President Trump will spend Friday evening in Miami rallying a group of evangelical supporters, just weeks after a leading evangelical magazine issued a bruising editorial calling for his impeachment and removal from office.
The piece by Christianity Today’s now outgoing editor-in-chief Mark Galli stoked divisions among evangelical supporters for Trump, who have overlooked some of Trump’s personal foibles while focusing on some of his policies and his judicial picks.
It sparked fierce condemnation from Franklin Graham, the son of the publication’s founder Billy Graham, and caused a number of evangelicals to flock together and publicly express support for the president.
The Trump campaign announced the “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition one day after the editorial declaring that Trump had “abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath.”
Friday’s speech, which is expected to resemble one of Trump’s rallies, represents a rare public address for Trump as he completes a two-week holiday stint at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, and underscores the importance of evangelical voters to the Trump coalition.
“Evangelicals were key in 2016 and will be very important again in 2020. They will be overwhelming in their support for the president and they will help immensely,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in an interview.
Murtaugh said Friday’s event was in the works prior to the Christianity Today editorial, and he rejected the idea that it reflected a wider feeling among evangelicals.
Social conservatives have largely hailed the torrid pace of Senate confirmations of conservative Trump judicial nominees. They have also been pleased with his support for pro-life policies and religious freedom, and his Israel policies.
While the Christianity Today editorial pointed to some discomfort with Trump, there’s little evidence to suggest evangelicals are having serious doubts about the president.
“The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of white evangelicals are Republicans and Republicans are going to support the nominee,” said Dan Cox, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who called the group a “critical” element of Trump’s base. “There are very few that are winnable for a Democratic nominee.”
Over 70 percent of white evangelicals approved of the job that Trump was doing as president as of mid-July, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll taken at the time.
Some of Trump’s own behavior and rhetoric has at times led to questions about whether his support among more religious voters could waver.
Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, and his former personal attorney has been jailed on charges related to hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels that were allegedly made to cover up an affair.
On policy, Trump’s administration has cut back on the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. In October, Trump abruptly pulled forces out of Syria in a move that endangered Christians and other religious minorities in the region.
The Christianity Today editorial, which marked a rare venture into politics for the publication, listed Trump’s actions in business and with women and his “mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders” on Twitter as evidence the president has “dumbed down the idea of morality.” It directly appealed to evangelical supporters of Trump, telling them: “Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior.”
Democrats argue that evangelical supporters of Trump are coming up with excuses to ignore Trump’s behavior, and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has made the issue a focus of his campaign.
“He continues to push the outer envelope of accessible discourse and the evangelical leaders as well as Republican leaders struggle to keep up with him,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former communications director for Harry Reid. “They continue to find new ways to justify their support.”
At the same time, neither Democratic nor Republican strategists see the Christianity Today editorial as signaling a shift in support for Trump among white evangelicals.
“I don’t see much of a chance of bringing evangelical voters into the Democratic fold,” Manley said, asserting that Republicans have played on fears of a “changing America” among these voters with respect to social policies, immigration and other issues.
Cox, the AEI research fellow, said Trump is less popular with younger white evangelicals than their older counterparts, which he attributed in part to a lack of fear over racial and demographic changes. But Cox predicted that lack of enthusiasm won’t have a meaningful impact in the 2020 election.
“I think by and large we’re not going to see much change between now and the election,” Cox said. “This group is going to rally around and support him at least as much as they did in 2016.”
The “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering is one of several targeted events the president’s reelection campaign has orchestrated in recent weeks as it seeks to drum up support among key voting blocs.
The campaign previously held a “Black Voices for Trump” event in Atlanta in an effort to boost enthusiasm among African American voters. Pence attended the launch of “Latinos for Trump” in June, and several female campaign surrogates hosted a “Women for Trump” gathering in Florida last August.
But even as Trump aims to expand his support heading into 2020 among voting blocs that largely voted for Democrats in 2016 and 2018, he can ill afford to lose any of the voters who propelled him to the White House three years ago.
As a result, strategists believe the president will consistently return to his base supporters, white evangelicals among them.
“This is not going to be the last event we see where he’s strengthening his political connections with evangelical voters,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.
“It’s just absolutely critical not only that he maintains their support, but that he gets them to turn out.”