US News and World Report
By Susan Milligan
September 9, 2016
Donald Trump, under fire for his embrace of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, didn't have the R-word in the advance text of his Friday speech to religious conservatives at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.
But the GOP presidential nominee, on a roll during a sustained attack on Hillary Clinton's foreign policy record, just couldn't help himself.
"My administration will work with any country that is willing to partner with us" to defeat the Islamic State group and terrorism, Trump told the crowd at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. "That includes Russia," he added, going off-script.
"If they want to join us in knocking out [the Islamic State group], that's just fine as far as I'm concerned. It's a very imperfect world, and you can't always choose your friends. But you can never fail to recognize your enemies," Trump said.
The presidential hopeful is in hot water after saying during NBC News' "Commander-in-Chief Forum" on Wednesday night that Putin is a stronger leader than President Barack Obama. He exacerbated the controversy by giving an interview Thursday on RT America, a Russia-funded network. Trump's campaign later explained Trump had merely recorded the interview with Larry King for a podcast, and that the fate of the interview content was up to the former CNN host.
Before the Values Voter crowd, Trump, perhaps inadvertently, also resurrected another controversy he has weathered regarding his relationship with Russia.
"Our enemies probably hacked into Hillary Clinton's emails," he said, drawing hoots and applause with the reference to an issue that has persistently plagued Clinton's campaign: her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
U.S. officials appear to believe Russian hackers were behind a recent hack of the Democratic National Committee, and Trump in July urged Russia to locate thousands of Clinton's deleted emails – a suggestion critics said verged on advocating foreign espionage but which Trump later said was meant sarcastically.
Trump, facing a group of very religious attendees and following speakers who talked at length about their personal faith and often quoted Scripture, gave little attention to God in his remarks.
Instead, the thrice-married businessman who does not fit the mold of a Christian conservative focused on policy and political matters that mattered to the crowd: school choice, Supreme Court nominations, religious liberty and the promise to repeal a law that bans religious leaders from preaching their political candidate choices from the pulpit. The last item, Trump ad-libbed, came to him after he asked for the endorsement of a group of 50 religious leaders, who told him they could not do so publically without jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of their groups.
Trump did not mention abortion, birth control or LGBT equality. But he won big applause when he criticized Clinton, whom he said was "unfit to be president." That slam earned him an extended standing ovation.
Trump also tossed the words "African-American" and "Hispanic" into his remarks on education, jobs and the economic health of "inner cities." The GOP contender is doing very badly among both voter groups – polling results Friday from America's Voice indicated Trump could rack up historically low levels of support among Latinos – but Trump told the crowd not to be surprised if he did a lot better among African-Americans than "the media" believes he will.
The Values Voter Summit typically attracts socially conservative Republicans and is considered an important stop for GOP presidential nominees. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican whose refusal to endorse Trump brought him boos at the Republican National Convention, was notably absent from this year's gathering. His office said Cruz had previous commitments in Texas, but his nonattendance averted the prospect of an awkward moment with Trump.
Facing the Trump Reality
Other speakers Friday lamented what they said was an ongoing assault on religious liberty particularly targeting Christians, and threw in insults against Clinton. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, suggested the former secretary of state was mentally impaired in some way.
"A true believer does what Jesus did ... you don't make fun of people who are impaired, have special needs, and whether you like her or not, Hillary Clinton's made clear, she is mentally impaired," he told the group.
But several speakers also bemoaned the failure of evangelicals themselves, saying the group in the past has not shown up at the polls in sufficient numbers to make a critical difference. During the last election, actor Kirk Cameron told the audience, 25 million evangelicals did not vote, though they could have elected Mitt Romney president.
"We cannot say that the moral choice was not to support either candidate," former Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said of this year's contest. "Because one will win."
And Trump, while gloating over the tightening in the polls, indicated he, too, was worried about what would happen if Christian conservatives do not go to the polls for him in two months.
"You didn't vote four years ago. This time you really have to," Trump said. "If you don't, it could be a very unhappy Nov. 8."
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