Jason Greenblatt, Executive VP and Israel Advisor for Donald Trump, on His Boss and His Own Personal Role
New York native Jason (Dov) Greenblatt is the Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer for the Trump Organization, as well as one of two official Israel advisors for the Republican nominee and US presidential candidate, yet the down-to-earth professional doesn’t consider himself anything of a celebrity within the Jewish world.
When asked how he is handling his newfound status within the Orthodox world, which has risen alongside his boss, The Donald, as Trump’s presidential campaign galloped itself straight into the nomination, Greenblatt laughs at the question.
“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity,” says the executive. “I think the only way this role has changed me is to make sure I protect my kids from the negative comments [I receive] and share with them as much of the positive chizuk as I can.”
Greenblatt and I have met on his home turf: We’re sitting in a richly furnished conference room, at the head of an immensely long wooden table that stretches across the length of the room, ending before a window that overlooks one of New York City’s swankiest streets.
High above dozens of exclusive high-end retail locations, we’re in the heart of Trump Tower, in a building that requires security clearance just to ride the elevator.
Greenblatt is nonchalant about his status.
What is of interest to this rising political figure has nothing to do with the outer trappings of his job. He notes that while he receives – unsolicited – comments and feedback from all walks of politically interested parties, he particularly enjoys sharing the messages that he receives from fellow Jews.
“It shows tremendous achdus,” he explains, “because it shows great support of Israel.”
And this is the piẻce de rẻsistance of what Greenblatt brings to the table for the Orthodox community: a genuine, innate support and love for the land of Israel and its people, which serve as the basis of any advice he provides to Mr. Trump. In a few months, it may very well serve as the way that orders vis-à-vis Israel are carried out from the White House.
Looking for Law
Jason Greenblatt was born in Manhattan, the same borough where he now works, and grew up in Queens. He attended Yeshiva Dov Revel of Forest Hills and then went on to Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA), also known as Yeshiva University High School for Boys.
After high school, Greenblatt learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Alon Shvut community of Gush Etzion, and then continued to Yeshiva University for college.
Despite Greenblatt’s current role, the Israel advisor was never particularly interested in politics, but had a natural inclination toward the world of law, and attended New York University School of Law to train as an attorney.
What was the goal when he attended law school? Did he ever see himself working for a corporation as prominent as Trump’s?
“I was aiming to work in a big law firm,” Greenblatt concedes. “I had a special interest in the real estate department. I was fortunate that when I graduated, I did land in a big law firm, where I spent about two and a half years.”
The firm was Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson and the year was 1992. In the early 1990s, real estate was beginning to pick up and begin the start of its meteoric rise, so it was an exciting time to enter the field, yet Greenblatt discovered another trend that was on the cusp: specialty coffee.
He came across a cappuccino company in Italy that manufactured coffee pods, similar to today’s Keurig concept, and decided that the opportunity seemed promising enough that he would try his hand at the business. He partnered with the Italian manufacturer, who would produce the pods and the specific machines required to operate them, while Greenblatt’s role would encompass company management and sales.
While he did experience success in placing the pods in several high-traffic areas, such as numerous airports and Penn Station, Greenblatt discovered an unforeseen issue on the manufacturing end.
“The Italian method of operating, at least back then, was that they didn’t have the American ‘work all the time’ mentality,” Greenblatt recalls. “So if I ran out of pods or had a problem with a machine in August, they were on vacation until September, and the factory was shut down.”
Of course, a certain recognizable “Green Lady” was also making her way through New York City at the time – not the Statue of Liberty, but Starbucks, which had begun making inroads.
“I saw the writing on the wall, and I just didn’t think companies would use these pods,” he says.
Greenblatt sold off the equipment, regained his investment and approached a headhunter, looking to get back into law. And that’s how he ended up working for Donald Trump.
Climbing the Corporate Ladder
Just five years out of law school and in his 20s, Greenblatt entered the Trump Organization as an assistant general counsel in 1997.
In the close to two decades since, Greenblatt steadily climbed his way up the corporate ladder, progressing to his current role of Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer. Greenblatt’s main function in his “day job” is to manage a team of legal staff for the Trump family’s real estate affairs, as well as preside over all legal matters that do not involve litigation. Greenblatt represents Donald Trump, as well as children Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump, in legal and business matters, such as real estate development, financings, acquisitions, and management for properties, including office buildings, luxury condominiums and hospitality operations.
In his personal life, Greenblatt also manages a parenting blog, called Inspire Conversation, while working as an Adjunct Professor of Management for Yeshiva University, where he teaches a course, “Anatomy of a Real Estate Deal.” He also lectures regularly, with one of his speeches titled “Keeping Shabbos in the World of Donald Trump.”
So what is it like to keep Shabbos in the world of Donald Trump?
