WASHINGTON — For former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and his wife, their recent dinner at the Mar-a-Lago club in Florida was a chance to dine and catch up with old friends. Then President Trump showed up.
“Everyone stood up and clapped,” recalled Dershowitz, who lives in South Florida during the Massachusetts winters.
Toward the end of the evening, Trump stopped by the table for an extended chat, but not about the Trump-branded chocolate cake. The mogul-turned-president wanted to discuss the prospects for Israeli and Palestinian peace with Dershowitz, who is well-known for his hawkish, pro-Israel views.
“He pulled me aside,” Dershowitz recalled. “He wanted to talk to me privately about the Middle East.”
The March 18 encounter provides a window into the free-wheeling and unconventional policy making employed by Trump, who prizes spontaneity. As a business tycoon, he liked to keep an open schedule that allowed for impromptu meetings; it’s a style difficult to replicate in the White House but can work among the handpicked people who frequent Mar-a-Lago.
In this instance, Dershowitz was a guest of Trump’s buddy and Mar-a-Lago member Chris Ruddy, the CEO of the conservative news source Newsmax. The former professor soon found himself immersed in a Washington power-player schmooze-fest. The mood at the club was light and fun. Vice President Mike Pence stopped over and complimented Dershowitz on his frequent cable TV appearances. Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross said “hi.’’ A singer crooned “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
When Trump came over, Dershowitz, a Democrat mostly known for his lefty views, shared his perspective on the National Security Agency, the fate of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump’s travel limits on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries, and, most critically, peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The Israeli paper Haaretz later reported that Trump asked Dershowitz to contact Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and convey the president’s belief that peace could be achieved now. In his interview with the Globe, Dershowitz wouldn’t confirm or deny the account.
The atmosphere at Mar-a-Lago raises questions. Critics have pointed to Trump’s club as an example of how access to the president can be purchased. The club jacked up its initiation fee to $200,000 from $100,000 after Trump became president. Members have a front row seat to history. Thursday night Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife dined there as part of a summit with Trump. He also feted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the club .
For Dershowitz, it helped greatly that he was at Mar-a-Lago as a guest of Ruddy. Ruddy, it turned out, had seen Trump that day at the golf course and mentioned that Dershowitz and his wife would be among the guests at his table of six.
In Ruddy’s re-telling, when Dershowitz’s name came up that afternoon on the links Trump offered praise for him because he’d gone on TV and defended Trump’s immigrant travel ban — which is facing constitutional challenges and is stalled in federal courts.
Dershowitz wouldn’t repeat what Trump told him privately but felt comfortable recounting the parts of the their conversation that occurred in front of other dinner guests.
Trump “clearly had subjects he wanted to talk about. It was his agenda,” Dershowitz said. “He told me he thought in the Middle East, they are ready for a deal.”
Trump explained that he’d spoken to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and sensed that he was ready for a peace deal, Dershowitz said.
“I responded by saying, ‘the Palestinians say that to every new president,’ ” Dershowitz said, offering Trump a dose of skepticism.
“He said ‘Now I think they’re really ready,’ ” Dershowitz added. “I said, ‘You have to test them. ... You have to test them, it’s not enough to just hear ‘they’re ready.’
“He shook his head in apparent agreement,” Dershowitz said.
Dershowitz said Trump made it clear he was aware that the former professor is “very friendly” with Netanyahu.
And the Israeli media is reporting that Dershowitz was tapped to be a back channel sorts between Netanyahu and Trump. This chatter prompted some to wonder whether Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who’d been tasked to be the point person on a possible peace deal, was on the outs.
But Dershowitz said that’s not the case. “The president said, ‘I know you know Jared from Harvard. Be in touch with him.” ”
And Dershowitz added that he doesn’t have a role, formal or informal, in working on behalf of the administration to jump start peace talks. “This was as a one off,’’ he said.
But, he’d be open to doing more. “I said, ‘Any help you need about peace in the Middle East, ask me.’”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.