As Washington sat transfixed before the image of former FBI Director James Comey spilling some beans on the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump went to work. An expert in creating crises, Trump is not the kind to let his handiwork go to waste.
At a conference of mostly evangelical Christians convened in Washington, DC, by Republican political operative Ralph Reed, Trump reminded attendees of the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual Road to Majority conference of their agenda and his. If he made any reference to the drama unfolding before the Senate Intelligence Committee, it was this: “As you know, we’re under siege; you understand that,” the president said. “But we will come out bigger, better and stronger than ever — you watch.”
Expressing his appreciation to members of the Faith and Freedom Coalition for their work on his behalf during the 2016 presidential race, Trump cited some 22 million pieces of mail sent, 16 million videos shared, 10 million phone calls made and 1.2 million doors knocked on “in the key battleground states.” He quoted the Book of Isaiah from the teleprompter.
He went on to recount what he had already delivered for his religious supporters: a drastic reduction in illegal crossings on the southern border; the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, a foe of abortion rights, to the Supreme Court; an “executive action” on religious freedom, a withdrawal of aid to overseas humanitarian groups that dare to speak of abortion, and withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. That last one elicited a raucous and sustained cheer from the assembled, seeing as how its very name combines two mutually repugnant ideas: the fact of climate change and a city in which people speak French.
Without naming it as such, Trump noted the leaked draft of a rule revision, dated May 27, under consideration at the Department of Health and Human Services that would appear to definitively permit religious orders that run hospitals and social service agencies to flout the current mandate that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for prescription contraceptives. “The Little Sisters of the Poor,” Trump said, referring to a Catholic religious order that brought a lawsuit against the Obama administration that challenged the mandate, had just won big with his executive actions on behalf of “religious freedom.” The president pointed at two nuns in the audience. “Stand up,” he instructed them. “You don’t mess with the Little Sisters,” he quipped. Never mind that the nuns obediently standing were from an entirely different order (the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist); they were old women in habits. They would do. The optics worked.
He went on at length to describe his instruction to the IRS to refrain from investigating houses of worship for political activity that would threaten their non-profit status as an unleashing of free speech from the pulpits of the nation.
The audience then received an accounting of the agenda yet to be undertaken — the part that requires legislation by Congress. Trump came to Road to Majority to set its army of socially conservative, mostly white churchgoers to work on Capitol Hill, lobbying senators and members of the House, as many groups do during national conference. But few get their marching orders directly from the president, even if not said in so many words.
First on the president’s list was the health care bill that is currently stalled in the Senate.
“Restoring freedom and opportunity also means repealing and replacing the disaster — known as — ” He put his hand to is ear.
“Obamacare!” the crowd shouted.
“That was easy,” Trump replied. “Something — I hope great — is going to come out through [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell in the Senate.”
The next big item was tax reform — “the biggest tax cut ever,” he said. But sadly, Trump added, they would have to pass each of these measures without a single Democratic vote, because Democrats are obstructionists who are “bad, right now, for the country.”
“The entrenched interests and failed bitter voices in Washington will do everything in their power to try and stop us from this righteous cause — to try to stop all of you,” Trump said. “They will lie, they will obstruct, they will spread their hatred and their prejudice, but we will not back down from doing what is right. Because, as the Bible tells us, we know that the truth will prevail, that God’s glorious wisdom will shine through, and that the good and decent people of this country will get the change they voted for, and that they so richly deserve.”
He patted himself on the back for deporting people he deemed “gang members” and “drug dealers,” and characterized his “summit” with Saudi leaders as a blow against global terrorism.
He made a call for unity, noting that “whether we are black, brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood.”
In America, he said, “we don’t worship government; we worship God.”
The speech, delivered at the conference luncheon, was well-received. Afterward, attendees boarded busses headed for the Capitol — the Senate’s Dirksen Office Building, to be exact. There they would be treated to a town hall-style meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other Republican lawmakers. The meeting was closed to the press.
Once it concluded, members of the group would lobby the senators from their respective states.
Milling outside the hearing room where the town hall would take place, Rebecca Clutter, a woman who looked to be in her 50s or 60s, offered her assessment of the president’s speech. “[I]t was amazing and awesome and it hit all the points,” said Clutter, who had traveled to Washington from Ohio, where she had knocked on doors during the campaign under the aegis of Women for Trump.
Casey Matta, a student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, also loved the president’s speech, naming as his favorite points Trump’s anti-abortion rhetoric and “something about the Paris [climate accord].”
Asked how the US withdrawal from the climate accord agreement fit in with the religious purpose of the Faith and Freedom Coalition event, Matta thought a minute. “Well, I think it’s like a Republican religious convention so when he brings that kind of stuff for conservatives . . . I agree with that.”
What did he make of the probe of Russian meddling in the US election, and contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russian officials? Matta said he didn’t believe that Russia had intervened in the election. By his lights, it was all a put-up job by Democrats.
“I think [Trump] definitely is being targeted, with the Democrats and everything. I mean, they need to cool it,” he said. “Give him some time to worry about what he’s got to worry about now.”
Right now, Trump is worrying about, among other things, getting a legislative win. And Casey Matta, Rebecca Clutter, and hundreds of others came to the nation’s capital to help him get it, all in the name of God.