Decision 2016: The Untold Story of the Role an Old Grudge and Serbian-Americans Played in the Election of Donald Trump
By Dan Ciric, Editorial Board
With reporting from many Serbian communities throughout Pennsylvania State
Donald Trump, President-Elect of the United States of America
It is very possible that the seeds of Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election were sown on April 4, 1999, a crisp sunny afternoon and Palm Sunday on the Orthodox Church calendar, in front of the White House itself.
Eleven days earlier, President Bill Clinton, at the strong urging of his wife, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and desperately needing a distraction from his recent sex scandal and subsequent impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice, had begun bombing Serbia, a Christian nation and staunch U.S. ally in both World Wars, for fighting to put down an Islamist insurgency in its Province of Kosovo, the heartland of Serbian religion and culture – its Jerusalem.
In response to a plea from former U.S. Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley (R-MD), the first Serbian-American ever to serve in the U.S. Congress, beginning early on Palm Sunday morning, Serbs together with their allies in the Greek-American and other Orthodox communities, began to pour into Washington, DC. At first by the hundreds, and within a few hours by the thousands, they gathered to protest the bombing of Serbia in Lafayette Park in front of the White House.
Bentley’s former chief aide and surrogate son, Greek-American attorney Michael Kosmas, remembers her anger at what the Clintons were doing to her beloved Serbia. While speaking to a group of Orthodox bishops in front of the White House gate, he recalls Helen telling them that she knew God would repay the Clintons for this evil deed, but that she would be very happy to help him. As it would turn out, sixteen years later she would get her wish.
The Clintons bombed Serbia for 78 days, not pausing for Orthodox Holy Week or Easter, in a move universally condemned by the global Orthodox Church. The result has been the de facto independence of the rump state of Kosovo, unrecognized by the United Nations, which has rapidly descended into chaos and lawlessness, becoming a global center for money laundering and drug running, and most concerning, a hotbed of Islamist activity funded by “charitable donations” from Saudi Arabia.
For all of these reasons, by the time the 2016 presidential election season approached, the media was already calling the Clintons the most hated couple in Serbia, and the same was true among Serbian-Americans. The writing was already on the wall that Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s first Secretary of State and no friend to Serbs or the Orthodox world, was the overwhelming frontrunner to secure the Democrat Party nomination for the White House. And it was no coincidence that so many Islamist monarchs and dictators had poured so many millions of dollars into the Clinton Foundation. The Serbian-American community knew that Hillary Clinton must be blocked from ever returning to power.
But it was a different event between 1999 and the 2016 election cycle that would ensure that the Trump candidacy would be brought to the center of Serbian-American political power. After Bentley’s retirement from Congress, Kosmas, her aide, left Capitol Hill and politics for a private law practice focusing on hotel and resort development. It was a path that would lead right to the Trump’s doorstep. In 2006 Kosmas met Trump’s adult children when he was hired by a prominent businessman to negotiate a hotel deal with The Trump Organization. The following year, the Trump Organization hired Kosmas as its own outside counsel for hotel development.
Kosmas recalls when Bentley summoned him to her bedside on Thanksgiving weekend in 2015. Although at age 92 her body was frail, her mind was as sharp as ever. How are we going to defeat Hillary Clinton, she wanted to know. Having already become a strong supporter of the candidacy of his famous client Donald Trump, Kosmas shared with her his experiences working for the Trump family for the past several years, noting that he was very strong on the issues about which she was passionate during her service in the Congress – fair trade, manufacturing, steel, the industrial base and jobs for American workers. He asked her to publicly endorse Trump and to campaign for him in Maryland, the state which she represented in Congress for a decade, but more importantly in the national Serbian-American community. She agreed.
