October 2018 Church & State | Cover Story

In late July 2017, President Donald Trump abruptly tweeted that under a new policy, transgender individuals would not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.

The directive surprised a lot of people – including Pentagon officials and military advisers who were clearly taken aback. Trump had apparently not consulted with them first. So what sparked the new policy?

It turned out that just weeks before the tweet was issued, White House staffers had met with Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, a body composed chiefly of leaders of Religious Right organizations, TV preachers and conservative pastors. The issue of the transgender ban was discussed during the meeting.

Emily McFarland Miller and Jack Jenkins, reporters with Religion News Service (RNS), wrote that the Rev. Johnnie Moore, spokesman for the board, noted that while the issue of transgender troops wasn’t on the agenda of the July 10 meeting, it came up and was “briefly discussed.”

Board members decided to press the issue. Days later, they followed up with a letter asking Trump to reverse a policy put into place by President Barack Obama that ended discrimination against transgender people in the military. Trump apparently decided to bypass military leaders, most of whom don’t support the ban, and follow the advisory board’s advice.

The incident is a telling example of the reach and power of the Evangelical Advisory Board. And it’s far from the only one. It has also come to light that two board members, Moore and Paula White, helped shape a Trump executive order establishing the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

Advisory board members crow about their influence in Washington, D.C.

Members of President Trump's Evangelical Advisory Board Pray In The Oval Office

(Photo: President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence pray with members of the Evangelical Advisory Board in the Oval Office in September 2017. Credit: Screenshot from C-SPAN.)

“There is a long list of progress we have made with this administration because we took our seat at the table,” Moore told RNS. “We’ve provided consequential feedback on policy and personnel decisions particularly affecting religious liberty, judges, the right to life and foreign policy. We are also actively at work on issues like criminal justice reform, and when we’ve disagreed, we’ve had every opportunity to express our point of view.”

Moore has also boasted on C-SPAN that the board “pays regular visits to the White House, which can start with policy briefings from West Wing staff and agency officials and end with impromptu visits to the Oval Office.” The advisory board, Moore said, has a “pretty significant” hand in “directing or affecting” administration policy.

Administration officials agree that the board plays a significant role. In July 2017, Sarah Huckabee San­ders, then the White House deputy press secretary, said of the advisory board, “They meet from time to time to speak about issues that are important to that community.”

All of this indicates that the president’s Evangelical Advisory Board is not merely ceremonial; it has had substantial input on administration policies that have in turn affected all Americans. And that’s a problem because, according to a recent complaint filed by Americans United, the advisory board is not in compliance with federal law.

In an Aug. 30 letter to government officials, Americans United points out an inconvenient truth: Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board is in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), a 1972 law Congress enacted to “ensure that advice by the various advisory committees formed over the years is objective and accessible to the public.”

Under FACA, all meetings of a presidential advisory committee must be open to the public, and a timely notice of each meeting must be published in the Federal Register. In addition, interested parties must be permitted to attend meetings, appear before the committee and file statements with it. Detailed minutes of each committee meeting must be kept, and various records related to committee meetings must be made available to the public.

The Evangelical Advisory Board, Americans United notes, has not met any of these conditions – yet its members openly brag about the important work they’re doing with the president to formulate policies.

AU says that has to stop.

“President Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board has significant influence over public policy, yet it is operating in the shadows,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “It’s time to throw open the curtains and shine some light on this subject.”

President Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board has significant influence over public policy, yet it is operating in the shadows. It’s time to throw open the curtains and shine some light on this subject.

~ Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United

AU’s letter, written by Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, was sent to Donald F. McGahn II, counsel to the president; Justin R. Clark, director of the Office of Public Liaison; the Federal Advisory Committee Management Secretariat of the General Services Administration; and Moore, the spokesman for the Evangelical Advisory Board.

“It is clear that the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board is doing substantive work with the Trump Administration behind closed doors – without any sunlight for the public to understand how and why decisions are being made,” reads the letter. “We respectfully request that the Board cease meeting and providing advice to the President unless and until it fully complies with FACA, and that you produce to us certain documents relating to the Board.”

Americans United also sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to 10 federal agencies in an attempt to determine how much interaction they’ve had with the board. The departments are: Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Treasury, Education, Labor, Defense, State, Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget.

FOIA, a federal law passed in 1966, requires that government officials make certain documents available to the public. The law is designed to ensure transparency in government and prevent secrecy in matters of public interest.

Despite his frequent boasting about having access to Trump and input on public policy, Moore quickly shifted gears when asked about the advisory board by The Washington Post: He asserted that the board doesn’t really exist!

“The truth is, there actually isn’t a board,” Moore said. “This is slang language that has carried over from the campaign into the administration. There is no formal faith advisory board of any sort at the White House.”

But AU asserts that such a claim simply is not tenable. While it’s true that the Evangelical Advisory Board was an outgrowth of Trump’s campaign, it clearly still exists, meets regularly and offers advice to Trump, much of which he has translated into public policy.

