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Trump’s evangelical advisory board violates the law, advocacy group argues in new filing

President Trump closes his eyes as Pastor Paula White leads a prayer at a dinner hosted by the Trumps to honor evangelical leadership at the White House on Monday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Days after President Trump hosted his latest gathering to laud and listen to evangelical pastors at the White House, an advocacy group is claiming that the president’s evangelical advisory board operates in secret, in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State planned to file a letter on Thursday demanding that the evangelical advisory board cease and desist until it complies with the law.

“We are tired of watching him give unprecedented access and influence to one religious group. And we’re tired of the secrecy. We’re asking them to shut down,” said Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser.

The organization’s letter, exclusively provided to The Washington Post, was addressed to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, the Office of Public Liaison, the General Services Administration and Johnnie Moore, the spokesman of the evangelical advisory board.

“It is clear that the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board is doing substantive work with the Trump administration behind closed doors — without any sunlight for the public to understand how and why decisions are being made,” Americans United wrote in the letter.

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The president’s evangelical advisory board was created during the campaign and has met several times since the election with the president and staff, including this week’s White House dinner. The group has advised White House staff on issues including taxes, health care and judicial appointments, Americans United claims.

But the board claims to not even really exist. “The truth is, there actually isn’t a board. This is slang language that has carried over from the campaign into the administration,” Moore said. “There is no formal faith advisory board of any sort at the White House.”

That informal sounding board, though, was honored this week at a White House event described as akin to a “state dinner.” Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, a frequent adviser to Trump who attended, told NPR it was “a half state dinner and a half campaign rally.”

Trump told his guests that their support “has been incredible,” and that “I have given you a lot back,” the Associated Press reported.

The dinner concluded with remarks from evangelist Paula White, who presented the president and the first lady with a Bible that she said was “signed by over a hundred Christians, evangelicals that love you, pray for you.” The inscription thanked them for their “courageous and bold stand for religious liberty,” and White asked the audience to say “amen” if they agreed, according to a transcript of the event posted by the White House.

In his remarks, the president told the group, “Yours are the words we want to hear.” Media reports also quoted the president emphasizing the importance of electing Republicans in November, telling the group according to NBC News, “You’re one election away from losing everything that you’ve got.” Those comments were not included in the White House transcript.

Legal requirements for the president’s advisers

Americans United has also filed a federal open-records request for documents, including transcripts, minutes, working papers, agendas and studies, prepared for or by the board or made available to it.

“They want to do it in secret, behind closed doors and away from any public scrutiny. It’s not only divisive and it’s not right, but it’s in violation of established law,” Laser said. The letter includes as “covered persons” White, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other pastors and televangelists associated with the group. All are from a narrow set of religious beliefs who “unabashedly” agree with Trump, Laser said.

Past presidents, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, set up formal councils on faith-based and community partnerships, but some legal experts say Trump’s board is unlikely to meet FACA criteria.

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Trump’s evangelical advisory board would not have legal standing under FACA if it is just focused on providing him spiritual guidance and consolation, said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University. “It’s just a group that he named and gathers together for the sake of having them praise him,” he said.

Americans United argued that Trump’s group is “well within the scope” of FACA because it has received policy briefings and provided formal advice and recommendations to Trump. The board has been involved in personnel and policy decisions on religious liberty and judicial appointments, Laser said.

Moore, an informal leader of the evangelical advisory board, said the Office of Public Liaison provides agendas at the group’s meetings he has attended, but he said no votes on recommendations or decisions have taken place.

FACA was enacted in 1972 to formalize the process for “establishing, operating, overseeing and terminating federal advisory committees.”

“Congress was concerned about particular outside groups that have a certain interest exercising undue influence on the executive branch. The other purpose was to ensure that the public knew what these informal advisory groups were doing,” said Adam A. Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

FACA applies when a group is established or used by either the president or an executive branch agency to obtain advice or recommendations, Marshall said.

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Anne Weismann, chief Freedom of Information Act counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said FACA applies if a collective recommendation comes out of their meetings. “It is especially important now because we have a president who is listening to so many outside people and forces, and we don’t have any access to what they’re telling him,” she said. “But to the extent that it’s just an individual or a collection of individuals offering their individual advice, unfortunately that doesn’t rise to the level of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.”

Moore said the members are individuals who speak on their own behalf with differing points of view.

Groups that fall under FACA requirements must have a charter, announce their gatherings and meet other reporting requirements, such as making records and materials available to the public. FACA also says that the membership’s points of view must be balanced and represent different opinions.

“This law has been violated on every front,” Laser said.

Other presidents consulted faith groups

Obama established in 2009 an Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which provided recommendations and reports on subjects such as trafficking and poverty. The council was established by an executive order that referenced FACA.

Three councils during the Obama administration included 60 representatives from a variety of faiths, including evangelical Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim and nonreligious members.

“The White House is the people’s house. The public is right to expect visibility into a White House’s engagement with individuals and organizations, including its engagement with religious leaders and faith-based organizations,” said Melissa Rogers, who was the first chair of the Obama council. “Citizens should be able to access information and make their own evaluations about whether their interests are being well served.”

And Tuttle said the tone of the discussion was different under previous presidents: “I can’t imagine the faith-based councils that Obama or Bush had sitting around a table praising the president. They may have been happy for the president, but they knew this was about business.”