Trump courts Evangelicals for 2020 amid impeachment, Soleimani fallout

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US President Donald Trump arrives on stage for a Keep America Great Rally at Kellogg Arena December 18, 2019, in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

The 5 p.m. ET kickoff event at King Jesus International Ministry, a 100,000-square foot Miami mega-church with room for 7,000 attendees, will be aimed at boosting support from Trump’s already-loyal base of evangelical Christians.

The president made an unannounced speech before his departure for the event, saying that while the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran, it is “ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary” if Iran threatens American lives.

Ahead of the event, Trump took to Twitter to defend his decision to launch the airstrike that killed Soleimani, and to rail against congressional Democrats who impeached him last month and are fighting with Republicans over the rules of a Senate trial.

Trump wrote Friday morning that Soleimani “has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught!”

Later Friday, Trump returned his focus to impeachment, a frequent target of his ire. House Democrats impeached Trump last month on articles of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, both related to his dealings with Ukraine.

The Democrats’ lawyers have recently hinted that more impeachment articles could be drafted, as more information trickles out and a Senate trial remains on hold.

Trump has been spending the holidays vacationing at his Palm Beach, Florida, resort Mar-a-Lago and the nearby Trump International Golf Club. He reportedly visited the golf course Thursday, just a few hours before the first reports of the Iranian general’s death.

The news sent shock waves across the political and media landscape in the U.S. and abroad. Iranian officials have vowed to take revenge on America, and the U.S. military reportedly announced an additional deployment of troops to the Middle East.

Soleimani, who led a special forces unit of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.

But rather than return to Washington to address the tightening tensions in the Middle East, Trump remained in Florida to attend the Friday evening campaign event.

More than three dozen influential evangelical leaders were expected to attend, a Trump campaign source told CNBC.

Some of the event’s speakers include Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Paula White, Trump’s so-called spiritual advisor. Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress reportedly said he will be leading a closing prayer at the rally.

The campaign expects to sign thousands of members up for the new coalition, which will place a special emphasis on recruiting Hispanic and black evangelicals, the source said.

The Miami church is “a natural fit” for the campaign event, Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.

“Moreover, Florida is a state of great importance to President Trump, as we continue to see overwhelming support for the President across the state,” she said. Florida, historically a swing state in presidential elections, was a crucial pickup for Trump in the 2016 contest against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Many evangelical leaders have been quick to heap praise on Trump, and have not been afraid to wade into day-to-day political fights on Capitol Hill.

Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, shared a Facebook message Friday supporting the airstrike on Soleimani.

“We need to pray that God would give President Donald J. Trump wisdom as he continues the war on terrorism. Join me in praying that the President, his family, and our troops serving in the region would be protected from evil,” Graham said.

But while outsiders are often quick to view evangelicals as a political monolith — 80% voted for Trump in 2016, versus 16% for Clinton, exit polls reportedly showed — some dissenting voices have recently cropped up.

A few days before Christmas, Christianity Today published a searing editorial arguing for Trump’s removal from office. The author, Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli, said the magazine received a boost in subscribers.

But evangelical leaders were quick to torch the piece.

Perkins called it “totally unfair,” while Graham claimed that his father, who founded Christianity Today and died in 2018, “would be very disappointed” in the current state of the magazine.

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