US president Donald Trump has warned evangelical leaders that Democrats "will overturn everything that we've done and they'll do it quickly and violently" if Republicans lose control of Congress in the midterm elections.
Speaking to the group in the State Dining Room of the White House, Trump painted a stark picture of what losing the majority would mean for the administration's conservative agenda, according to an audiotape of his remarks provided to The New York Times by someone who attended the event.
"They will end everything immediately," Trump said. "When you look at antifa," he added, a term that describes militant leftist groups, "and you look at some of these groups, these are violent people." A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, declined to elaborate on what the president meant.
The blunt warning – delivered to about 100 of the president's most ardent supporters in the evangelical community – was the latest example of Trump's attempts to use the spectre of violence at the hands of his political opponents and to fan the flames of cultural divisions in the United States.
In the wake of racial violence last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump said there was "blame on both sides" and equated liberal, anti-fascist protesters with Nazis and white supremacists. In spring 2016, the president warned of violence by his own supporters if he did not get the Republican presidential nomination, saying "I think you'd have riots."
Trump acknowledged to the evangelical leadership that his conservative base may not turn out at the polls in big numbers for Republican congressional candidates because he is not on the ballot in November. “I think we’re doing very well, and I think we’re popular, but there’s a real question as to whether people are going to vote if I’m not on the ballot,” he said. “And I’m not on the ballot.”
Reporters were allowed to hear brief remarks that Trump made Monday night to the group of ministers and pastors. In those comments, Trump talked about religious liberty, abortion and youth unemployment. He noted a John Adams quote carved into the room's fireplace: "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house."
But once reporters and television cameras were ushered out of the room, the president turned to the more pragmatic concerns, including how evangelical leaders can use their pulpits to help Republicans win in the midterm elections.
“I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote,” Trump said. “Because if they don’t – it’s November 6th – if they don’t vote we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election – you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”
Trump spent most of his private remarks to the group bragging about having gotten “rid of” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision of tax law that threatened religious organisations, like churches, with the loss of tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose political candidates.
Under that amendment, Trump said, religious leaders had been prevented from speaking their minds. “Maybe it’s why you are very plateaued. I hate to say it, if you were a stock, you’d be like, you’re very plateaued,” Trump said, prompting laughter in the room. “I really believe you’re plateaued because you can’t speak. They really have silenced you. But now you’re not silenced anymore.”
The president recalled how he first learned about the Johnson Amendment at a meeting during the 2016 campaign, when several dozen pastors and ministers came to see him at Trump Tower in New York City. He said he was pleased by the meeting because the religious leaders seemed to like him.
“I know when people like me,” Trump said. “I know when people don’t like me. You know, pretty good at that stuff. A lot of them like, and some don’t and that’s OK. But this group really liked me.”
Trump said he told the religious leaders at that campaign meeting that he would oppose the Johnson Amendment if he won the presidency and “fight very hard to make sure that provision gets taken away.” In fact, the president has fallen short of that promise. Eliminating the provision in the law would require Congress to act. Instead, Trump signed an executive order in May 2017 directing the IRS not to aggressively pursue cases in which a church endorses a candidate or makes political donations.
Legal experts have said the IRS has very rarely pursued such cases against churches, and religious leaders have often been outspoken about politics even if they have had to stop short of officially endorsing a candidate. Trump ignored that reality Monday night. He urged religious leaders to use what he described as their newfound freedom of speech to campaign from the pulpit on behalf of Republican candidates.
"You have people that preach to almost 200 million people – 150 to, close, depending on which Sunday we are talking about, and beyond Sunday, 100, 150 million people," he said. Trump bantered with the religious leaders at the dinner, noting at one point that Robert Jeffress, a Dallas evangelical pastor who once said Jewish people were going to hell, had observed that Trump "may not be the perfect human being, but he's the greatest leader for Christianity."
“Hopefully, I’ve proven that to be a fact,” Trump said, prompting applause, before adding, “In terms of the second part, not the first part.” – New York Times