Americans United has compiled a timeline of Trump assaults on church-state separation. (See “Trying Times,” page 12.) AU’s contention is that many of these attacks spring from Trump’s collaboration with the advisory board.

Advisory boards composed of faith leaders are nothing new in the White House. Obama had one. But as AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett noted in a “Wall of Separation” blog post, the three Faith-based and Neighborhood Advisory Councils formed during the Obama years were nothing like Trump’s advisory board.

Most notably, Obama’s councils abided by FACA. After Joshua Du­Bois, Obama’s first director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, had been made aware that the councils fell under FACA, he made sure their meetings were open to the public, and that the proper notices about them were published.

In addition, the reports the councils produced were made public.

Furthermore, Obama’s councils were broadly based and included representatives from a wide array of religious and non-religious groups, including people who didn’t necessarily agree with Obama’s approach to faith-based programs. Obama’s councils were also non-partisan. Trump’s advisory board, by contrast, is composed of sycophants who push his political agenda.

Trump’s advisory board also represents a very narrow slice of the Christian community. Its members tend to be far-right evangelicals or fundamentalists who hold extreme positions on “culture war” issues such as the meaning of religious freedom and the role of religion in public life.

None of this is surprising, given that the advisory board has roots in Trump’s campaign. While some Religious Right leaders were initially wary given Trump’s unconventional personal life and often coarse behavior, they began coming around after he vowed to do away with the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that protects the integrity of houses of worship and other non-profits by ensuring that they do not become en­­tangled in partisan electoral politics.

Trump met with several right-wing evangelical figures during the campaign, winning endorsements from a few (most notably Jerry Falwell Jr.). Once in office, Trump moved to solidify conservative evangelical support in several ways. He shifted federal policy on access to contraceptives, implemented a number of executive orders designed to chip away at legal abortion and ordered the Justice Department and other federal agencies to review policies he claimed infringed on “religious freedom.”

Trump even began claiming, falsely, to have repealed the Johnson Amendment. He did issue an executive order against the amendment, but it was mostly verbiage. The Johnson Amendment, as a federal law, can’t be nullified by an executive order.

In speeches to Religious Right groups, Trump loves to kowtow. He often asserts that under his tenure more Americans are saying “Merry Christmas,” or implies that people were afraid to utter the phrase before he took office – even though there never was any kind of directive or policy from the government ordering people not to say it and Obama himself said it many times.

During an Aug. 27 White House dinner for Religious Right leaders, including several members of the Evangelical Advisory Board, Trump repeated many of these false claims as he celebrated his support from this community.

President Trump and Paula White at White House Dinner with Evangelical Advisory Board Members

(Photo: Evangelist Paula White and President Trump pray during an August 2018 dinner in the White House with Religious Right leaders. Screenshot from The Washington Post video.)

“America is a nation of believers,” Trump told the crowd of about 100. “And tonight we’re joined by faith leaders from across the country who believe in the dignity of life, the glory of God and the power of prayer. Everybody agree with that?”

Later he said, “We’re here this evening to celebrate America’s heritage of faith, family and freedom. As you know, in recent years, the government tried to undermine religious freedom. But the attacks on communities of faith are over. We’ve ended it. We’ve ended it. Unlike some before us, we are protecting your religious liberty.”

Those were Trump’s official remarks. But some of his later comments that were caught on tape were clearly not meant for the public record. During these remarks, a re­cording of which was turned over to The New York Times, Trump made it clear that he expects advisory board members and others to deliver for his party in November and possibly break the law by advocating for candidates from the pulpit.

“This Nov. 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion, it’s a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment. It’s a referendum on so much,” Trump said.

He added, “It’s not a question of like or dislike, it’s a question that they will overturn everything that we’ve done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence. When you look at Antifa, these are violent people.

“You have tremendous power,” Trump continued. “You were saying, in this room, you have people who preach to almost 200 million people. Depending on which Sunday we’re talking about. You have to hopefully get out and get people to support us. If you don’t, that will be the beginning of ending everything that you’ve gotten. …  I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote. Because if they don’t … we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frank­ly, a very hard period of time. You’re one election away from losing everything that you’ve gotten.”

That last line is significant – it’s more proof that the advisory board, despite its claims to the contrary, has exercised significant influence over public policy.

Americans United’s exposure of the advisory board’s failure to abide by FACA made quite a splash. The Washington Post ran a story on AU’s letter, and follow-up pieces appeared in Religion News Service, the D.C. paper The Hill and Bustle, a popular news/lifestyle site aimed at women.

Right-wing media took notice as well. TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and PJ Media, a site that puts a far-right spin on stories, ran items attacking Americans United. In addition, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a member of Trump’s advisory board, derisively called Americans United “Americans Divided” and claimed there was nothing to the story.

Other observers disagreed.

“The White House is the people’s house,” said Melissa Rogers, who chaired one of Obama’s faith-based councils. “The public is right to expect visibility into a White House’s engagement with individuals and organizations, including its engagement with religious leaders and faith-based organizations. Citizens should be able to access information and make their own evaluations about whether their interests are being well served.”