At the New York State GOP gala on April 14, celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach tweeted out a couple photos of himself with Donald Trump. In one of them, Boteach checks his schedule to see if he has the time to serve as Trump’s vice president over the next four years. Alas, Boteach will not become the first Jew in history to be a mere heartbeat away from the presidency, as he tweeted “#notime2Bveep.”
There are numerous similarities between Boteach and Trump. Both are adept at seizing the media spotlight (here I am writing about both of them, simultaneously!), both have taken opportunistic advantage of Republican politics in order to further their public profile, and both are compelling in ways that even their detractors acknowledge. But the most unexpected—and, to be fair nothing is unexpected these days, because this is Trump we’re talking about—commonality experience between the two men has to do with former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed in October 2011.
The Boteach-Trump-Gaddafi story begins in 2009—back in what now seems like a radically different and altogether more innocent epoch in both American and Middle Eastern history—when the Libyan despot embarked on what was to be his only appearance at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. Gaddafi’s visit to New York in September of that year was notable largely because of the dictator’s rambling, 98-minute speech before the UNGA, during which he grossly exceeded his 15-minute time limit and referred to President Barack Obama as his son.
Despite Gaddafi’s unilateral dismantling of his country’s nuclear weapons program in 2003, and cultivation of his supposedly reformist offspring, a mild thaw in U.S.-Libyan relations didn’t do much for his popularity in the New York metropolitan area, where Gaddafi struggled to find accommodations for his trademark Bedouin tent, which he had previously set up during visits to Rome, Paris, and Cairo.
(His U.S. visit, it should be noted, also raised some politically weighted logistical challenges. In 1988, Libyan agents bombed a Pan Am flight over Lockberbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, 93 of whom were from New York or New Jersey. In August of 2009, Abdelbaset el-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent and the only person ever convicted in connection to the attacks, was released from prison in Scotland, supposedly because he was suffering from terminal cancer. Megrahi received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Libya and was accompanied to the Tripoli airport by Saif al-Gaddafi, the dictator’s son.)
Gaddafi originally wanted to erect his tent—a gaudy beacon of blood-and-soil nationalism that conveniently doubled as place for the dictator to receive visitors—in Central Park. That was a non-starter. So he looked across the Hudson River, eyeing a Libyan government-owned mansion in Englewood, New Jersey, where Shmuley Boteach also calls home, as a possible location for the tent. But Boteach was disgusted at the possibility of his town hosting Gaddafi, and was one of the public faces of the inevitably successful effort to scuttle the dictator’s planned trip to Englewood. (This initial foray into politics became one of the justifications for Boteach’s 2012 Congressional campaign, in which he ran as a Republican and was soundly defeated by the district’s democratic incumbent.)
So Gaffai looked elsewhere. Eventually, a group of Libyan middlemen eventually rented a 113-acre, Donald Trump-owned estate in Bedford, New York, on Gaddafi’s behalf.
According to Westchester Magazine, Trump wanted the house to anchor “an exclusive golf course” development that local opponents of the project eventually thwarted. Although public details are scarce, it seems Trump’s people did an incomplete job of vetting the property’s renters. As a Trump spokesperson told ABC News on September 22, “The property was leased on a short-term basis to Middle Eastern partners who may or may not have a relationship to Mr. Gaddafi.”
Trump simply didn’t realize that he had cut what he would later describe as a fairly lucrative deal with one of the planet’s most loathed individuals.
Gaddafi never ended up staying at the Bedford house. Shortly after news helicopters discovered that a Bedouin-style tent in the property’s backyard, the town’s government ordered the structure to be dismantled. Local elected officials appealed for the State Department’s help in dissuading Gaddafi from traveling to Westchester County. Gaddafi never left Manhattan, and the town supervisor even “thanked Donald Trump for his key role in bringing this situation to a close.”
In March of 2011, when Trump was flirting with the prospect of a presidential run, he told Fox News an impressively self-serving and profoundly revisionist version of his brush with Gaddafi: It wasn’t Gaddafi who had pulled a fast one on Trump, using a team of middle men to embarrass a major American public figure by pitching a tent on his soon-to-be goldland. Nope. Instead, it was Trump who had hoodwinked Gaddafi through renting him his land at an inflated rate, and then preventing him from actually using it.
“I’ve dealt with everybody,” Trump brags. “And by the way, I can tell you something else. I dealt with Gaddafi. I rented him a piece of land. He paid me more for one night than the land was worth for two years, and then I didn’t let him use the land… I don’t wanna use the word screwed, but I screwed him!”
Trump’s interview is almost admirably shameless, as he brilliantly inverts his own cluelessness into evidence of presidential-level cunning. His claim that he “screwed” Gaddafi evokes the image of some master plan, as if Trump knowingly rented his property to the dictator with the secret intention of humiliating him and enriching himself at the dictator’s expense, perhaps as some kind of patriotic public service.
This Gaddafi episode was, in essence, a preview of the deft insta-spin and total confusion of objective reality that have become two hallmarks of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. For Trump, his spin on their “interaction” demonstrates the businessman’s flexibility with facts, lack of sound organizational control, and belief that “screwing” people over should be an element of sound U.S. foreign policy. As for his current take on Gaddafi, Trump has evinced a certain nostalgia for the man, saying that the world would be “100%” better off if the dictator were still in power.
And it also shows, unfortunately, Boteach’s own drift, away from a time in his public life in which he was a dedicated opponent of theatrical demagogues.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.