Trump allies hope his daughter Tiffany’s father-in-law can help flip Arab American votes in Michigan

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — One of Donald Trump’s emissaries to Arab Americans is a Lebanese-born businessman who moved to Texas as a teenager, speaks Arabic, English and French, and recently joined the Trump family when his son married the former president’s younger daughter.

Massad Boulos has taken on the challenge of trying to convince a politically influential community angry at President Joe Biden that Trump is a better option. But many Arab Americans also note Trump has positioned himself as more pro-Israel than Biden and has made a series of comments and policy announcements that critics blast as Islamophobic.

Trump has long put family members and their relatives in key roles in his campaigns and the White House. Boulos, whose son Michael married Tiffany Trump two years ago, is the latest relative to rise in Trump’s political orbit as he uses long-standing connections in an effort to build support for the presumptive Republican nominee’s 2024 campaign.

Some Trump allies think they can capitalize on dissension within Biden’s Democratic base over his support for the Israeli offensive in Gaza, where more than 37,000 people have died since Hamas’ Oct. 7, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory who do not give the breakdown of civilians and fighters. Biden faced a significant protest vote during the Michigan primary February in areas with high numbers of Arab Americans, who are an important Democratic bloc.

“Obviously the No. 1 point that is of high priority within the Arab American community is the current war in the Middle East,” Boulos said in an interview. “And the question is, who can bring peace and who is bringing war? And they know the answer to that.”

Several of the people who have met with Boulos also point to Trump’s statements about Arabs and Muslims. While president, Trump banned immigration from several majority-Muslim countries and questioned the loyalty of Muslim lawmakers serving in Congress. Now, as he campaigns for a second term after losing in 2020, Trump has at times criticized Biden for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and has threatened to deport pro-Palestinian protesters he labels as supporters of Hamas.

“I told Massad, ‘This isn’t about you being Lebanese and me being Lebanese,’” said Osama Siblani, a publisher of the Arab American News in Dearborn. “You can’t just buy votes. You have to give something substantial to the community. And Trump hasn’t done that yet.”

Boulos, who is of medium stature with graying black hair, square glasses, and a warm, friendly smile, is often complimented for his calm demeanor and humility — qualities not always associated with someone overseeing a billion-dollar conglomerate.

Born in Lebanon, Boulos moved to Texas shortly before attending the University of Houston and obtaining a doctor of jurisprudence degree. Boulos said he actively participated in Republican politics as a student.

After graduating, he eventually joined his family’s business of three generations and became the managing director and CEO of the conglomerate SCOA Nigeria, which specializes in the assembly and distribution of motor vehicles and equipment.

Boulos has a background in politics in his home country, having run unsuccessfully for a parliamentary seat in Lebanon in 2009. He describes himself as a “friend” of Sleiman Frangieh, a Christian politician allied with the Shiite party and the militant group Hezbollah. Frangieh is currently Hezbollah’s endorsed candidate for Lebanon’s presidential vacancy.

A supporter of Trump from afar since his first campaign, Boulos became more directly involved after meeting Trump at a White House Christmas party in 2019. At the time, Michael Boulos was dating Tiffany Trump.

Massad Boulos has given no recent donations, according to campaign finance records. But in a trip to Michigan this month, he attended what he described as a “private fundraising event” with U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., and about 50 Arab Americans.

Boulos assisted with the 2020 campaign, but his role has significantly expanded since his son married Tiffany Trump in 2022, especially as Arab American dissatisfaction with Biden presented what Trump allies think is a larger political opportunity.

“One less vote for Biden is a vote for Trump,” said Bishara Bahbah, chairman of the group Arab Americans for Trump.

Boulos maintains a “very close working relationship” with the group, Bahbah said.

The group, which says it is independent of the Trump campaign, has established operations in Michigan and Arizona, states identified as priority areas by “people close to Trump,” Bahbah said.

A May meeting held in Troy, Michigan, included Massad and Michael Boulos as well as Richard Grenell, who was Trump’s ambassador to Germany and is a key foreign policy adviser to the former president. Approximately 40 Arab American activists from across the country attended.

