The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How many norms can Trump and evangelical leaders break in one meeting?

President Trump stands with Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., an early backer of Trump, in Lynchburg, Va., in May 2017. (Steve Helber/AP)

The Post reports:

In a closed-door meeting with evangelical leaders, President Trump on Monday warned of “violence” from the left if Democrats retake control of Congress in November, according to multiple reports.
The comments, which mark an escalation of Trump’s rhetoric, come amid deepening investigations into the president’s associates as well as a midterm battle that is entering its crucial final months.
“They will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they’ll do it quickly and violently, and violently,” Trump told the assembled leaders at the White House dinner, according to reports Tuesday by NBC News and the New York Times. “There’s violence. When you look at antifa, and you look at some of these groups — these are violent people.”

In addition, he wrongly told evangelical leaders that he repealed a law preventing them from conducting politics from the pulpit — and then asks them to behave in such a fashion that likely runs afoul of the rules for non-exempt organizations. “(Trump also erroneously claimed Monday that he had done away with the Johnson Amendment, which he described to the evangelical leaders as a ‘disaster for you,’ according to the NBC report. The provision bars religious institutions and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates.”) Trump seems not to know that “repeal of the Johnson Amendment was ultimately not included in last year’s Republican tax bill. While Trump signed an executive order aimed at making it easier for churches to take part in politics, an act of Congress would be required to repeal the provision itself.” The evangelical leaders shouldn’t take tax advice from the president.

As Congress abdicates its role, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. says voters must take up the role of checking President Trump. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Consider all the things wrong with this meeting. First, the president is conducting an explicitly campaign-related meeting in the White House. He simply doesn’t understand that it’s not his house; it’s the American people’s. Second, once more he is hinting at, if not holding the threat of, violence over the heads of Americans. Pitting one group of Americans against another by suggesting one side will commit violence is the stuff of tinpot dictatorships. Third — and this concerns the evangelicals far more than it does Trump — the degree to which these religious leaders throw themselves at Trump’s feet, ignoring all manner of immoral and un-Christian conduct for the sake of political power, is bracing and has hurt both religion and politics.

A veteran of three Republican administrations, Peter Wehner recently wrote: “For Republicans, honor and integrity are now passé. We saw it again last week when the president’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen — standing in court before a judge, under oath — implicated Mr. Trump in criminal activity, while his former campaign chairman was convicted in another courtroom on financial fraud charges. Most Republicans in Congress were either silent or came to Mr. Trump’s defense, which is how this tiresome drama now plays itself out.” A party once hyper-attuned to family values and decency, whose base fancies itself as ethical and a religious watchdog of our civic culture, is now just a cog in the Trump machine. “In any case, the Republican Party’s as-yet unbreakable attachment to Mr. Trump is coming at quite a cost,” Wehner warns. “There is the rank hypocrisy, the squandered ability to venerate public character or criticize Democrats who lack it, and the damage to the white Evangelical movement, which has for the most part enthusiastically rallied to Mr. Trump and as a result has been largely discredited.”

Trump’s lack of candor, respect for democratic norms and personal decency has spread to the far corners of the GOP. As we saw with the win Tuesday by one of Trump’s staunchest allies, Rep. Ron DeSantis, who ran as Trump’s mini-me in the Florida GOP gubernatorial primary, there is no daylight between Trump and his party. They should and will sink or swim together.