Speaking from the pulpit of a Miami-Dade County megachurch, President Donald Trump bragged to an audience of thousands Friday that he’d killed Iran’s top general and declared himself the greatest friend Christians ever had in the White House.
Trump, in some of his first public comments about the deadly drone strike he ordered Thursday against Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani — and during an event designed to shore up his support among the religious right — said he had Soleimani killed in the name of peace.
“Qasem Soleimani has been killed and his bloody rampage is now forever gone,” Trump said, drawing roars from a crowd he estimated above 5,000 at Kendall’s Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesus. “He was plotting attacks against Americans, but now we’ve ensured his atrocities have been stopped for good. He was planning a major attack and we got him.”
Iran’s top general and commander of the country’s elite Quds force, designated a foreign terrorist organization this year by the U.S. government., was killed along with six others in retaliation for an assault on the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad and deadly rocket attacks launched on American forces by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. Trump ordered the strike Thursday from his private Mar-a-Lago club and residence in Palm Beach
Trump’s comments about Soleimani came amid his launch of an Evangelicals for Trump coalition.
Thousands poured into the church — home to one of the largest majority-Hispanic congregations in the country — to pray, sing and cheer on the president. During an opening prayer delivered as the audience raised their hands toward the stage, El Rey Pastor Guillermo Maldonado compared Trump to the Biblical Persian King Cyrus, who freed the Jews from Babylon captivity and decreed that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.
“Father, we give you the praise and honor and we ask you that he can be the Cyrus to bring reaffirmation, to bring change into this nation, and all the nations of the earth will say America is the greatest nation of the earth,” Maldonado said.
Trump told the audience — some of whom were not religious — that he was fighting in Washington for Christians and Jews and against abortion and other policies that he said were pushed by Democrats. He urged the audience to register more voters at churches than ever before.
“In America, we don’t worship government. We worship God,” Trump said, adding: “Very soon, I’ll be taking action to safeguard students and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools.”
Trump’s evangelicals’ rally came at a crucial time for the president, who will head back to Washington Sunday to juggle a looming impeachment trial, escalating tensions with Iran and a reelection campaign now in full swing.
With the latter in mind, Trump announced Friday’s event last month, shortly after the evangelical publication Christianity Today renewed debate about the president’s standing among Christians by publishing an editorial calling for the president’s removal. The magazine, founded by the late powerhouse Rev. Billy Graham, took issue with the president’s pressure campaign to push Ukraine’s government to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, and Trump’s own behavior.
Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least two dozen women. Christianity Today, in its editorial, noted that a number of Trump’s campaign and White House aides have been charged criminally since his inauguration.
Democrats and some religious leaders have also accused Trump of ignoring Christian doctrine in the practice of his administration’s policies, which at different times have included separating immigrant families at the southern border and pushing to repeal Obamacare.
On a Florida Democratic Party conference call with reporters Friday morning, Doug Pagitt, a liberal evangelical from Minnesota, called Friday’s rally “Donald Trump’s desperate response to the realization he’s losing his primary voting bloc: faith voters.”
“Losing even 5% of faith voters ends his chances of reelection,” Pagitt said.
Trump has performed well with white evangelicals, pulling 80 percent of the vote in 2016 and holding steady at 75 percent support according to a recent CNN/SSRS poll. The president has taken repeated steps to shore up his support with the demographic, including the issuance of executive orders related to religious freedom, the creation of a White House outreach arm for Christians and the nomination of federal judges who pass muster with the religious right.
Broaden the demographics, however, and Christians are less supportive. A Pew Research study in March found that only 12% of black Protestants supported the president, and 26% of non-white Catholics.
But at Friday’s rally, a diverse and largely Hispanic crowd wearing red Trump hats and Keep America Great shirts celebrated the president and cheered as he ran through his Christian bonafides. They roared when he said he was fighting to end leftist rule in Cuba and Venezuela, and cheered just as loudly when he said his administration was building a wall along the Mexican border.
Regina Gonzalez, who joined El Rey more than 10 years ago, attended the rally to “support the apostle,” Maldonado, who told his congregation before the event that everyone “must pray for the president, no matter who he is,” she said.
The 60-year-old Republican, who arrived in the U.S. from El Salvador as a 15-year-old with her family, overstayed her visa and now says she has a legal immigration status, said she primarily likes Trump because he’s anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage.
During Trump’s speech at El Rey Jesus, he said he’s been the most supportive president for Christians.
Christians “have never had a greater champion — not even close — than you have in the White House right now. Look at the record,” he said. “We’ve done things that nobody thought was possible. We’re not only defending our constitutional rights, we’re also defending religion itself, which is under siege.”
He said his administration has stood up to the pro-abortion lobby, defended the free speech rights of Christians on college campuses and promoted prayer in schools. He also claimed he “got rid” of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates, to support the religious community.
This report was written by Miami Herald staff writers David Smiley and Jimena Tavel.