Those who know Bentley know that she does not easily accept the mistreatment of her friends, and by February she was already very bothered by the treatment Trump was receiving from the Republican establishment. On Saturday, March 4, 2016, the Washington Post devoted the top half of its Op Ed page to Bentley’s opinion article “Why Blocking Trump’s Nomination Would Be Unfair.” It was both a strong endorsement of Trump’s populist message and a broad attack on party insiders seeking to organize the process in a way that would make his nomination less likely. It was one of the first major pieces to appear in print in a national newspaper supporting Trump.
Bentley distributed her article to the Serbian-American community around the country, and asked them to join her in coalescing behind Trump. She knew early on that it was going to take Trump, the ultimate outsider, to beat Clinton, the ultimate insider.
As Spring turned in to Summer, and with her health fading, Bentley know that she had little time to organize her efforts for Trump. She again summoned Kosmas and two longtime friends and leaders in the Serbian-American community in Western Pennsylvania to aide her . . . Dr. Nenad Janicijevic, a prominent Serbian-American physician and the son of a Serbian-Orthodox priest in former Yugoslavia, and Milana “Mim” Bizic, a nationally award winning retired public school teacher who had a long history of activism in Pittsburgh politics. As an emergency room physician, Dr. Janicijevic was particularly vexed by the Clinton’s indiscriminate bombing of Serbia, and the killing or wounding of thousands of innocent civilians, among them being many children.
Although the Serbian-American population is estimated at approximately 1.5 million, with much of that populations being concentrated in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Bentley and her team knew that time was short and that it would be impossible to build a national organization. The group decided to focus its efforts in Pennsylvania. On one hand, Pennsylvania seemed to be on the verge of losing its position as battleground state. A Republican had not carried the state in a Presidential election since Bush’s 1988 election, and the last time a Clinton was on the ballot for President, the state went for Bill Clinton by a whopping 9% margin.
But Pennsylvania also had one of the largest Serbian-Americans populations in the country, with an estimated 200,000 people. Pennsylvania was one of the first states to receive large numbers of Serbian immigrants nearly a century before, and its dozens of Serbian cathedrals, churches, clubs, camps, choirs, fraternal societies and other institutions also made it one of the most active and organized Serbian-American communities in the United States. It was also the home of the Serbian National Federation, the oldest Serbian fraternal society in the United States. While Trump had possible paths to victory without winning Pennsylvania, if he carried Pennsylvania it would be hard for him to lose.
Before long the plan to boost the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania was underway. It was a multifaceted plan geared at boosting Trump’s already strong levels of support in the Serbian-American community and making certain that turnout in the community would reach record breaking levels. It also included organizing Serbs to participate together in large numbers in Trump rallies and working every possible angle of social media to support Trump, from Facebook to the many blog sites geared towards all Orthodox Christians but especially popular with Greeks and Serbs. Pictures of the destruction the Clintons wrought in bombing Serbia were posted everywhere so that even the youngest generation of Serbian-Americans, not old enough to remember this crime, could understand the need for solidarity.
While Bizic and Janicijevic and their team were organizing the Serbs in rallies and door knocking and sign waving in Western Pennsylvania, many more Pennsylvania Serbs were quickly brought into the fold. Among the dozen or so interviewed for this article, a few stories stand out.
Bob Vucenovic and his wife were among the many helping to organize the Serbs throughout Central Pennsylvania. According to Vucenovic, Pennsylvania’s Serbs have always been fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. But this year was different. This year the Serbs were almost to a one behind Trump. Even Serb families that for decades had been heavily involved in Pennsylvania’s Democrat Party politics turned to support Trump over the woman who had played such a key role in bombing Serbia. Vucenovic recalls that when the crowds at Trump rallies broke into a favorite chant of “Lock Her Up,” the many Serbs present would launch into a chant of their own, “Pay Her Back.”
With the wave of Serbian-American activism in Western and Central Pennsylvania going into full swing, the Serbs in Eastern Pennsylvania were determined not to be left out. Nick Loncar, President of the Tesla Science Foundation based out of Philadelphia and organized to remember the legacy of one of Serbia’s greatest sons, began to organize the Serbs in his region in many ways. Beginning with promotion of Trump’s candidacy on a myriad of regional Serbian-American media and social media outlets, his group’s efforts soon turned to organizing activity for Trump in the strong Serbian-American communities of suburban Philadelphia.
