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John Fetterman, Fervent Israel Backer, Has Never Actually Been

John Fetterman, Fervent Israel Backer, Has Never Actually Been
John Fetterman, Fervent Israel Backer, Has Never Actually Been

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Images of Hamas hostages wallpaper the front room of John Fetterman’s office on Capitol Hill. Their faces peer down at two front desk staffers as protesters show up on a near-weekly basis, demanding explanations for the senator’s immutable support for Israel’s ongoing war against Gaza. Fetterman, of course, isn’t interested in hearing from them, so all his junior aides can offer are Peeps marshmallows manufactured in Pennsylvania and bottled water.

“The most important thing is we must stand with Israel and with Ukraine,” Fetterman told me in December, after the White House requested emergency foreign aid for the two nations as well as for Taiwan.

The Pennsylvania Democrat has made unconditional support for Israel a central pillar of his political identity since the October 7 Hamas massacre, in which 1,139 people were killed, and, in response, the Israeli Defense Forces invaded Gaza on October 27—kicking off an ongoing military campaign that has to date killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. However, none of the current or former Fetterman aides who spoke with Vanity Fair for this story could pinpoint exactly why the junior senator has remained unflinching in his views, despite calls from the left to stand down and waning support among young voters.

Fetterman has received $244,100 from pro-Israel groups over the years, according to data from OpenSecrets, while The Times of Israel has called him “far-and-away…the most vocally pro-Israel Democrat in the Senate since October 7.” But as much as he embraces the role, what’s even more curious is that, according to staffers, Fetterman has never actually visited Israel, one of the most common travel destinations for members of Congress on official business.

The process is “pretty easy,” according to Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has traveled to Israel for years on official Senate business. “You go to DOD,” he said, referring to the Department of Defense. “If anybody needs any help, they’ll be glad to help.” A Senate Armed Services Committee member told me there are essentially two ways lawmakers can travel to Israel—official “CODELs” (congressional member delegations) and visits sponsored by interest groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to this senator, Graham sometimes takes commercial flights to Israel accompanied by as few as a single military escort for security. For official travel, the senator said “a freshman like Fetterman” could go to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer or any committee chair about joining a CODEL or a privately sponsored trip. Schumer wouldn’t say when asked what his members must do to visit Israel. “You’ll have to ask them,” he replied.

When I asked Fetterman in early April if he planned to visit Israel, he shot back, “I don’t know.” However, a source familiar with the congressman’s travel itinerary said he is scheduled to attend an AIPAC-sponsored trip in May. (Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, declined to comment on the trip.)

Fetterman has likened the partisan brawling in the House to The Jerry Springer Show. He told me in late February that national credit defaults, government shutdowns, and failure to fund military allies should never be on the table in congressional negotiations. “It’s governance,” he said. “It’s not entertainment.” He considers himself a loyal Democrat, but has recently openly criticized his party’s leaders on their Israel policy. “In this war against Hamas—no conditions for Israel,” the senator posted to X on April 4, explicitly clapping back at President Joe Biden, who, during a call with Benjamin Netanyahu after an Israeli army airstrike killed seven World Central Kitchen workers, reportedly threatened to condition future military aid on addressing concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza. In March, Schumer, ostensibly Fetterman’s boss in the Senate, called for elections in Israel. At the time, Fetterman indicated to Jewish Insider that he mostly agreed with Schumer on Israel policy, but told Axios that calling for an election that would almost certainly oust Netanyahu from power was a bridge too far. “I would demand that there be no foreign influence on our elections, so I’m not in that,” he said.

One ex-aide said Fetterman’s “utter lack of any empathy for the Palestinians being slaughtered” made morale among his staffers plummet last year. By the end of March, four members of Fetterman’s communications team had quit, though not in tandem. “He loves attention and he loves Israel, so this is a perfect combination,” said another ex-staffer. At least three of the senator’s former press aides now work for employers who have been critical of Israel, which the senator has avoided doing, even as a growing chorus of global voices accuse the Israeli army of committing genocide in Gaza. Press aide Emma Mustion left to work for Senator Bob Casey, Pennsylvania’s senior senator who told voters last month that “Israel can do more” about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, according to the Washington Examiner. Nick Gavio, Fetterman’s former deputy communications director, left for the Working Families Party, which runs an online tracker of members of Congress calling for a ceasefire, a position Fetterman has consistently opposed. According to Fetterman’s office, a fourth communications aide—Alana Guzman, the senator’s digital and creative director—also quit last month to go to grad school.

Then there’s Joe Calvello, who worked for three years as Fetterman’s communications chief before leaving in March to work as chief strategy officer for Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson. “Calling for peace is not vengeance. Calling for peace is righteousness,” Johnson said at an Eid al-Fitr event with Chicago-area Muslims, where he was presented with an award for casting the tie-breaking vote to pass a ceasefire resolution through the city council. Gavio and Calvello worked on Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential run before joining Fetterman’s campaign in 2021. Calvello was Fetterman’s first staff hire in the Senate after the then lieutenant governor beat Republican television grifter Mehmet Oz in a nail-biter election for Republican Pat Toomey’s seat, giving Senate Democrats a one-seat majority. In the year after Fetterman was sworn in on January 3, 2023, Calvello and chief of staff Adam Jentleson, formerly a senior aide to ex-Senate majority leader Harry Reid, were fixtures alongside Fetterman on Capitol Hill. They kept the public abreast of his recovery when Fetterman was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment for chronic depression following the stroke he suffered on the campaign trail, and pushed back against institutional naysayers when Fetterman bucked Senate tradition by wearing hoodies and gym shorts to work around the Capitol complex.

But then, in January 2024, Fetterman abruptly ditched the entourage of aides who had accompanied him through the halls of his first year in the Senate, an unusual move for any member of Congress, but particularly one who is so vocal and recognizable. Carrie Adams, a former public policy staffer at Meta who has worked for Schumer and former House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, replaced Calvello as Fetterman’s communications chief in April. And the self-described “ogre” has since roamed the tunnels alone.

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