Speaking at a rally in Fort Worth today, presidential candidate Donald Trump said he hopes to remove the federal restriction against tax-exempt organizations endorsing politicians, in order to create “the strongest Christian lobby.” But the fact that churches remain forbidden from endorsing political candidates didn’t stop First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress from offering what sounded about as close to an endorsement as he could have been made without speaking the words “I endorse Donald Trump.”
Jeffress appeared on stage at the Fort Worth Convention Center as Trump’s wandering, hour-long stream-of-consciousness stump speech wound towards its conclusion. Trump had been listing his supporters, mentioning Jeffress and former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin by name, and then he spoke about his desire to create a powerful Christian lobby.
“They don’t have a lobby because they are afraid to have a lobby because they are afraid they are going to lose their tax status,” Trump told the crowd of around 2,000 that had gathered to greet the candidate ahead of this Tuesday’s Texas Republican Primary. “So I’m going to work like hell on that issue.”
Trump called Jeffress to the stage. Jeffress, who gave an invocation at the beginning of the event, didn’t come out at first. Trump repeated his invitation five or six times, and Jeffress finally took a spot at the podium next to Trump. The pastor quoted Ronald Reagan in his remarks.
“When Ronald Reagan was running for president of the United States the first time, he met with a group of evangelical leaders,” Jeffress said. “And he said, ‘Although you can’t endorse me, I want you to know that I endorse you.’ And I have met with Mr. Trump on several occasions, and I can tell you from personal experience that if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, we who are evangelical Christians are going to have a true friend in the White House. God bless Donald Trump.”
Jeffress then outlined the three things that drew him to Trump: the candidate’s sincerity, his love of evangelical Christians, and his stance on abortion.
“Donald Trump is truly pro-life,” Jeffress said. “I have talked to him at Trump Towers, and he believes in protecting the unborn.”
Jeffress’ comments drew a roar of applause from the Fort Worth crowd. When Trump returned to the podium, he told the Dallas preacher to hold him accountable for his promise to remove the ban on churches endorsing political candidates. The current law, which was passed during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and strengthened in 1987, prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches.
“That’s one of the first things I want to do,” Trump said. “And politically, if we use that power, we are going to start going up-up-up because we are being decimated. So just remember that. Pastor, it starts here. Do you like that what I just said? He’s happy. That’s the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face. You can hold me to it, pastor.”
Trump also used the discussion of evangelical Christian churches to address what he perceives as a double standard in the reaction to his remarks that he would ban Muslims from entering the United States in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks.
“When I said that there has to be a temporary ban on certain people coming into this country … when I said ‘Muslim,’ I was met with fury,” said the candidate who currently stands second behind Senator Ted Cruz in the Texas primary according to the latest UT/Texas Tribune poll. “If I would have said ‘Christian,’ people would have said, ‘Oh, we can’t do anything about it.’ That’s got to end, folks.”
Trump then launched into a defense of the word ‘Christmas,’ which also drew huge applause.
“We’re going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ now,” Trump said. “We’re going to start going into department stores, and you’re going to see big beautiful signs that say ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy Holidays.’”
Trump’s remarks came at the end of an hour-long speech that otherwise wound through the key themes that have turned the Queens-born billionaire into a surprising populist candidate, upsetting the Republican establishment and winning the South Carolina, Nevada, and New Hampshire primaries. Trump spoke about securing the U.S.-Mexican border, building a wall between the two countries, ending Obamacare and the common core education curriculum, and “making America great again.” The crowd mostly ate it up, though there was one brief interruption as a small group of protesters were escorted out of the arena. Additional protesters waving Mexican flags and holding anti-Trump signs positioned themselves outside the convention center.
Trump also dedicated a portion of his remarks to poking fun at Florida Senator Marco Rubio, saying the politician smeared on makeup before last night’s Republican debate “with a trowel” to cover up what Trump characterized as profuse sweating. At one point Trump raised a water bottle to the crowd and then shook it from side to side, splashing water on the stage. “It’s Rubio,” he said to guffaws.
“He’s an afraid little puppy,” Trump said of Rubio. “I’d call him a nasty little guy, but I won’t say that.”
Earlier in the day, Rubio ratcheted up an already vitriolic Republican campaign by suggesting that Trump may have wet his pants during last night’s debate. During a pre-event press conference in Fort Worth, Trump dismissed Rubio’s attack.
“He’s a desperate guy,” said Trump, flanked by a Texas and U.S. flag in front of royal blue drapery that covered the pallid wall of a small conference room tucked away in a corner of the Fort Worth Convention Center. Perhaps the best retort to Rubio, however, was the man standing at Trump’s side, former presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who used Trump’s Texas appearance to announce his endorsement of the real estate mogul.
“The single most important thing is to nominate a person who can beat Hilary Clinton,” Christie told reporters. “They don’t know the playbook of Donald Trump, because he is rewriting the playbook.”