One day after his acquittal on two articles of impeachment, President Donald Trump addressed the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast Thursday extolling his victory while bemoaning those “who use their faith as justification.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who many believe was the target of his comments and who created a firestorm after tearing up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address just two days ago, sat at the opposite end of the head table. The two did not interact.
Lost in the shadows of the political animosity was the president’s tribute to an African American pastor from Louisiana who is working to rebuild his 140-year-old church after it was leveled last April in an arson fire.
Prior to the president’s speech, Harvard professor and conservative author Arthur Brooks urged those gathered in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton not to hold political enemies in contempt, but to follow the lead of Jesus who preached “love your enemies.” He said that true moral courage was “standing up to those with whom you agree on behalf of those with whom you disagree.”
“Contempt,” Brooks added, “is ripping our country apart. We’re like a couple on the rocks in this country. Don’t believe it? Turn on prime time TV ... it’s tearing our society apart.
“How do we break the habit of contempt? Some people say we need more civility and tolerance. I say, nonsense. Why? Because civility and tolerance are a low standard. Jesus didn’t say, ‘tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”
Trump began his speech before 3,500 invited guests, including foreign dignitaries from more than 140 countries, by triumphantly showing off headlines from several newspapers. “ACQUITTED,” emblazoned USA Today, while the Washington Times read, “Trump acquitted.”
Early on, the president referenced Brooks’ challenge saying, “I don't know if I agree with you,” which brought laughter from the audience.
Trump then addressed the impeachment ordeal.
“My family, our great country and your president has been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people,” Trump said. “They have done everything possible to destroy us and by so doing, very badly hurt our nation.
“They know what they are doing is wrong but they put themselves far ahead of our great country. Weeks ago and again yesterday, courageous Republican politicians and leaders had the wisdom, fortitude, and strength to do what everyone knows was right.”
The president then took a stab at some of his critics.
“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he 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.”
Although Trump did not mention any names, many observers said the comments were likely directed at Pelosi, who offered a prayer for the poor at the gathering, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the sole Republican who voted to convict Trump on the abuse of power charge.
“As a senator juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice,” Romney said Wednesday about his decision. “I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential,” Romney said Wednesday about his decision.”
After addressing the impeachment, the president turned his attention to the economy, religious freedom in America, and the role of faith.
“So much of the greatness we have achieved, the mysteries we have unlocked and the wonders we’ve built, the challenges we’ve met, and the incredible heights that we’ve reached, has come from the faith of our families and the prayers of our people,” Trump said.
During the speech, the president introduced The Rev. Gerald Toussaint, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, one of three southern Louisiana congregations that were targeted in a series of arson attacks.
“Yet, in the wake of such shocking evil, America witnessed the unshakable unity, devotion, and spirit of Reverend Toussaint and his entire highly spirited, beautiful congregation,” Trump said. “Families quickly came together in prayer. Soon, people from all across Louisiana came to help any way they could. Americans in all 50 states and 20 different countries heard about it and they donated more than $2 million to help rebuild Mount Pleasant and the other two churches.”
Trump went on to quote from Toussaint’s Easter Sunday sermon, just days after the fire.
“The Easter season is a fitting metaphor for recent events,” Toussaint said. “It was dark the day that Jesus was crucified. It was dark [at] night when they burned our church. What has happened since is like a resurrection.”
Trump hailed their rebuilding effort. The property has since been cleared and reconstruction is expected to begin soon.
“You know, the Reverend says that we’re rebuilding because that’s what Jesus does,” the president said. “He rebuilds, he lives, and he breathes. It’s what he does. He wants it to be rebuilt. It was torn apart, but it’s being rebuilt again.”
Toward the end of the speech, the scars of ordeal showed as Trump recognized the people of faith gathered for the event.
''We are grateful to the people of this room for the lovely show to religion, not one religion, but many religions,” he said. “They are brave, they are brilliant, they are fighters, they like people and sometimes they hate people. I'm sorry. I apologize. I am trying to learn. Not easy. It's not easy. When they impeach you for nothing, and you're supposed to like them, it's not easy, folks. I do my best.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Drew Angerer/Staff, This is a photo of President Trump at a press conference following his acquittal
Lori Arnold is a national award-winning journalist whose experience includes 16 years at a daily community newspaper in San Diego and 16 years as writer-editor for the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and is a member of the Evangelical Press Association.