President Trump vowed Thursday to “defend and protect” religious liberty on multiple fronts – describing his recent immigration executive order as part of that goal – during his first appearance as president at the traditional National Prayer Breakfast.
In wide-ranging remarks, the president spoke about the uniting power of faith, honored members of the U.S. military, and even took a swipe at his successor on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It’s been a total disaster,” Trump said of the show since Schwarzenegger took over as host, reprising his taunts that the ratings have gone “down the tubes” – after he was introduced at the breakfast by “Apprentice” creator Mark Burnett.
“I want to just pray for Arnold if we can,” joked Trump, who is listed in the "Apprentice" credits as the show's executive producer.
The movie star soon posted a video rejoinder on Twitter, saying, "Why don’t we switch jobs? You take over TV because you’re such an expert in ratings and I take over your job. Then people can finally sleep comfortably again.”
The National Prayer Breakfast? pic.twitter.com/KYUqEZbJIE— Arnold (@Schwarzenegger) February 2, 2017
After his ratings aside Thursday morning, the president moved on to describe his administration’s policies toward national security and immigration as part of an overarching fight for religious liberty.
Amid criticism of Friday’s executive order suspending the U.S. refugee program and restricting travel from seven mostly Muslim countries, Trump said his administration is developing a new screening system so that those who want to spread violence and intolerance are not admitted.
“My administration will do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land.”
“We will not allow a beachhead of intolerance to spread in our nation,” he said. “… We want people to love us and to love our values.”
Trump also described terrorism as a “fundamental threat to religious freedom” – saying peace-loving Muslims are being targeted and Christians are the victim of “genocide” in the Middle East – as he vowed: “It must be stopped.”
“My administration will do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land,” he said.
Trump also used the faith forum to reiterate a vow from his campaign to eliminate the so-called Johnson Amendment, which bars some tax-exempt groups (including religious groups) from taking firm positions on political candidates.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” he said.
The breakfast itself marked a moment of calm amid a turbulent start to Trump’s presidency.
His administration since Friday has been battling critics over his executive order on immigration. He unveiled his Supreme Court nominee Tuesday night, touching off an instant battle with Democrats hinting they may try and filibuster – as they simultaneously slow-walk consideration of a slew of remaining Cabinet nominees. Trump’s secretaries of Treasury, Health and more still are not in place.
At the same time, Trump is plowing ahead with a string of meetings with business leaders, phone calls (some of them tense) with foreign heads of state and other executive orders meant to jolt the economy and boost national security. A day earlier, his White House put Iran “on notice” over recent missile tests, a message Trump reiterated on Twitter shortly before Thursday’s prayer breakfast.
Shoring up a key U.S. alliance, Trump also met on the sidelines of the prayer breakfast with King Abdullah II of Jordan.