WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump delivered a brief, uncharacteristically subdued message of faith and American values to religious leaders as a fresh crisis swirled in his White House, declaring on Thursday morning “we praise God for how truly blessed we are to be American.”
“Faith is central to American life and to liberty,” Trump said at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, a gathering of religious leaders who have become a keystone of his political base. “Our founders invoked the creator four times in the Declaration of Independence. Our currency declares, ‘In God we trust.'”
Trump’s remarks came amid growing questions about how the White House handled allegations of domestic violence against one of the president’s closest aides.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly steadfastly defended the aide, Rob Porter, right up until Porter resigned Wednesday. Officials now say the White House was aware of the charges against Porter, which contributed to a delay in granting him a security clearance for his post as staff secretary.
Kelly, a retired Marine general, accompanied Trump to the breakfast but the president did not mention him. He did salute members of his Cabinet who were also in attendance.
Trump’s remarks were most notable for what he did not say. He made no mention of his recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a landmark shift in U.S. policy that was extremely popular with evangelical voters and a segment of hard-line pro-Israel American Jews.
Nor did he mention the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits churches and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates. Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the law in his first speech to the prayer breakfast last year, drawing enthusiastic applause.
While there was an attempt by Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment as part of the $1.5 trillion tax cut, the provision did not make it into the final legislation that Trump signed into law. Last May, Trump signed an executive order aimed at relaxing its restrictions but it remains on the books.
On Thursday, Trump stuck to themes he sounded during his State of the Union address last week, including the successful military campaign against the Islamic State group and the human-rights abuses of North Korea.
Still, the president seemed entirely at ease with his audience. If anything, he has strengthened his position with evangelicals in the last year, in part because of the Jerusalem decision. They have shown unshakable support for him, even after reports that one of his associates paid hush money to a porn star with whom Trump had an affair before he became president. Trump has denied the affair.
Trump’s appearance at the prayer breakfast was a stark contrast to last year, when he delivered a freewheeling speech defending his immigration policy, dismissing reports of hostile phone calls with foreign leaders and ridiculing Arnold Schwarzenegger for poor ratings after replacing the president as the host of the reality show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Schwarzenegger went unmentioned Thursday, and the president offered only a brief reference to Mark Burnett, creator of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” who attended the breakfast and was prominently mentioned by Trump last year.
“Stand up, you deserve it,” he said to Burnett, before adding, “even though he comes from Hollywood.”