Trump, Gaza conflict loom large at Biden’s high-profile NYC fundraiser

President Joe Biden went after Donald Trump at his New York City fundraiser on Thursday, where he was joined by former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at a star-studded event that was at times interrupted by protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“We had no president on January the 6th,” Biden said, according to reports from journalists in the room, as he argued Trump wasn’t fit to return to the Oval Office.

All three presidents issued stark warnings about the threat Trump – whom they avoided referring to by name – would pose if reelected, with Biden telling supporters, “I think democracy is a literally at stake.”

The event at Radio City Music Hall raised more than $25 million, the Biden campaign announced ahead of time, making it the most successful single political fundraiser ever in terms of dollars raised. Joined by two former two-term Democratic presidents whose ranks he seeks to join, it was a display of Democratic unity for the president as he faces questions about the strength of his 2020-winning coalition.

Israel’s war in Gaza loomed large over the evening with protesters both inside and outside the venue.

Addressing the conflict, Biden said Thursday that Saudi Arabia and Arab countries are “prepared to fully recognize Israel” during remarks at the off-camera fundraiser, according to reporters in the room, repeating calls for a “post-Gaza plan” for Israel, including “a train to a two-state solution.”

The remarks reflect Biden’s increased willingness to publicly call for Israel to increase efforts to protect civilians in Gaza.

“I’ve been working with the Saudis and with all the other Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan and Qatar. They’re prepared to fully recognize Israel, fully recognize Israel for the first time,” Biden said, according to reports from journalists in the room. “But there has to be a post-Gaza plan, and there has to be a train to a two-state solution, it doesn’t have to occur today, but there has to be a progression, and I think we can do that.”

The event was interrupted at least four times by protesters, with at least three calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“That’s alright. Let them go. There’s a lot of people who are very, very — there are too many innocent victims, Israeli and Palestinian. We’ve got to get more food and medicine, supplies into the Palestinians,” Biden said, according to journalists in the room, following one interruption. “But we can’t forget, Israel is in a position where its very existence is at stake. You have to have all those people. They weren’t killed. They were massacred. They were massacred.”

Ahead of the fundraiser, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Midtown Manhattan to protest Biden’s support for Israel amid its war in Gaza and call for a ceasefire. Biden has called for a temporary ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Three presidents in one room mark the 2024 stakes

The fact that three of the four still-living Democratic presidents were in the same room - Jimmy Carter, 99, is receiving hospice care and did not attend – exemplifies the stakes Biden and Democrats believe hang in the balance in his contest against Trump.

Biden in particular zeroed in on January 6 to argue Trump’s unfit for returning to the White House.

“I was supposed to make a speech on the economy, and I decided I couldn’t remain silent, so what I did was I made a speech about January the sixth, what was happening, and I said it was an insurrection underway, and it must be dealt with,” Biden said, according to journalists in the room. “And I pled with the president to stop and do his job, call these people off.”

Instead, Biden said, Trump “sat there in the dining room off the Oval Office for several hours and watched, didn’t do a damn thing.”

The president’s remarks come as his opponent has sought to downplay the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol – and his own role in it — while pledging to pardon participants in the insurrection.

Trump was also in New York on Thursday, attending the wake of NYPD Officer Jonathan Diller who was slain in Queens earlier this week. Diller was killed during a traffic stop on Monday.

“What happened is such a sad, sad event, such a horrible thing. And it’s happening all too often and we’re just not going to let it happen. We just can’t,” Trump told reporters outside the wake.

He added, “We got to toughen it up. We have to get back to law and order, we have to do a lot of things differently because this is not working.”

The former president’s campaign hopes to top Biden’s record next month. Sources familiar with the matter said they were expecting to raise at least $33 million at an April 6 event, which is slated to have some of the GOP’s highest donors in attendance.

Star-studded fundraising efforts

The three Democratic presidents sat for a conversation with late-night host Stephen Colbert. Tickets for the fundraiser ranged from $225 to $500,000 with such perks available for the highest-dollar guests as having their photographs taken with the three presidents by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.

More than 5,000 donors were expected to attend the event, which also included celebrities like Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Ben Platt, Cynthia Erivo and Lea Michele.

While the main events Thursday night were limited to the highest-paying donors, the campaign also hosted what they described as a separate “pre-program” for grassroots donors, hosted by campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodriguez and also featuring Biden, Obama and Clinton.

That star power seems to have paid off. The Biden campaign said ahead of the fundraiser it had raised more than $25 million – making it the most successful single political fundraiser ever in terms of dollars raised. But around a third of that $25 million raised came from small-dollar, grassroots donations of $200 or less made online, sources familiar with the fundraising efforts told CNN.

Supporters who chipped in $25 were invited to participate in a “virtual pre-program for grassroots supporters” featuring the three presidents.

Clinton and Obama ended Thursday night’s fundraiser by doing their best impressions of Biden, according to reporters in the room. This included the two former presidents and Colbert wearing aviators.

As this happened, Biden joked that he’s a man who “loves two things: Ray-Ban sunglasses and ice cream,” according to reporters. While the event was winding down, Biden said, “By the way, Dark Brandon is real.”

The fundraiser is expected to be just the beginning of Obama’s involvement in Biden’s campaign. The former president went to the White House last week to record content with Biden that they plan to steadily roll out over the next few weeks.

He is expected to take a larger role in Biden’s campaign – including traveling to college campuses and crucial battleground stakes – closer to November.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Samantha Waldenberg, Brian Rokus, Kristen Holmes and Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.

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