Donald Trump was certain that evangelical voters and Christian-right leaders would “never” abandon him. In the months before he formally announced his campaign to reclaim the White House, Trump had quizzed certain advisers about what “the evangelicals” thought of his flirtations with a third run, two sources familiar with the matter say. The former president also wanted to know what that key conservative voting bloc thought of other prospective 2024 GOP presidential contenders, such as Glenn Youngkin, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Pence.
He was warned, at times, that there were signs some conservative faith leaders were open to exploring other, non-Trump 2024 candidacies. The former president, for his part, was mostly incredulous, at least on the surface. Trump, according to these sources, would boast that those voters — as well as their pastors, professional activists, and grassroots honchos — would “never” dump Trump. Never. Not after everything President Trump had done for them: the judges, the executive orders, Israel, Christmas (of course), and tipping the balance of the Supreme Court and, with it, the ultimate offering: the overturning of Roe v. Wade. He went into his “big” Tuesday announcement last week confident he had their support locked up.
Then the defections began.
Evangelical leaders who once counseled Trump are openly bad-mouthing him or publicly declaring they can’t, in good conscience, cast a ballot for him again. The wrangler in charge of outreach to faith leaders has been cautioned she will have a hard time getting the flock back in line. And perhaps most shockingly, the anti-abortion groups whose every demand Trump sought to satisfy during his four years in office have nonchalantly declared neutrality in the GOP primary.
They all agree that Trump delivered for them as president. The question now is: What else can he do? And is it worth five more years of dealing with him?
Trump had barely finished his announcement speech last week when the Susan B. Anthony List — one of the most prominent anti-abortion endorsers — released a statement most notable for what it lacked: a strong, unequivocal vote of confidence in the man who muscled SBA List’s anti-abortion rights agenda into reality. Instead, president Marjorie Dannenfelser casually offered that her group looks “forward to President Trump and all presidential contenders outlining their pro-life vision and policy platform” in the Republican primary.
Other anti-abortion groups followed with more forceful remarks, admonishing the former president for refusing to own his strongly anti-abortion record. (Trump, who Rolling Stone reported has been privately agonizing over the political backlash Republicans will suffer for ending Roe, did not mention the Dobbs decision in his hour-long announcement speech.)
“Former President Trump’s silence about abortion in his long speech announcing his candidacy sent a message, and we heard it loud and clear,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students For Life of America, said. Young activists of her generation, Hawkins went on, are “not looking for ambivalence in those we support. We understand that we are at the beginning of a fight, and not the end.”
Lila Rose, anti-abortion advocate and founder of Live Action, was similarly dissatisfied. “Pro-life voters will not take a back seat or be treated like a second-class constituency,” Rose tells Rolling Stone. “Pro-life voters are a powerful block, and we demand more than just lip service… The candidate who takes the boldest stance in defense of our nation’s most vulnerable should earn the pro-life vote.”
If this story sounds familiar that’s because it is: Evangelicals and anti-abortion groups opposed Trump when he announced his candidacy the first time. In 2016, Dannenfelser (who has admitted she loathed the man) signed a letter urging Iowans to caucus for “anyone but Trump,” before later lining up behind his candidacy. She ultimately went on to become the chairwoman of Trump’s “pro-life coalition,” working to convince likeminded activists around the county to use their “spheres of influence” in service of the Trump campaign.
That gamble paid off: Trump went on to nominate three Federalist Society-approved judges to the U.S. Supreme Court, not to mention fifty-three U.S. Courts of Appeals judges, 162 District Court judges and two judges on the U.S. Court of International Trade. SBA List touts those appointments on their website along with Trump’s other “pro-life wins”: excising Planned Parenthood from Title X federal family planning funding, ending foreign aid to organizations that provide abortions, installing anti-abortion appointees to influential roles, and becoming the first sitting president to speak at the March for Life.
All that was enough that Dannenfelser declared in 2020 that Trump “operated as the most pro-life president in history.” SBA List went on to pledge $52 million in an effort to re-elect Trump that year. But It was not enough, apparently, to guarantee Trump a rubber stamp endorsement from the group this year.
Dannenfelser is not the only former booster dragging their heels to get behind Trump’s 2024 bid. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor who has advised Trump for years, who started campaigning for him back in 2015, says he also plans to remain on the sidelines for now.
“I believe the Republican Party is headed for a civil war, and that is something I prefer to stay out of,” Jeffress tells Rolling Stone. “If Donald Trump wins the 2024 nomination — and I think the probability of that is very high — I will gladly and enthusiastically support him. He 100 percent delivered for the evangelical and faith community, and I continue to count him as both a friend and the greatest president we’ve had since Ronald Reagan.”
Fellow pastors and evangelical leaders who he’s recently spoken to, Jeffress says, are likewise reluctant: “People are not enthusiastic about getting in the middle of what seems to be a brewing partisan knife fight.”
The day after Trump’s announcement, another of his televangelist spiritual advisers, James Robison, spoke harshly of the former president to the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, likening the former president to a “little elementary schoolchild.” Mike Evans, a onetime member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, declared he would not vote for Trump again in an essay submitted to the Washington Post. “[W]e considered our relationship with him transactional… We wanted Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. We wanted his support of our biblical values.”
Trump, Evans wrote, “kept and exceeded his promises to us.” But those rewards came with a price: “We had to close our mouths and eyes when he said things that horrified us. I cannot do that anymore.”
Robison and Evans’ open criticism of the former president has raised alarms in Trumpworld. When news began circulating last week, Pastor Darrell Scott, a friend of Trump’s, says he called Paula White, an adviser to the former president and one of Trump’s primary faith coordinators, to discuss the comments. Scott says he told White “you have your work cut out for you” when it comes to measuring and assessing any potential “ripple effect” of faith leaders who may be considering backing away from the former president.
“It sounds like a whole lot of people want to hedge their bets and say nice things about Trump, but not make the commitment unless he wins the nomination again. That is not how you be a Christian leader,” Scott tells Rolling Stone. “You can’t have it both ways. That’s not leadership.”
Jeffress, for his part, is still hedging. “I am absolutely not backing away from President Trump. What I am saying is that we need to see what happens in a primary. And if Trump emerges as the nominee again, we will be there for him.”
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That was, of course, how it went in 2016 — for both the evangelical leaders and anti-abortion groups that were reticent about Trump’s potential as president. And more than a year out from the first Republican primary contest, and with any number of theoretical alternatives to consider, these critical constituencies are choosing to keep their powder dry for now.
Perhaps in answer to them, and anyone else doubting his chances — as well as “all RINOS, Never Trumpers, Radical Left Democrats and, of course, the Fake News Media” — Trump blasted out an email on Tuesday. It was a poll of the 2024 Republican field courtesy of “highly respected Emerson College,” showing the former president far out ahead, with 55 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trailed at 25 percent, followed by Pence with 8.