Around the time former FBI director James B. Comey finished his blockbuster hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, President Trump got his eighth standing ovation at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority conference.
“We’re under siege,” he told a rapt audience of religious voters across town from the Capitol at the Omni Shoreham hotel.
And they believed him. For what were these convoluted accusations of collusion with the Russians or obstruction of justice, if not an attempt from the left to delegitimize the president?
Nearby, citizens of “the swamp” sat glued to C-SPAN — in neighborhood bars that opened early, in conference rooms with co-workers, or in a Starbucks line watching on iPhones — but here, the spectacle didn’t rank.
“When they see Washington consumed with something that they don’t believe ultimately that there’s anything there, they really just discount it,” Ralph Reed, the event’s organizer and a longtime leader of the religious right, said at a lunch briefing for journalists Friday.
The world may feel like chaos to even the casual reader of the news, but Reed looked sharp in a tight suit, pocket square perfectly ironed, hair gelled to the side. Like the last happy man in Washington, he spent most of the day smiling.
Trump’s overall approval ratings are at 34 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, but he is still wildly popular among white evangelicals. A Pew Research Center survey taken to mark Trump’s first 100 days in office found that three-fourths of that group (which gave him 80 percent of their vote in 2016) approved of his performance as president.
“As strong as this vote was for him in 2016,” Reed said, “I think if he keeps on the track he’s going it will be even bigger in 2020.”
What, exactly, are they seeing that others are missing? Perhaps it’s an opportunity.
Trump never has been the most devout person. He’s never stuck to an ideology, or shown the “character” that religious voters seemed to care so much about during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
But maybe none of that matters.
“It took a Manhattan billionaire male, who for most of his life was pro-choice, to deliver the most impassioned defense of life I’ve ever heard from a presidential candidate,” Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the president, said on stage Thursday.
For much of the 1990s, leaders of the religious right, including Reed, repeated the phrase “character counts” as if it were a mantra. He still believes this to be true, he said, but all things considered, a tape of the president bragging about sexually assaulting women might now “rank low on the hierarchy of concerns.”
Trump is fighting to defund Planned Parenthood, move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, get out of the Iran nuclear deal and repeal Obamacare. The “Access Hollywood” tape was “totally inappropriate,” Reed said at lunch, but it’s not the Trump he’s gotten to know. That Trump will also pick properly conservative justices to the Supreme Court — like Neil M. Gorsuch, who sailed onto the court earlier this year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who helped orchestrate Gorsuch’s nomination, helped promote the narrative that Trump was a friend to those at the conference, echoing from the stage Friday the “siege” narrative that the president had used the day before.
“In some ways the threat seems to have grown even more dangerous,” even with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, McConnell said. “Americans should not have to live in fear because they donated to the quote-unquote wrong candidate.”
Reed acknowledged that he couldn’t say for sure whether Trump has changed since his comments on the tape. But he’s sure of something else.
“I’ve known every Republican nominee since Reagan,” he said at lunch. “In terms of telling me they were going to do something and doing it, and being a person I could trust and believe in as a person of their word, Donald Trump is the top of that list.”
Reed, like many religious voters, said he had reservations about Trump as a candidate early on. But then he picked Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as a running mate, attacked Hillary Clinton for wanting to “rip” babies out of the womb and picked Gorsuch. He’s got Conway, a real-deal social conservative, as a right-hand woman, and perhaps most important, he realizes just how important Reed’s constituency is to his presidency.
“He believes that he would not be president today without the strong support he received from evangelicals,” Reed said. “Even if it weren’t true, I’m happy he thinks that.”
These were the kind of moves that made his shortcomings seem small.
Now, when you ask Reed whether he has any concerns about the president’s character, this is what he says: “I don’t have any reservations at all.”