The night before last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump was hosting religious leaders and lawmakers for dinner at the White House when he spotted Democratic Senator Chris Coons — and pounced.
Trump confronted the Delaware lawmaker — who attended the event as the Prayer Breakfast’s official Democratic co-chair — over the issue of abortion, creating a tense scene in the White House’s Blue Room, according to three sources familiar with the exchange.
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Trump leaned in close to Coons, who calls himself “a practicing Christian and a devout Presbyterian,” and laced into the Democratic senator over controversial moves to change statewide policies on abortion that have roiled New York and Virginia politics in recent weeks. “He was in his face about it,” said one person familiar with the exchange. The person described Trump as extremely “worked up.”
“He saw a Democrat in the room, a Democrat who’s known to be a person of faith, and he was like, ‘Why aren’t you speaking out about this?’” the source added.
Another source who was in the room confirmed the account, describing the moment as both “awkward” and attention-grabbing. Rarely has Trump been so vocal about abortion when the masses aren’t watching, this person said. (A Coons spokesman declined to comment.)
The private episode underscored Trump’s recent public focus on abortion, which has delighted his evangelical Christian supporters. During his State of the Union address last Tuesday, Trump used vivid imagery to claim that New York’s new abortion law would “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” And he accused Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who’s backed similar legislation in his state, of wanting to allow medical providers to “execute” babies after birth.
Abortion is a somewhat unlikely new cause for a president who years ago called himself “very pro-choice” and did not make the issue a central theme of his 2016 campaign. But people close to Trump say that he has developed an increasingly sincere passion for the cause.
That passion also conveniently dovetails with what they call a concerted recent effort to energize white evangelicals who might otherwise be turned off by the concessions Trump appears poised to make to Democrats who have refused to meet his demand for $5.7 billion in wall funding. In need of a boost with his base, Trump is turning increasingly to social and religious issues.
Four officials inside and close to the White House said Trump has sought to connect in new ways with his evangelical supporters during the prolonged immigration battle and has been previewing issues that could play a key role in his 2020 re-election bid.
That wider effort includes Trump’s unexpected endorsement last month of a campaign to add Bible literacy classes to public school curriculums. He has also been in regular touch with evangelical leaders, including Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., who sometimes speaks to the president several times a month.
And on Thursday, the White House’s political affairs office will host a conference call with surrogates and the president himself to “discuss the importance of Life at every stage,” according to an email invitation obtained by POLITICO.
“We’re very pleased that the president is using the bully pulpit to make it clear that he values every child, born and unborn. It’s a powerful statement duly noted by evangelicals and it’s consistent with the president’s beliefs and with his policies,” said Faith & Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed, who spoke with Trump shortly before his State of the Union address.
“It’s also politically savvy,” suggested Reed.
The outreach comes at a moment of political vulnerability for Trump. For the 81 percent of white evangelicals who backed him in 2016, immigration remains an issue of utmost importance. Sixty seven percent of white evangelicals support Trump’s border wall, and 72 percent backed his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, according to data compiled by the Public Religion Research Institute.
“If you look at public opinion data, white evangelicals’ connection to [Trump] isn’t because he’s carrying water for their pet causes,” said Robert Jones, founding CEO of PRRI. “It’s really about their broader fear about the changing demographics of the country.”
But those numbers are why two outside advisers to his 2020 campaign said they’re concerned about the potential impact of a perceived “loss” or “cave” to Democrats should Trump, as is expected, sign onto a preliminary deal struck by congressional negotiators this week.
That agreement, announced on Monday, includes $1.375 billion for 55 miles of border fencing — not even half of the $5.7 billion Trump demanded in wall funding. Democrats managed to add a provision encouraging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to detain fewer undocumented immigrants.
The good news for the White House is that a third of pro-Trump white evangelicals say there’s virtually nothing he could do to lose their favor. But some evangelical leaders worry about Christians who have become disenchanted by the chaos of Trump’s administration or feel that he has otherwise betrayed their values.
