A few members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council — including its spokesman — on Friday defended the president after he made comments about immigrants from places including Africa and Central America.
In a statement to The Washington Post, spokesman Johnnie Moore questioned whether Trump had actually made the comments and accused Congress of holding up immigration reform. If Trump did make the comments, Moore said, they “were crass.” The reports about Trump’s remarks are “absolutely suspect and politicized,” Moore said. He called immigration “a legislative branch issue, not an executive branch issue” and said that the focus should be putting pressure on Congress.
Trump made the remarks Thursday during a meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office in which they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan deal on the status of undocumented young U.S. immigrants, The Washington Post reported.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to people in the room, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). Trump then reportedly suggested that the United States instead should bring in more immigrants from countries such as Norway.
In a statement Thursday, the White House did not deny that the president made the comments. But on Twitter on Friday morning, Trump appeared to deny that he said the word “shithole,” although he did say his language was “tough.”
Some of Trump’s evangelical advisers declined to comment on the president’s remarks, including Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., and Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American pastor from Beltsville, Md. Moore said that some of the people he represents in his capacity as a PR agent, such as megachurch pastor Paula White and radio host James Dobson, would not be commenting on the matter.
Many of these advisers who were part of his campaign have stuck by the president during some of his most controversial moments, including when the Access Hollywood tapes that were published before the election.
Others in the advisory group — the only known regular pipeline of religious feedback to the White House — spoke in support of the president, saying that his language may not have been acceptable but that his views are.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a prominent Southern Baptist church, said that while he would not have used the same language Trump did, he agrees with the president’s perspective.
“What a lot of people miss is, America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background,” Jeffress said. “I’m glad Trump understands the difference between a church and country. I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.”
The United States, Jeffress said, has every right to restrict immigration according to whatever criteria it establishes, including race or other qualifications. “The country has the right to establish what would benefit our nation the most,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything racist about it at all.”
America is not obligated to accept people based on need, such as the case with refugees, he said. “I wouldn’t let the language obscure the point he’s making: Why would we allow people who will not benefit our country?” Jeffress said. “We have the right to screen [refugees] based on the economic benefit they might bring, and we can establish the criteria we want to use.”
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he would criticize anyone who would say something disparaging of other people, but he declined to specifically speak to Trump’s comments. “I prefer elected officials to engage in language that represents the commitment to the image of God,” he said.
Responding to comments made by several people, Rodriguez refused to say whether or not Trump’s comments were racist. “Not every comment said is explicitly racist,” he said. “It’s shameful.”
He called the incident “a distraction” from the real issues at stake. “Our immigration should be merit-based plus compassion-based. I would want people from Norway, and I would want people from Haiti. I would want people from Nigeria, if they meet the requirements.”
In a follow-up interview late Friday, Rodriguez called Trump’s comments “wrong, inappropriate, harmful and hurtful.”
Ronnie Floyd, an evangelical adviser during the Trump campaign, criticized Trump’s remarks. Floyd, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said: “I would not agree with those comments at all. We need to see that every person is made in the image of God.”
Floyd said there’s a difficult balance between the primary responsibility of the government of securing the nation and the value of human life. “Anytime we devalue a person it’s not good,” Floyd said. “Regardless of their skin or ethnicity, we need to honor one another.”
A.R. Bernard, a black pastor of a 40,000-member church in New York City, resigned from the evangelical council in August after Trump blamed “both sides” for deadly violence in Charlottesville.
While back then Bernard said he didn’t think Trump was a racist, that changed Thursday.
“His own comments expose him,” Bernard said. “They were elitist and blatantly racist.”
Bernard said Trump’s comments Friday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “added insult to injury.”
The silence of the mostly white men who remain on the informal council, he said, “is getting louder.” While members say they’re there because they’re influencing the White House on topics from Israel to religious freedom, Bernard said he doesn’t believe the council has any real influence.
“I think they’re politically convenient to the president,” he said.
The Southern Baptist Convention has lobbied in the past on behalf of “dreamers,” young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Several of Trump’s advisers, including Floyd, megachurch pastor Jack Graham and Southern Evangelical Seminary President Richard Land, signed a statement in October stating, “We believe it is unjust to punish children for offenses they did not commit.”
In a piece he wrote for The Post on Friday, Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist who teaches at Wheaton College, called on evangelical leaders to address Trump’s comments. “Trump has courted evangelicals, some of whom have had access to him and his administration,” Stetzer said. “I hope those evangelical leaders will speak clearly, reminding Trump that all people are worthy of dignity and respect because they are made in the image of God.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s lobbying arm, who has criticized Trump in the past, did not directly criticize the president but tweeted comments blasting the sentiment: “The church of Jesus Christ is led by, among others, our brothers and sisters from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. They are us.”
Michael Farris, president of the conservative religious liberty advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom and who has been critical of Trump, said the president’s comments cannot be defended. Farris has long been a prominent leader among conservative evangelical home-school families.
“He lacked any sense of self-control or a sense of propriety that is needed for the office of the President of the United States. He is not entitled to speak only for himself in such situations. He speaks for our country on the international stage,” Farris wrote on Facebook. “We want and deserve to have him … act with dignity. Just once I would like to hear him say that he was wrong and ask for forgiveness.”
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.
This report has been updated to include further comments from Michael Farris, A.R. Bernard, Johnnie Moore and Samuel Rodriguez. It has also been updated to reflect that evangelist Franklin Graham and author Eric Metaxas, who initially did not provide comments as requested, later made comments on social media. On Twitter, Metaxas wrote that the comment, if Trump said it, was “lamentable” but “certainly not racist.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece characterized Franklin Graham as part of the evangelical advisers to Trump. He was not part of the council during the campaign. The piece suggested that he did not respond to a request for comment; his spokesman had referred any potential comment to his social media pages. On Facebook, Graham praised Norway as a “beautiful country” but did not directly refer to the president’s comments.