WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump veered off script at the start of the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday when he asked a room full of lawmakers, foreign dignitaries and religious leaders to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger so that ratings of his show — NBC’s “The Apprentice” — would go up.
Trump, who lauded the six-decade long traditional gathering as a “testament to the power of faith” was introduced by Mark Burnett, the television producer who teamed up with Trump to create “The Apprentice.” The hit show arguably launched Trump’s political ambitions.
Trump left the show, however, in 2015 as he explored a presidential run and Burnett replaced him with Schwarzenegger, the movie star and former California governor.
“We know how that turned out,” Trump said, knocking Schwarzenegger. “The ratings went right down the tubes. It has been a disaster.”
Trump then turned to the audience and said: “I want to just pray for Arnold … for those ratings.”
The comment may have been intended as a joke, but Trump’s opening came in sharp contrast to how past presidents have addressed the breakfast.
Schwarzenegger promptly replied via a Twitter video: “Hey Donald. I have a great idea. Why don’t we switch jobs? You take over TV, cause you’re such an expert in ratings. And I take over your job, so that people can finally sleep comfortably again.”
Trump and Schwarzenegger have been in a public back-and-forth since the former California governor took over the show.
The annual multi-faith breakfast is held on the first Thursday of February each year. Lawmakers and religious leaders from about 70 countries gather at the Washington event, first organized in 1953. It is meant to bring bipartisan political leaders and their religious counterparts together to meet, pray and build relationships. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has headlined the event.
Trump used his remarks to weigh in on reports circulating on his phone calls with foreign leaders from Australia and Mexico, attempting to allay concerns.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it. They’re tough. We have to be tough. It’s time we’re going to be a little tough, folks,” he said. “We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
The keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast was Barry Black, the chaplain of the United States Senate.
Moved by Black’s remarks, Trump lauded him.
“Thank you as well to senator chaplain Barry Black for his moving words,” he said.
Trump added: “I don’t know, chaplain, whether that’s an appointed position? Is that an appointed position? I don’t know if you’re Democrat or Republican, but I’m appointing you for another year. The hell with it.”
To many, especially the religious leaders in the room, “hell” is a swear word.
When then-President Barack Obama spoke at the national prayer event in 2016, he highlighted the importance of needing to overcome fear through faith.
Trump also touched on supporting religious liberty, protecting national security and defending his controversial travel ban in his wide-ranging speech.
“Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but freedom is a gift from God. It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘The god who gave us life, gave us liberty,’ ” Trump said.
He continued: “Jefferson asked, ‘Can the liberties of a nation be secured when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of god?’ Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that.”
The Johnson amendment prohibits tax-exempt organizations like religious groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates, something Trump often mentioned on the campaign trail.
In 2013, neurosurgeon Ben Carson rose to political prominence after giving an impassioned speech at the breakfast. Carson, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, attacked what he saw as government overreach including in the area of health care, one of Obama’s signature policy achievements.
His performance made him a favorite of conservatives, in no small part because his full-throated denouncement came with Obama sitting near him at the head table.
Obama’s final speech focused on overcoming fear through faith. The 2016 breakfast came one day after Obama made a historic visit to a Baltimore mosque and spoke about the importance of religious inclusivity.
“Fear can lead us to lash out against those who are different or lead us to try to get some sinister ‘other’ under control,” said Obama, making a veiled reference to divisive rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail.
This is Trump’s first time attending the breakfast.