The purpose of Tuesday’s meeting in the Roosevelt Room was for Trump to “brief” the leaders on his “continuing, remarkable accomplishments, especially in areas that are important to evangelicals,” according to Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor and longtime Trump supporter.
“I’ve never seen President Trump more upbeat, positive and focused than I did in Tuesday’s meeting,” Jeffress told the Christian Broadcasting Network on Wednesday.
As the meeting closed, several attendees asked Trump if they could pray for him, Jeffress said, an offer the president “graciously welcomed ... as he always does.”
On Thursday, the House of Representatives endorsed an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump abused the U.S. foreign policy apparatus for political gain. The Democratic-led inquiry is looking into allegations that the president sought political favors from Ukraine to help his 2020 reelection campaign.
White evangelicals’ support for Trump doesn’t appear to be shaken by inquiry: 88% don’t think Trump should be impeached and removed from office, according to a report from the Public Religion Research Institute published in October. This is far higher percentage than any other major religious group surveyed ― including Christians of color, who generally hold unfavorable views of the president.
Rev. Johnnie Moore, a PR executive who acts as an unofficial spokesman for Trump’s evangelical advisors, tweeted Wednesday that the meeting was a “celebration” of Trump’s achievements.
Evangelical leaders have been thrilled by the administration’s moves to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding and defend conservative Christians who want to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans. Trump has also been steadily stacking the federal judiciary with conservative judges.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump set up an evangelical advisory committee to help with outreach. After the election, these religious leaders have continued to enjoy access to the president and his staff.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (or AU), an advocacy group, believes these meetings could violate a federal law meant to ensure that federal advisory committee meetings are open and accessible to the public. Last August, AU sent a cease and desist letter to the White House and to Moore and filed an open records requests for transcripts, agendas and other documents prepared for or by the board.
Moore has claimed that Trump’s evangelical advisory group is informal and does not officially vote on recommendations.
AU said it has received “few documents” in response to its requests and hasn’t been able to confirm if it is functioning as a formal advisory board, which means the the group could be curtailing its activities, according to Alex J. Luchenitser, AU’s associate legal director.
“We cannot say whether this latest meeting violated federal transparency laws,” Luchenitser said.
Still, he said, it made clear that the administration continues to give preference and political favor to one particular religious viewpoint.
“We have serious concerns that the influence this small group is allowed to exert on public policy is undermining the separation of religion and government, which protects religious freedom for all of us,” Luchenitser said.
Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush established formal faith advisory councils during their administrations. Obama’s faith council included members who were evangelical Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim and nonreligious.
Jeffress told CBN Wednesday that this week’s meeting was “informal.” According to a list of attendees published by CBN, about half of the religious leaders who participated were members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board during the 2016 campaign.
John Fea, a historian at Messiah College and the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” has developed a term for the evangelical leaders who regularly visit the White House and “bow a knee to the immoral Trump presidency.” He calls them “court evangelicals.”
“Like the Medieval and Renaissance-era courtiers of old, these evangelical leaders sacrifice their prophetic voice to political influence,” Fea told HuffPost in an email. “They are the evangelical leaders who have put their faith in Trump as the political strongman who they believe will alleviate their fears and protect them from the forces of secularization.”
These White House meetings with the court evangelicals are a way for Trump to shore up an important part of his base, Fea said. The historian doesn’t believe the impeachment inquiry ― or Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, which was unpopular with many members of this group ― will dampen court evangelicals’ support for Trump.
“They will spin the impeachment inquiry in such a way that will make Trump look like a martyr at the hands of the evil Democratic Party seeking to remove God’s anointed POTUS from office,” Fea said.