Loncar told his volunteers that Philadelphia was Clinton’s only strong spot in the entire state, and if her margin could be held down there then the state could be flipped to Trump. Loncar also noted what he called the “Clinton” effect on Democrat-leaning Serbs in suburban Philadelphia. Almost to a one, they put aside what was often two or three generations of party loyalty to cross over to the Trump camp.
Not wanting his fellow Greek-Americans to be left out of flipping Pennsylvania to Trump, Kosmas reached out to friends in Pennsylvania’s large Greek-American community. He reminded his fellow Greeks of the “glory days” when Bentley’s congressional district stretched from suburban Baltimore to the Pennsylvania line, where it met the congressional district held by Greek-American George Gekas for twenty years. He reminded them of Bentley’s constant friendship to the Greek people on issues ranging from the reunification of Cyprus to the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He asked them to stand with Bentley one last time by coming into the fold for Trump.
At the beginning of August, Serbian-Americans suffered a great loss with Bentley’s passing. Like the Prophet Moses, she had led her people to the promised land of defeating the Clintons, but would not see it for herself. One of Bentley’s last acts was to pen a letter to the editor castigating Hillary Clinton for putting the nation’s secrets at risk through her email practices, which was published in the Baltimore Sun two weeks before her death. But rather than dampen the enthusiasm of Serbian-Americans, her passing only inspired them to work harder for Trump and to ensure that her wish of repaying the Clintons for the bombing of Serbia would be granted.
While the “Serbs for Trump” activities across Pennsylvania reached a feverish pitch by mid-September, they made a brief pause for Bentley’s 40 day Memorial Service in late September, then resumed without stop, placing signs and banners, making phone calls, knocking on doors and flooding Trump rallies right up until the polls closed in Pennsylvania at 8:00 pm ET on November 8.
Then an anxious, nervous and excited Serbian-American community, like the rest of the nation, gathered in front of televisions to see what would happen. The rest, as they say, is history. One by one states, many unexpectedly, fell into the Trump column. These included many battleground states with large Serbian-American communities such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida.
But to Kosmas, Janicijevic and Bizic, no win was sweeter than in Pennsylvania, where Serbian-Americans poured their hearts and souls into defeating Clinton and electing Trump – ultimately by a margin of 68,236 votes, or less than 1% of the total cast. While the Serbian-American community was elated, many of its most prominent members were not surprised. Attorney Lou Milicich, Co-Chair of the Chicago-Belgrade Sister Cities Committee and former long time the first Vice president of the Serbian National Defense Council of America, observed, “No one should ever underestimate what the Serbs did for Trump in these swing states.”
Bizic, the former teacher, says she too was not surprised. Armed with a long pad of notes and numbers, she explained with the precision of a political science professor what had happened in her state. According to Bizic, “We knew there were about 200,000 Serbs among Pennsylvania’s population of 12,800,000. We also knew that Serbs were incredibly motivated anti-Clinton, pro-Trump voters. So if we could boost Serb turn-out by about 10%, and improve Trump’s performance over historical Republican performance by about 10%, we knew we could move about 70,000 net votes to Mr. Trump.” After many months of hard work, and with Trump’s win by 68,236 votes, the effort seems to have been just enough!
Janicijevic, the physician and priest’s son, took a more philosophic approach to the Trump win. “Evil cannot long triumph over good. And we did not think that God would allow the Clinton’s back into power in the White House. But God also helps those that help themselves, and that is what we did.”
Kosmas thought one final time of that crisp morning in April 1999, standing next to the great Helen Delich Bentley at the White House gate, protesting the bombing of Serbia. “Dear Helen, rest in peace. Your great and proud Serbian-American people have indeed paid Clinton back. Now let us lift up and bless Donald Trump, and help him to make America great again!”