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Christian leaders see influence growing under Trump

Social conservatives got Donald Trump into the White House. Now, they expect him to deliver.

In conversations on Capitol Hill, donor meetings in Texas and behind closed doors at the Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Virginia, socially conservative leaders are cheering Trump’s election and already moving to hold him accountable to the myriad campaign promises he made to Christian voters.

“Donald Trump is not the candidate pro-lifers would have chosen, and he understood that, and he did outreach,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at the anti-abortion rights group March for Life. McClusky, who has been critical of Trump in the past, continued, “If he fulfills the promises he’s made, he could be the most pro-life president since Reagan.”

Trump, a thrice-married, onetime New York liberal who has said he has never asked God for forgiveness, was an uncomfortable fit for Christian leaders throughout much of the campaign. But he won over many of them with a pledge to appoint only Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion rights, and he solidified that support in September by releasing a detailed letter that spelled out four policy promises, all tied to curtailing abortion rights. He went on to win 81 percent of the evangelical vote, a higher percentage than George W. Bush, himself a born-again Christian, landed in 2004.

Some of Trump’s pledges, particularly the stipulations concerning Supreme Court appointments, go further than previous Republican nominees have made, and that has earned Trump a reservoir of goodwill with many evangelical leaders. They say they have every reason to believe—and expect—that he will follow through on those promises. After all, evangelicals were a key part of Trump’s coalition—and, they argue, he knows it.

“From our earliest interactions, he had a very impressive command focus on communicating with and winning the support of evangelical leaders and voters,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who called Trump a “friend” and a “man of his word.”

Pointing to exit poll data, he continued, “They were indispensable to the Trump coalition. While there are other very important members of the Trump coalition, there’s no question that the foundation is evangelicals and other voters of faith.”

“The good news is, it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it’s just ‘us,’” agreed Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List, in a conversation between donor visits in Texas. “I remember four years ago, hearing ‘elections have consequences,’ and being deeply troubled and annoyed. Now, I’m saying the same thing. We have every reason to be celebrating.”

Dannenfelser, who was a sharp Trump critic in the primary but went on to head his pro-life coalition, said she is prioritizing defunding Planned Parenthood as long as the organization continues to provide abortions, another one of the promises Trump made. It’s an effort that Dannenfelser is demanding that Congress turn to early next year through budget reconciliation efforts—and she is confident that this president-elect will have to sign such a measure into law.

“Now we have the right president committed to signing this,” she said. “We’ve got to get that quick work done.”

Eighteen miles from Capitol Hill, where Dannenfelser and other anti-abortion rights groups will push legislation, evangelical and other socially conservative leaders gathered last weekend at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner to revel in Trump’s win. They talked about the Supreme Court and whispered about administration appointments during a gathering of the secretive but influential Council for National Policy, a confab of the country’s leading evangelical and conservative activists and donors.

“We fully expected to come to that meeting and feel like it was a funeral,” said one source in the room. “Instead, it felt like a wedding.”

Part of the buoyancy stemmed from the fact that social conservatives feel they have direct access to Trump and his team, from Kellyanne Conway — his former campaign manager and current senior aide, who is a fixture in socially conservative circles — on down. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) had been expected at the CNP meeting, the source said, but didn’t appear because he had been named Trump’s attorney general pick last Friday, something attendees at the meeting took as a sign of conservative, and socially conservative, influence in the incoming Trump administration.

“His top people were part of us before they were part of him,” the source said. “It’s that kind of relationship: The people running his campaign [and now transition] are people we’ve known forever, our friends and colleagues. His campaign has been run…since it really started taking off, by longstanding, respected social conservatives.”

Conway didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some conservative organizations are already deploying lawyers to delve further into vetting Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks, said the CNP source, and conservative leaders are also closely watching Trump’s selections for Cabinet positions like Health and Human Services — that person would deal with abortion-related matters — as well as the Department of Education (many conservatives who care about private school and home schooling options are major school choice advocates) and the State Department (some pro-life activists also want to see more aggressive action taken to stop sex trafficking, among other issues).

Trump’s pick for Education, school-choice activist and Republican mega-donor Betsy DeVos, is a sign that Trump remains committed to his campaign promise on that issue.

Of course, not every Christian leader is optimistic that Trump will follow through on his pledges, especially as he starts to back off other promises already. There were a number of vocal Never Trump figures from within the Christian conservative movement who never bought into them in the first place and remain resentful of some evangelical leaders who, they feel, papered over more troubling aspects of Trump’s record.

“As an evangelical, have I been embarrassed by evangelical leaders and some of their uncritical embraces of Trump, their completely dismissive attitude toward his unserious attitude and behavioral flaws? Yes, a thousand times yes,” said one veteran conservative involved in Never Trump efforts. “These people should go apologize to Bill Clinton 20 years ago for ever bringing up character issues.”

It’s one thing to say that, caught between two bad choices, they were picking the lesser of two evils, the source argued. It’s another thing to paint Trump as the new standard-bearer of the evangelical movement.

“When you have to justify a bad choice, people started overjustifying it,” the conservative complained. “I wish they’d say, ‘well, this is a terrible choice,’ as opposed to, ‘this is a good, humble man, he’s a baby Christian.’”

And indeed, over the summer there were plenty of evangelical and socially conservative leaders who indicated they were backing Trump only reluctantly. They said that, confronted with a Republican nominee who was not their first or second — or perhaps 15th or 16th — presidential choice, they had to see the race as a “binary” decision between a candidate who promised to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, and one who would certainly appoint liberal ones.

But as Trump made more promises, the enthusiasm grew from a number of previously skeptical leaders.

“Quite honestly,” said McClusky, dismissing questions about Trump’s motivations, “If it results in good policy, I’m not going to complain.”

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