By Alex Morris
December 2, 2019
On the morning of September 29th, six weeks before the 2016 election, Donald Trump was in a conference room at Trump Tower in New York talking to leaders of the religious right about sex-reassignment surgery. In a way, he was bringing about his own transformation. Having quashed the idea that his run for president was a lark or a publicity stunt, having come from behind to take the Republican nomination, and having fought his way up the polls to the extent that he was within striking distance of Hillary Clinton, Trump was now trying to seal the deal. And that involved something he would soon become much more known for: a discussion of other people’s genitalia.
“With the operation or without the operation?” Trump asked the conservative Christian leaders gathered specifically to ascertain whether to grant him their support. In other words, would HB2 — North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill — apply to transgender people who had not undergone surgery to alter their sex?
“Without the operation,” Christian radio talk-show host Frank Turek confirmed, according to a tape of the meeting exclusively obtained by Rolling Stone. “If you’re a man but you feel like a woman that day, if you’re Shania Twain, you can go into a woman’s bathroom, and no one can say a word about it.”
Trump seemed to ponder this deeply. For much of his political run, the thrice-married, swindling, profane, materialistic, self-styled playboy had appealed mainly to the more fringe elements of Christianity, a ragtag group of prosperity gospelers (like his “spiritual adviser” Paula White, a televangelist who promises her donors their own personal angel), Christian dominionists (who believe that America’s laws should be founded explicitly on biblical ones — including stoning homosexuals), and charismatic or Pentecostal outliers (like Frank Amedia, the Trump campaign’s “liaison for Christian policy,” who once claimed to have raised an ant from the dead). Considering their extreme views, these folks had an alarming number of followers, but certainly nothing of voting-bloc magnitude.
And without the evangelical voting bloc, no Republican candidate could hope to have a path to the presidency. Evangelicals — a term that today refers to people who believe that Jesus died for their sins, that the Bible is the word of God, that every believer has a “born again” or salvation moment, and that the good news of Jesus should be widely disseminated — make up as much as a quarter of the country, or close to 80 million people. Around 60 percent vote, more than any other demographic, and among white evangelical voters, more than three-quarters tend to go to Republicans, thanks to wedge issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights.
Trump was exactly the type of character you would expect “values voters” to summarily reject — even before the famed “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, the optics weren’t great. He never gained a majority of Christian votes in the primary. Even after he secured the nomination and named Mike Pence to be his VP, a survey of Protestant pastors conducted by Christian polling group LifeWay Research that summer found that only 39 percent of evangelical pastors planned to vote for him.
The meeting on September 29th, 2016, was one of the ways he tried to move the needle, to convince the religious right that their vision for America was one he shared. Robert Jeffress, the head of 14,000-member megachurch First Baptist Dallas, a contributor to Fox News, and one of the earliest evangelical leaders to support Trump, presided over the meeting. “I usually stand when he comes in the room as a way of showing respect — he doesn’t ask that, but that’s just something that I’ve normally done,” Jeffress explained to the assembled, who included Wayne Grudem, a well-known theologian and co-founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; Eric Metaxas, a bestselling Christian author and radio host; Ryan Anderson, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation; Jay Richards, a philosopher and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that campaigns against teaching evolution in school; and Ivanka Trump, who popped in momentarily to say hello.