While Arab Americans for Trump was involved in the event, Boulos said that it had primarily been initiated by Grenell. The gathering received mixed feedback, with some attendees saying it lacked substance and failed to address their concerns regarding Trump.

“Grenell didn’t say what they would do, but he kept reminding us that when Trump was president, there was no war whatsoever and that he launched the biggest peace effort in the Middle East. But most Arabs and Muslims don’t consider the Abraham Accords a peace agreement,” said Khaled Saffuri, an Arab American political activist who was in attendance.

Grenell tried to call Trump to have him address attendees by phone, according to multiple people at the meeting. The former president did not answer.

Grenell and the Trump campaign declined to comment.

Just over a week later, Boulos returned for another round of engagements. This time, he had several meetings with nearly 50 members of the Arab American community, alongside one-on-one sessions with individuals identified as “high-target” leaders by Mike Hacham, the coordinator for Arab Americans for Trump in Michigan.

Boulos said his efforts so far have been “more of a personal effort to reconnect with friends.” He said he typically begins meetings by speaking for close to 20 minutes, laying out the records of the Biden and Trump presidencies. He then opens the floor for any questions.

Siblani had a nearly two-hour meeting with Boulos, who was accompanied by Bahbah, the chair of Arab Americans for Trump.

According to Siblani, Boulos argued that things were better for Arab Americans under Trump and that the world saw less conflict and fewer wars during his presidency, suggesting Trump could help resolve the Gaza conflict.

But when Siblani pushed back, he said that Boulos lacked “facts to prove his claim that Trump is better.”

“Massad is unable to convince people to come to Trump’s side because he hasn’t offered anything substantial to the community, except that his son is married to Trump’s daughter and he has access,” Siblani said. “That is fine, but what we need is policy and what Trump will do.”

In interviews, Boulos said that Trump “respects and admires” the Arab American community. He denied the existence of a “Muslim ban,” which is how many Trump opponents refer to his ban on immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries. Boulos argued it was actually “extreme vetting from certain parts of the world.”

The key messages arising from these meetings, Boulos said, are communicated to Trump. Boulos highlighted a recent social media post from Trump that promised to bring “peace in the Middle East” if reelected, as evidence. Boulos asserted that the timing of the post “wasn’t a coincidence” but rather a response to “listening to the community’s concerns.”

Trump’s statement, posted on his social media platform, Truth Social, on June 4, did not go far enough for multiple community leaders who met with Boulos.

In a statement, Trump campaign spokesperson Brian Hughes said the campaign is “grateful that supporters of President Trump are working to communicate with this community.”

“We share the belief that Biden’s failed Middle East policies have brought death, chaos and war to the region. That failure led tens of thousands of Democrats to vote ‘uncommitted’ in Michigan’s Presidential primary. The Trump campaign has and 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,” Hughes said.

Some in the community still feel that there are other options than just Trump and Biden. Green Party candidate Jill Stein visited Dearborn this year to meet with leaders and recently had conversations with the city’s mayor, Abdullah Hammoud, about the possibility of him becoming her running mate.

Hammoud, at 34 years old, is ineligible to serve as vice president. The U.S. Constitution requires both the president and vice president to be at least 35.

Officials in Biden’s administration have also visited Dearborn to meet with local leaders and have maintained ongoing contact with them, including Siblani.

Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, criticized Trump allies’ outreach, saying in a statement that Trump “is 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 regard,” said Moussa, who is Arab American. “Trump and his campaign are racists and Islamophobes. Period. President Biden, on the other hand, is working tirelessly towards a just and lasting peace.”

Until the November election, Boulos said he will continue to divide his time between managing his company and meeting with the Arab American community.

He stressed that he is solely driven by being a “concerned citizen and a Republican.” He has not contemplated a role in Trump’s administration if the Republican were to win.

“I honestly don’t have any thoughts about that at this time. I didn’t give this any thought whatsoever, but definitely I do not aspire for anything,” he said.

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Associated Press reporters Jill Colvin in Washington, Abby Sewell in Beirut, Lebanon, and Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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