Donald Trump, the president of the United States, hosted his third National Day of Prayer on Thursday.
Let’s give that sentence a moment of silent reflection before we move on.
. . .
Okay. The setting was the Rose Garden, though no roses were yet in bloom. It was just before noon on the 833rd day of the Trump presidency, with 551 days until the next presidential election — a fine occasion to consider the president, the country and the moods of each. The body politic is “in a high state of agitation,” to quote the attorney general’s recent testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, while the president has never been “happier or more content,” as he tweeted on Easter.
On Thursday it was spring in the shade, summer in the sun and heaven in the Rose Garden. The economy was good. The president was adored. And the people?
“They’re using the word ‘God’ again,” Trump said from the rostrum, as if “God” had not been uttered in many years.
The president himself was serene, at least for a man who believes himself to be enduring both a coup and a witch hunt. His hair was radiant. Accompanied by the chirping of birds, Trump said hello to his secretaries of agriculture and housing. He spotted the flaming mane of the country singer Wynonna Judd, seated behind Ivanka.
“Well I’m looking at that beautiful red — would you please stand up? What a —”
He grasped for a word.
“What a — ”
Only God knows which ones he considered.
“ — what a voice. You’re so great.”
Judd motioned to the dais and said something inaudible.
“You better,” the president said playfully. “You better come up here.”
Judd did not go up there. Seated across the grassy aisle, behind Melania Trump, was Jonathan Cain, of the rock band Journey. He was there to sing with a small gospel choir about how God’s breath is in our lungs.
“When I first started campaigning,” the president was saying, “people were not allowed — or in some cases foolishly ashamed — to be using on stores ‘Merry Christmas.’ . . . They’d have red walls, and you’d never see ‘Christmas.’ That was four years ago. Take a look at your stores nowadays. It’s all ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
The president eats people’s souls, the former FBI director, James B. Comey, had written in the New York Times hours before.
“It is hard to look at this president’s actions,” said Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg last month, “and believe that they are the actions of somebody who believes in God.”
Does Donald Trump believe in God? Should that matter?
He certainly believes in himself. He believes in the economy. Golf is like a religion, though it accommodates cheats. Twitter seems like a kind of prayer, for Donald Trump. Repeat “WITCH HUNT” like a decade of the rosary, and eventually it starts to echo around your brain like a belief. You start to believe. Everyone starts to believe. America prays more than any other wealthy country, according to the Pew Research Center. We are a nation of believers.
Mike Pence is a believer. (“They do believe — I’m with ’em a lot,” Trump said of the Pences on last year’s Day of Prayer, a twinge of exasperated affection in his voice. “They do believe.”) Mike Pence believes in Donald Trump. The vice president looks at Trump with that mask of ecstatic supplication etched onto faces in medieval iconography. From the microphone Pence insinuated that religious freedom — established in 1791 by the First Amendment to the Constitution — had finally, finally been fully realized by the Trump administration.
“We believe we always do well to go to the Lord in prayer,” Pence said. “But it seems especially important these days.” He and Trump grieved the burning of three black churches in Louisiana, the attack on New Zealand mosques, the massacres at synagogues attacked in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. Trump invited Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, whose fingers were blown off in the Poway shooting, to talk about finding light in darkness.
“Mr. President, when you called me I was at home, weeping,” said the rabbi, hands wrapped in royal blue casts. “You were the first person who began my healing. You heal people in their worst of times.”
“That’s so beautiful,” Trump said.
Meanwhile the White House announced a new rule that would allow health-care workers to refuse to perform services that violate their religious beliefs.
(“This is the Trump administration’s most dangerous attempt yet to weaponize religious freedom,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.)
The teleprompter eventually nudged the president toward the Bible, and Trump talked about what God promises — how those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength and not grow weary. The president saw himself in this message.
“People say, ‘How do you get through that whole stuff?’ ” Trump said. “ ‘How do you go through those witch hunts, and everything else?’ And you know what we do, Mike? We just do it.”
He looked at the vice president, who might’ve been praying for the president to bring his digression full circle.
“And we think about God,” Trump added. “That’s true.”
The president invited religious leaders to the microphone. One by one they spoke about the need for civility, about repenting for self-aggrandizement, about extending the hand to the vulnerable and disadvantaged. (This week, Trump announced that he wants to charge asylum seekers a fee to apply for refuge.)
Then Trump said goodbye. A quartet of Marines began a concerto for strings as the crowd broke up. From the back of the Rose Garden, behind a rope, came a kind of prayer. It was lost in the noise.
“Mr. President,” beseeched Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News, “do you want to comment about the attorney general?”