It may seem that a once-weekly day of rest would be condoned, if not encouraged, for a man of Greenblatt’s stature, having earned himself enough clout within the corporation to bow out early on Fridays. Greenblatt sheds light on this.
“I’ve told a lot of stories about Donald Trump’s attitude towards me leaving early for Shabbos, which is an attitude of incredible respect,” says Greenblatt, “and these stories start from day one, when he didn’t know me yet. I was a third-year lawyer. I wasn’t important to the organization whatsoever when he showed that respect to me.
“I think that, innately, he’s respectful because he is respectful to all people.”
One of the stories to which Greenblatt is referring occurred when he was the lead lawyer in a large and crucial transaction. The deal was supposed to be completed before the upcoming Yom Tov, which was a three-day Yom Tov that year, but it was dragging along.
Greenblatt pushed to move the deal along quicker, going as far as to sleep in the office several nights in a row, completely dedicating himself to the completion of the transaction, but it wasn’t meant to be.
As the final deadline approached with the onset of Yom Tov and no completion in sight, Greenblatt mustered the courage to approach his powerful boss and explain that the deal was not yet done, but that he must leave and would be out of touch for three days.
“His response to me was, ‘Go home, go pray and be with your family. We’ll pick it up after the holiday,’” Greenblatt relates. “That response was remarkable to me.
“I couldn’t ask for a better boss.”
Dispelling the Myths
The Trump who Greenblatt knows so well is a man who is kind, considerate, respectful and caring, yet that’s a very disparate picture from the one that is often portrayed by the media.
If you ask Greenblatt for his take on the brashness and insensitivity that appear to be part and parcel of Trump’s persona, he explains that this is all a case of media spin.
“The media tries to paint him differently,” he asserts. “He’s really a big unifier. They’ll grab on to some isolated stories and distort them.”
Greenblatt illustrates the point with an example that drives it home.
“If you believed everything the media says about Israel, you wouldn’t support Israel,” he comments.
“Someone who cares about Israel would never rely on the mainstream media sources to obtain their information,” continues Greenblatt. “We seek out our own research on alternative websites or from alternative papers to get the true stories. It’s no different with a presidential candidate. You have to ignore the agenda-driven media and seek out answers through your own research.”
How does Greenblatt respond to the messages personally publicized by Trump himself through social media?
“He’s not an actor,” Greenblatt explains. “A lot of politicians will focus what they say in a certain direction, but their faces are almost like a mask. You don’t really know what some of them are thinking. With him, you know what he’s thinking. He’s an everyday guy. He’s a super talented, brilliant, everyday guy, but he doesn’t feel the need to act in a certain way.”
The Take on Trump
Does Trump have what it takes, in terms of both temperament and experience, to lead the country?
Greenblatt views Trump’s past experiences as a plus.
“The government, among many things, is a giant business,” he says. “We pay a lot of money in taxes, and if you don’t have a sharp business person at the helm, things are not done efficiently and things are mismanaged. I think Trump will look at the country as a giant business. Of course, there are also many other important factors to take into consideration, such as the citizens, what’s good for the country, the values of the country…but it’s crucial to choose somebody who can look at the government and take all the money that we pay in taxes and make sure it’s handled wisely.”
In Greenblatt’s view, today’s experienced politicians who have been around the block a few times are not necessarily a good fit for leading the country at this point, with the rapidly changing world shifting the way today’s leaders must act and react.
“So much has changed in the world recently,” he notes. “With Great Britain leaving the European Union, terror in Europe and all over…the world is a different place and it cries out for new leadership.”
In fact, a lot of the upheaval around the globe today was just getting started when Trump announced his candidacy in June of 2015.
“It’s an interesting point that I recently watched an interview with [Trump] from the early 1990s on a prominent talk show,” relates Greenblatt, “and he was actually asked the question of whether he would ever consider running for office. His answer then echoed nearly exactly what his answer was in 2015, when he decided to run. He said, ‘I have no plans right now, but if I see the country could use it, then I will consider it.’
“And that’s really what happened. He saw that new leadership was something the country could use.”
A fresh face, perhaps, but does Trump possess the ability to be our commander-in-chief, especially in a world of constant turmoil?
According to his top legal advisor, Trump is actually far more thought-out than he might appear.
“I don’t see Trump as explosive or reactive at all,” asserts Greenblatt in response to the use of the adjectives in my question. “He is energetic, he is creative, he will be a strong leader. He is not going to make decisions on his own without counsel from the military or his Cabinet, etc. I’m not concerned about that at all.”
As someone who often sits around the conference table with the big boss and plays the role of offering advice, Greenblatt sees Trump as a listener with a receptive ear.
“I see that here. He thinks out of the box all the time, but at the same time, he very purposefully surrounds himself with people with whom he talks out his ideas. I don’t view him as impulsive.”
