In a closed-door meeting with evangelical leaders Monday night, President Donald Trump repeated his debunked claim that he had gotten “rid of” a law forbidding churches and charitable organizations from endorsing political candidates, according to recorded excerpts reviewed by NBC News.
In fact, the law remains on the books, after efforts to kill it in Congress last year failed.
But Trump cited this alleged accomplishment as one in a series of gains he has made for his conservative Christian supporters, as he warned, “You’re one election away from losing everything that you’ve got,” and said their opponents were “violent people” who would overturn these gains “violently.”
Trump addressed the law and the upcoming midterms in private remarks Monday during a dinner with evangelical supporters at the White House after the press had left.
At stake in the November midterms, Trump told the audience, are all the gains he has made for conservative Christians.
“The level of hatred, the level of anger is unbelievable,” he said. “Part of it is because of some of the things I’ve done for you and for me and for my family, but I’ve done them. … 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.”
If the GOP loses, he said, “they will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently, and violently. There’s violence. When you look at Antifa and you look at some of these groups — these are violent people.”
The law says churches and charities “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
“Now one of the things I’m most proud of is getting rid of the Johnson Amendment,” the president said. “That was a disaster for you.”
The president doesn’t have the power to repeal a law — only Congress can do that. The Supreme Court can also rule a law unconstitutional, but that has not happened in this case.
In May 2017, Trump signed an executive order that purported to ease enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. But experts — and the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes repeal of the provision — say the Trump order was basically toothless.
“It does almost nothing,” Gregory Magarian, a constitutional law professor at Washington University Law School.
Politifact, the nonpartisan fact-checking organization, rated Trump’s claim that he had gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment “mostly false” when he first made it publicly in July 2017.
The law forbids religious organizations and other charities from formally endorsing candidates if they want to retain their federal tax exemption.
Trump’s executive order instructs the Treasury Department not to “take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office … ”
In other words, religious organizations can express their religious views, as they always could — but still cannot formally participate in political campaigns.
SOURCE: Aliza Nadi and Ken Dilanian