WASHINGTON ― A pastor’s explanation of President Donald Trump’s sudden visit to his church on Franklin Graham’s “Pray for Donald Trump Day” is casting doubt on the White House’s widely publicized claim that he went there to pray for Friday’s shooting victims in Virginia Beach.
David Platt, pastor of McLean Bible Church, a few miles from Trump’s golf course in Northern Virginia, wrote in a statement that the first he heard about Trump’s visit was after he finished a sermon early Sunday afternoon.
“I was immediately called backstage and told that the president of the United States was on his way to the church, would be there in a matter of minutes, and would like for us to pray for him,” Platt wrote.
Hours earlier, he had referenced Graham’s “Prayer for Donald Trump Day,” which the son of the famed evangelist had decreed would be that Sunday. “Many of you may have seen that there were calls to, particularly on this Sunday, pray for our president,” Platt told his congregation as Trump stood beside him.
The White House, though, had given a different reason for the visit. Just as Trump was walking into the church, the press office sent out a statement claiming that he was there “to visit with the pastor and pray for the victims and community of Virginia Beach.”
That statement was picked up by hundreds of media outlets around the country and the world, some of whom used it in follow-up coverage to Friday’s massacre that left 12 dead and several others hospitalized in critical condition.
Yet, during the entirety of Trump’s 16-minute stay, Platt did not mention the shooting, and Trump never spoke ― about the shooting or anything else ― beyond thanking Platt afterward.
Instead, the president stood on stage, wearing a dark blazer, blue golf shirt, khakis and golf cleats, as Platt prayed for him. In one hand he clutched a white golf hat, thus revealing slicked hair that clung to his head ― a change from the elaborate coiffure that Trump normally sports in public.
Platt wrote that he posted his letter to the church’s website late Sunday because some in the congregation had been “hurt” by his decision to allow Trump an audience. Nowhere in the 850-word missive is there a mention of Virginia Beach at all.
“My aim was in no way to endorse the president, his policies, or his party, but to obey God’s command to pray for our president and other leaders,” Platt wrote.
Platt informed HuffPost that he is not doing media interviews about the episode.
“He had time to process what had happened, and I think he realized that he was completely played by this president,” said Kendal Unruh, a Colorado Christian school teacher and former Republican activist who led the unsuccessful effort at the 2016 convention to dump Trump as the party’s nominee.
Of Trump, she said: “He wasn’t going there to pray for the victims. That wasn’t his purpose for going. It’s a staged photo-op. That’s all it is.”
HuffPost has for three days been asking the White House about the origins of its claim that Trump had gone to a church near his golf course to pray for victims of a shooting that had happened 230 miles away in the southeast corner of Virginia. Press officers, however, refused to elaborate and instead referred back to the original statement.
A timeline of the day based on White House pool reports and Platt’s statement, in fact, suggests an ad hoc visit thrown together at the last minute, resulting in a perspiring commander in chief attending church in his golf duds and cleats:
8:58 a.m.: Trump’s motorcade leaves the White House. The pool did not see Trump but noticed staff members wearing golf attire.
9:35 a.m.: Trump’s motorcade arrives at Trump’s golf course in Sterling, Virginia.
1 p.m.: Platt receives word that Trump wants to visit and have Platt pray for him. Platt honors the request.
1:59 p.m.: Trump’s motorcade leaves the golf course.
2:20 p.m.: The motorcade arrives at McLean Bible Church in Tysons.
2:36 p.m.: Trump leaves the church.
“It’s hard to say you were there to pray for the shooting victims when nothing about the shooting victims was mentioned,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican political consultant who in the 2016 presidential primaries worked for the candidate who worked the hardest to win over the evangelical Christian vote, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “It would probably help if you’re praying for someone, you should mention them. Maybe that’s just me.”
But though the Virginia Beach shootings may not have been on the agenda, Graham’s “Pray for Donald Trump Day” clearly was.
The previous Sunday, May 26, Graham, a strong Trump supporter, had asked fellow preachers and all Christians to pray for Trump. “I and many other Christian leaders across the country are asking you to take a moment during that day to pray for President Donald Trump,” Graham said in a video. “I don’t believe any president in the history of this nation has been attacked more than Donald Trump.”
Trump acknowledged Graham’s decree on Saturday evening: “We will all stick together and WIN! Thank you Franklin.”
Graham, who now runs the ministry founded by his father, the Rev. Billy Graham, was not available for comment, according to a spokesman.
Unruh said the day’s timeline makes it obvious that Trump or his aides remembered only after he was already at the golf course that it was Trump’s special prayer day and then scrambled to find someplace that would pray for him.
She said she thought Platt’s prayer was inspired. He asked for God to give Trump wisdom for the sake of the country: “Fools despise wisdom and instruction. Please, oh God, give him wisdom.”
“It was a great prayer,” Unruh said. “I’m glad he prayed for him.”
She added, though, that the reaction she has been hearing from evangelicals who like Trump has been quite different. “Trump supporters are mad that the pastor did not pray for Trump to be reelected and to smite his enemies, the ‘libs,’” Unruh said. “They must think that’s what Jesus wrote in the sand: ‘Own the libs.’”
White evangelical Christians are the only major demographic group backing Trump. According to recent Pew polls, Trump has the approval of just 37% of Americans overall but 69% of white evangelical Christians.
Many have justified that support for Trump ― who was famously caught on tape bragging that his celebrity allowed him to grab women by the genitals and who has been sued thousands of times for failing to honor his signed contracts with craftsmen and suppliers ― by arguing that their God in biblical times used flawed or even immoral leaders to advance his aims.
Tyler, who said he was stunned to see so many self-proclaimed evangelicals support Trump over Cruz, still cannot explain it.
“They’ve been sold the lie that Trump is good for the pro-life movement and that he will stand up against the war on Christianity,” he said. “That’s how we lost the South. The evangelicals did go for Trump. No question about it.”