The advice that Trump receives is only as valuable as the people distilling it, and to that end, it’s interesting to note why the Republican candidate chose Greenblatt, and his other Israel advisor, David Friedman, to fill their roles.
“He picked us because we love Israel,” Greenblatt explains, “so in his mind, choosing advisors who love Israel would make him more likely to get advice that would help Israel. He, himself, is innately pro-Israel.”
Naturally, Trump doesn’t necessarily act on every piece of advice that he is given.
“The role of an advisor is to give advice,” elucidates Greenblatt. “The role of a leader is to receive advice and ultimately make his own decision. But Trump surrounds himself with people he trusts to do the things that he needs done, and he will always listen to me and hear what I have to say.”
As an advisor, from whom does Greenblatt receive his own advice? Does he have a personal mentor or a rebbi?
“I wouldn’t say I look towards anyone specifically,” he says, “but I try to look for role modeling from anyone I meet. It could be a rebbi, a student of mine, someone in the business… I try to pick up as much good as I can by watching them. And if I see something I don’t like, I ask myself, ‘Do I do that?’
“I also do a lot of introspection, which I have the opportunity to do mostly on Shabbos. It’s the only time you get to collect your thoughts in a meaningful way. We’re all here for a purpose, and we have to figure out what that purpose is and make sure that we’re on the way to getting there.”
In terms of his role as Israel advisor, Greenblatt recognizes that he is somewhat of a beginner in the field, at least in the professional sense, but, similar to his boss, he sees the novelty that he brings to the field as a plus. Greenblatt culls his advice from a number of sources, including experts in Israel policy, European policy and world policy, helping him shape his opinions.
Trump’s children – his three oldest in particular: Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka, as well as Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner – have vocally supported their father throughout his campaign. A person’s family knows him best, so it seems to be a testament to this candidate that his family thinks so highly of him.
Is this respect something that Greenblatt has observed in person?
“Oh, before I even address that point, I need to mention that, individually, his kids are phenomenal,” he says effusively. “It’s a testament to Donald and his former wife, Ivana, for having kids who grew up the way they did, with such wealth and fame, that they are serious, dedicated, hard-working, and genuinely nice and respectful people.”
He continues, “And they do have that warm and respectful relationship with their father, which says a great deal.
“They believe, like many of Donald’s supporters do, that we need new leadership in the country, and he is a very effective leader.”
Greenblatt is one to understand family matters, as an exceptionally family-oriented person himself.
The father of six, including triplets who will be entering 12th grade in the fall, Greenblatt and his wife are aware of the effect that his role has on their family, especially with regard to the example it sets for their children.
“My wife and I train our kids to give back to the community, and I think that they recognize that right now, I have an important role in terms of giving back to the Jewish people,” Greenblatt reflects.
Asked if he would encourage his children to eventually enter the political arena themselves, Greenblatt gives pause and then responds that he would, but with a caveat: they would have to feel strong enough, because it can be a tough business.
Since his appointment as Israel advisor for Trump, Greenblatt has received a substantial amount of negative attention, some in the form of hate messages.
“You might not agree with Mr. Trump or the fact that I’m supporting him, but you can respectfully state your opinion,” Greenblatt points out. “I got a message that said, ‘You’re worse than a Jew who works for Hitler.’ It’s troubling to me that people feel it’s so easy to hide behind a screen and spout out the most disgusting things.”
Some voters certainly have strong opinions of the presidential candidates, but for those of us who are still undecided, is Trump really the best choice?
The nominee’s advisor sums up his thoughts: “It would be unusual for any candidate to have everything on a wish list. The most important things are national security, which is a huge issue today, as well as America’s place in the world, the economy, and Israel – and you can check the box on all of those for him. Donald is very strong on all of those, and he will be terrific on each of those points.”
Greenblatt notes the necessity of coming to an opinion by virtue of self-research and investigation, as opposed to letting the media determine one’s viewpoint.
“I would encourage [all voters] to vote not by default, but through an intelligent, thought-driven process,” he advises.
Greenblatt admits that he used to not pay much attention to the country’s election processes or to the fact that voting is itself a privilege, but he realizes now just how important our impact can be. He opines that while every election in the history of the United States has been an important one, this year’s vote is taking place at a particularly pivotal time.
“In my opinion, with the world like it is, I look at which candidate will leave us feeling safer in our homes, and there’s no question that that is Mr. Trump over Hillary.”
For the frum community, the fact that Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, is sitting in Trump Tower gives many the feeling that we have a friend in high places who has our best interests in mind.
How does Greenblatt handle that knowledge? Does he feel the responsibility that, subconsciously, a lot is being placed his shoulders?
“Oh, I feel that responsibility tremendously,” he says. “I daven all the time for a way to handle the responsibility properly.”