President Donald Trump brought his trademark disruptive approach to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, telling attendees of a gathering meant to promote reconciliation, unity and prayer that his political opponents are “dishonest and corrupt people” and that God is on the side of his supporters.
The president’s speech at the annual breakfast followed a stream of addresses and prayers by other members of Congress and keynote speaker Arthur Brooks, author of last year’s book “Love Your Enemies.” Each emphasized the Christian call for forgiveness and humility. Speaking just before Trump, Brooks called on the audience of more than 3,000 at the Washington Hilton hotel to spread the faith by modeling unity in a divisive time.
The president’s address came the morning after a deeply divided Senate voted to acquit Trump of two impeachment charges. He questioned recent professions of faith by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a Catholic, and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a Mormon who voted for impeachment Wednesday.
The speech stunned many longtime attendees of the event and put on display two very different visions of Christian witness.
At past prayer breakfasts, “the president has always tried to stay above the fray,” said Kevin Kruse, a Princeton University historian who has written several books on religion and politics. “To see Trump use this speech as a way to not just reject basic Christian fundamentals like forgiving your enemies, but to use it to cast doubt on other politicians’ public faith, was remarkable because the whole thing is supposed to be a celebration of public expressions of faith by public officials.
“This event has usually been to bring Washington together,” Kruse said. “And that instead he used it to further denigrate others’ faith and cast doubt on their public expressions of faith is stunning.”
Romney had cited his Mormon faith in casting the lone Republican vote to convict Trump of abuse of power. The senator’s vote and emotional speech visibly moved Trump critics, while Trump supporters questioned Romney’s motives and loyalty. On Thursday, Trump attacked Romney for the vote, trying to frame himself as the only metric of true faith.
No one thought he could win in 2016, Trump told the crowd, “except for the people in this room believed we were going to win. God was with them. God is with the people in this room.”
Trump also made implicit references to Romney and to Pelosi, who has said in the past that she prays for the president.
“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” the president said. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so. So many people have been hurt, and we can’t let that go on.”
He spent a good portion of his 20-minute address decrying the impeachment process. The people who launched it, Trump said, “have done everything possible to destroy us and, by so doing, very badly hurt our nation.” About half of Americans have said in surveys that they supported Trump’s impeachment.
Upon entering the gathering, Trump grinned as he held up newspapers to show headlines reporting that he had been acquitted.
The breakfast brings people of various faiths, but mostly Christians, from around the world to Washington for a couple of days of networking, prayer and meetings — including the central event, the breakfast, at which the U.S. president always speaks.
Many in the crowd and GOP lawmakers on the stage with him gave Trump rousing, extensive applause during his talk.
Founded in 1953, the event is intended to “unite individuals of different nationalities, religions and political perspectives through the power of prayer,” said the formal invitation for the breakfast. It is hosted by lawmakers from both parties.
In particular, the event gives Trump a chance to connect directly with a group that strongly favors him: white evangelicals. While attendees at the prayer breakfast aren’t homogeneous, the event attracts many white evangelicals from around the country. Others watch on television or via livestream.
Brooks, former head of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, implored attendees to find a way to bridge gaps that can seem unbridgeable in today’s polarized world.
“The problem is: The devil is in the details. How do you do [love your enemies] in a country and world roiled by hatreds we can’t seem to bridge? Contempt kills,” Brooks said. “Ask God to give you the strength to do this hard thing. To go against your human nature. To follow Jesus’ teaching. You believe in Jesus! Follow his teachings.”
Then came Trump, who kept his hand down when Brooks asked the crowd to raise their hand if they love anyone who disagrees with them politically. Trump said as he opened his speech that he wasn’t sure if he agreed with Brooks’s address but didn’t say what specifically he disagreed with.
“When they impeach you for nothing, then it’s not easy to like them,” Trump said of his political opponents. “It’s not easy, folks.”
Multiple attendees of both parties declined to comment on the president’s speech. The co-chairs of the breakfast, Reps. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., and Thomas Suozzi, D-N.Y., did not immediately return a request for comment.
Some who did talk tried to veer the focus away from the president.
“I thought the speech [Arthur Brooks] gave was the most incredible, timely, precise, exacting speech for the moment we needed on contempt,” said Bob Roberts Jr., pastor of evangelical Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, who considers himself nonpartisan. “We were there to pray, to build bridges.”
Trump’s comments about Romney and Pelosi, he added, “were unnecessary and did not capture the spirit of what our speaker was talking about. I don’t care for it when President Trump gets harsh and mean with people.”
Roberts said he also didn’t think it was appropriate for Pelosi to show her disapproval of Trump at Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech by tearing up a copy of the address in full view of television cameras.
“[Brooks] had a fantastic sermon he gave in front of those two people,” Roberts said. “I don’t know what they’ll do with it.”
Moolenaar and Suozzi opened the breakfast by noting the deep and bitter political division in the country and in Congress.
“If we’re to heal our division, we need to spend time together; we need to stop judging one another,” Suozzi said before comparing the shared bonds of Americans — and lawmakers — with that of a married couple. “What is this thing, marriage? It’s like a long journey with lots of ups and downs. Because in life you can’t have a rose without thorns. You can’t have the good things in life without the suffering.”
The pair unveiled the theme of this year’s breakfast: religious persecution. They showed a video of people around the world of various faiths who have suffered violence and imprisonment because of their faith. The video opened by highlighting clips of Pelosi and Trump both speaking about freedom of religion.