cory Lewandowski and other Trump officials regularly.
Ahmed says she supports Trump despite his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. She said Trump’s proposal is nothing more than election-year rhetoric that has no chance of ever becoming law.
“Something like that could never be enacted so I can ignore it,” Ahmed said. “He’s toned down his rhetoric lately and I’m focused more on the positive messages he has about the economy and balancing the budget and improving U.S. standing in the world.
Ahmed requested a meeting with Trump late last year, but said the campaign indicated that was too politically fraught a proposition in the midst of a heated Republican primary.
Now that the primary is all but over, Ahmed hopes that she and other faith leaders will get an audience with Trump at some point after the Republican National Convention in July. Her goal is to convince Trump to visit a mosque.
The American-Mideast Coalition for Trump is doing most of the heavy lifting right now in engaging Muslim Republicans and Middle Eastern conservatives on Trump’s behalf.
The group, which formed in mid-March after Trump won the Florida primary, is a coalition of Middle Eastern Americans that counts Muslims and Christians as members.
Co-founder Tom Harb said he fully supports the proposed temporary ban until a system is in place to vet refugees. Fellow co-founder John Hajjar was less enthusiastic on that point, saying the proposal could have been worded more “artfully” and that he expects Trump will “further refine” his position now that he’s the likely nominee.
Hajjar also said he’d like to see the Trump campaign do more public outreach to Muslim Republicans, saying that there are moderate Muslim groups, like the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, that would be open to his message.
The Arizona-based forum, which describes itself as committed to advocating for “the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state,” would seem a natural target for Trump to recruit supporters.
But founder Zuhdi Jasser, who first supported Marco Rubio and later backed Cruz, is emblematic of the challenges Trump still faces in reaching skeptical conservatives of all stripes.
“I’m a lifetime Republican and a conservative and believe that Muslims need a candidate who gives us tough love and recognizes that we need to come to terms with an ideology that is sometimes incompatible with the Constitution,” Jasser said.
“But Trump is irrational and shallow and I can’t support him because of his character. His entire campaign has been scorched-earth and I have an ethical compass that I live by. I won’t support him just because the ends seem to justify the means.”
— Jonathan Swan contributed reporting to this story.
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