“I spoke with a pastor here in town who’s Pentecostal and an immigrant. He was very supportive of Donald Trump and even encouraged his congregation to vote for him. Then, in 2017, with the travel ban and the ramped-up ICE enforcement, he told me, ‘Wait, I thought this president was for a Christian agenda,’” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a Baptist minister in Durham, N.C.
“Many people have had that kind of realization — that it wasn’t just rhetoric,” he claimed.
Trump has sought to compensate for such complaints by playing up other evangelical priorities in recent days — and by soliciting advice from prominent conservative Christians.
In addition to abortion, religious leaders point to Trump’s support for a bipartisan criminal justice reform measure, which he signed into law in December, that had been a longtime cause of Christian activists who preach forgiveness.
Politics aside, influential evangelicals like Reed insist that Trump has fervently opposed abortion for years. “I talked to him about it in 2010 and 2011 and he was unapologetically pro-life,” Reed said. One former campaign aide recalled several instances when then-candidate Trump would participate in “praying sessions” before his rallies where faith leaders would often incorporate the topic of abortion.
A White House official, who did not witness Trump’s confrontation with Coons, said it illustrates how the president “genuinely views abortion… and isn’t afraid to make the Democrats defend their extreme positions.” The White House did not otherwise respond to multiple requests for comment.
During a Tuesday meeting with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, for instance, Trump again “raised his concerns about Democrats’ support of late-term abortions,” according to a White House readout provided to POLITICO.
“He feels convicted,” said David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life committee, adding that he hopes Trump will “continue to speak from the heart if he’s as shocked as most people are by the idea of after-birth abortions.”
Trump’s blunt criticism of abortion is not entirely new. He told MSNBC at the height of the 2016 GOP primary that women who terminate their pregnancies should face “some form of punishment,” and later said his general election opponent Hillary Clinton would permit abortions “on the final day of pregnancy” if she were in charge of the nation.
Saying that Trump only touts religion out of political convenience, his critics are bewildered at his enduring support among Christians. Writing in the Guardian last week, former New York Times religion columnist Samuel G. Freedman charged that “pious Christians have concocted a brand-new theological work around” to justify their support for “a serial adulterer, casino mogul, and all-purpose bigot.”
But evangelicals are thrilled by his appointment of two staunch opponents of abortion rights to the Supreme Court, and his increasing rhetorical focus on abortion.
Allies in the faith community who are speaking to Trump more regularly of late have told him, according to the White House official, that abortion could make a difference in bellwether states like North Carolina, which Trump narrowly won in 2016 and where evangelical protestants make up 35 percent of the state’s population.
“One of the reasons he keeps talking about this is it’s political theater and symbolic politics. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way; it’s a powerful way, in fact, to stay connected with his white evangelical supporters,” Jones, the PRRI chief executive, said.
Another reason he keeps talking about it is because of the evangelical allies frequently in his ear.
One of them is Falwell. The son of a famous charismatic preacher and president of an evangelical liberal arts school in Lynchburg, Va., Falwell bonded with Trump during his White House bid and has remained a phone call away during his time in office and remains in regular touch with him.
“I talked to him last week [and] told him how impressed I was with the State of the Union. He covered the whole gamut of what needed to be discussed and it was important to mention abortion because where do you stop?” Falwell said in an interview.
Trump has rewarded the Falwell for defending his libertine image, most notably by delivering a Liberty University commencement speech in May 2017. First Lady Melania Trump also participated in an on-campus opioid town hall last November. And the Falwells attended a midterm election watch party at the White House alongside Cabinet officials and Trump’s senior aides.
“I think there’s a feeling that Trump is the ultimate conduit for what they want to do. It’s a relationship of necessity on both ends,” a former White House official said of Trump’s bond with the Falwells and the broader evangelical community.
The official added, “The last couple weeks haven’t necessarily been the best for the president or the White House and the one thing that he can always count on is white evangelical Christians. So he can go to his base, given them something to latch onto like abortion or criminal justice reform, and know that they’ll keep coming back.”