For the first time since they formed last June, the members of Trump’s campaign advisory board were meeting together not in weekly phone calls but in person, and having already accomplished what a year ago many thought was a long shot.
Less than four months into Trump’s presidency, their biggest hope of getting a conservative Supreme Court justice on the bench had been reached, and their supporters’ other objectives were in sight. As they gathered in the Blue Room, news was spreading through Washington that Trump was preparing an executive order to relax prohibitions on religious organizations’ political activities, and the House of Representatives was preparing to vote on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Most of Trump’s evangelical advisory board flew in for the event, including Trump’s longtime spiritual advisor Paula White, Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, evangelist Franklin Graham, Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, South Carolina televangelist Mark Burns, Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed, and others. They were joined by top White House officials, including Vice President Pence, Second Lady Karen Pence, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.
Guests at Trump’s table included White, Jeffress and Marcus Lamb, CEO of the Christian television network Daystar. “We asked him questions, I asked things about the health care bill, he indicated that he was very positive about the passage of that tomorrow,” Jeffress says. “The overall tone was positive. … We could not be more delighted with the progress the president is making.”
The evening, guests say, was more a celebration of their victories so far than a discussion on future policy. Trump took photos with the guests in the Red Room, Graham kick off festivities with a prayer, and a dinner of shrimp scampi with parsley butter, red wine braised short ribs, and wild ramp gnocchi was served. White presented Trump with a gift on behalf of the group from the Museum of the Bible, a framed page of an original King James Bible from 1611 A.D., “a Bible which as you know was commissioned by a political leader in service to the church,” she said.
Acclaimed evangelical musician Steven Curtis Chapman performed his songs “Be Still and Know” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, gave a benediction, and Trump then invited everyone up to the residence for a brief after party, complete with a tour of the Lincoln bedroom and the Truman balcony, before shaking hands again.
“It was a reunion more than anything,” Bachmann says. “For people of faith, there was so much trepidation about what would happen in this election. They really felt that if Mrs. Clinton had prevailed it would have spelled a diminution of the nation, the nation would have morally suffered.”
The evening reaffirmed the bond Trump has forged with evangelical and social conservative leaders who propelled him victory in November, one based on shared policy ambitions and often couched in prayer events. Jeffress, who preached a private sermon for Trump the morning of his inauguration, addressed the group briefly, reminding Trump, “Mr. President, we are going to be your most loyal friends,” and “We thank God every day that you are the president of the United States.” Trump at one point took the podium to a standing ovation, and spoke of the large numbers of evangelical voters who elected him in November. Exit polls showed 80% of white evangelicals backed Trump.
On Thursday morning, the leaders will gather again, this time in the Rose Garden for the signing of Trump’s latest executive order. “This won’t be a token and this won’t be a bone that is thrown,” Bachmann says. “We will see the goal of preserving religious liberty fulfilled.”
“Tomorrow is going to be a really big day, sometime between 11 and 11:30 in the morning, the President will sign an executive order that will administratively repeal the Johnson amendment and repeal the Obamacare restrictions on conscience and religious freedom, and about 90 minutes to two hours later, the House of Representatives will repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood,” Reed says. “That’s about as big a day as the social conservative movement has had in its history.”