Exploring The Nationalistic And Christian Right Influences On Trump
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sarah Posner, is a journalist who covers the intersection of politics and religion and has been covering the influence of the alt-right and the Christian right on the Trump administration. Yesterday, Posner published a document that was leaked to her that is reportedly the draft of an executive order that is under consideration by the Trump administration titled Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom. It would enable many groups to refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people or services related to contraception and abortion.
Last July, Posner interviewed Steve Bannon when he was still the head of Breitbart News. Bannon told her that Breitbart was the platform for the alt-right. That statement has since been very widely quoted. The alt-right is a rebranding of white nationalists and others who embrace white identity politics and has been associated with racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and misogyny. Steve Bannon is now president Trump's chief strategist and a member of the National Security Council's Principals Committee.
Sarah Posner is a reporter for The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Her articles are published in Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. The leaked document is published on The Nation website.
Sarah Posner, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we discuss the contents of this leaked draft of an executive order, can you tell us why you think this really is a genuine draft of an executive order?
SARAH POSNER: It is circulating within federal agencies, and it contains provisions that the religious right has long sought, not in one fell swoop, but piecemeal. It contains provisions that's very similar to a bill that Republican legislators have introduced in Congress called the First Amendment Defense Act.
And it's very similar to a law that passed in Mississippi last year and was struck down by a federal district court as being in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits the government establishment of religion. The court struck this law down because it favors one religious view over other religious views without regard to the harm to third parties.
GROSS: So you can't tell us, I'm sure, who actually leaked this to you, but you're confident this is a real document, that this was genuinely a draft of an executive order?
POSNER: That is how it was presented to me. However, the White House is now saying they have no plans to issue an order on this topic at this time. They did not deny that there is a draft, so that's what we have.
GROSS: OK. So summarize for us please what is in this draft.
POSNER: The draft contains sweeping religious exemptions for people who claim religious objections or even moral objections to LGBT people, LGBT rights, people in same-sex relationships, even straight people in relationships who aren't married, sex outside of marriage, abortion, contraception. So it basically would enable federal contractors and grantees who receive taxpayer money to discriminate against people on those grounds. It would allow federal workers to say, oh, I don't want to provide this service that is my job to you because you're in a same-sex relationship.
So, for example, it could allow a regional worker and a social security administration office to say to a citizen that they didn't want to provide service to them because they are in a same-sex marriage, for example. It could allow a faith-based contractor, again, receiving federal dollars - the important key here is that these contractors and grantees receive taxpayer money to discriminate against clients who are LGBT, who profess to have certain beliefs about sex and sexuality that conflict with the providers' stated beliefs.
It's extremely broad. It contains other provisions like the eradication of the Johnson Amendment which President Trump also incidentally pledged to get rid of in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning. The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the Internal Revenue Code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations including houses of worship from using tax-exempt dollars, resources to endorse political candidates. They risk their tax-exempt status if they do that.
GROSS: So this would enable religious organizations to use money to endorse candidates.
POSNER: Right. And, you know, obviously, that rule is embodied in a federal statute, the Internal Revenue Code, whether the president can actually eliminate that via executive order is a legal question, but that's what it aims to do.
GROSS: Now, the draft says that this would apply as well to closely held for-profit organizations. What does that mean?
POSNER: They're trying to extend the ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court case from 2014 where the Supreme Court held that a closely held corporation, basically a family-owned corporation that's not publicly traded such as the Hobby Lobby stores had a religious right to say to their employees we are not going to provide the coverage for contraception that's required under the Affordable Care Act because we have religious objections to that.
GROSS: And Judge Neil Gorsuch, who is president Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court wrote the Hobby Lobby decision that then went to the Supreme Court.
POSNER: Yes. He is seen by supporters of the Hobby Lobby decision and supporters of broadened religious exemptions as a key ally for them. And that is one of the big reasons why he's garnering - his nomination is garnering so much support from the religious right right now. He doesn't have any decisions, any judicial decisions on, say, abortion, but he does on religious liberty and religious exemptions. And they're pointing particularly to his decision in the Hobby Lobby case as evidence that he shares their views on this.
GROSS: So this week, the White House announced that it will continue to protect people who are LGBT from discrimination by federal contractors. So those two things seem very contradictory.
POSNER: They do, but I would also add that the religious right was upset that President Trump released that statement reiterating his support for President Obama's executive order setting forth those protections. So I think the White House is definitely sending some mixed signals on this because on the one hand, President Trump said that, but that's narrow to federal contractors. And I think that President Trump's speech this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast also had some mixed signals in it, too.
On the one hand, he seemed to affirm protecting everybody's rights, but then talked about religious liberty being under threat. So there were some messages in there, I think, that were intended to both assuage people who were concerned about an attack on LGBT rights and at the same time assuage people who say that they're concerned about religious freedom of people who object to LGBT rights.
GROSS: You've spoken to legal experts about this draft, so what were some of their explanations of how this draft would likely be challenged if it is ever signed?
POSNER: First of all, there are questions about whether it would represent an executive overreach, but more fundamentally, whether it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which prohibits government establishment of religion and also prohibits the government from favoring one religion or one set of religious beliefs over others without regard to the harm to third parties. So here you would have the government privileging a certain set of religious beliefs that say that LGBT people or LGBT activity is immoral and then allowing them - allowing people with that set of beliefs to discriminate against LGBT people without regard to the harm to those people. That's the principle one. It may also contain provisions that violate the Equal Protection Clause. But the main thrust of it is that it is extremely broad, attempts to override federal statute and federal Constitution and may be in violation of the federal Constitution.
GROSS: So you've gotten this leak of a draft of an executive order. The White House says it has no plan to sign or issue such a document at this time. So what indication do you have that, you know, this might actually happen? Do you have any indication of that?
POSNER: I don't know. I think what's happening right now is that they're watching the opposition to it play out. I'm sure that there was indication within agencies that this would be problematic. I have seen social conservatives praise its contents on Twitter. Ryan Anderson, who covers these topics for The Heritage Foundation, tweeted that he thought that the president should sign it. He said that - he said because it was driving the left crazy. And Bryan Fischer, the incendiary talk show host, said that if President Trump signed it, he would - also on Twitter. He said that if President Trump signed it, he would be the Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King of religious liberty.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Posner. The draft we've been discussing that was leaked to her is published on The Nation website. She's a reporter for The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. We'll talk about Steve Bannon and the alt-right after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Sarah Posner who covers the intersection of religion and politics and has been writing about the Trump administration's connections with the alt-right and the Christian right. She's written about Steve Bannon, who was the head of Breitbart News and is now president Trump's chief strategist. Steve Bannon seems to be playing an increasingly important role in the Trump administration. Now he's on the National Security Council's Principals Committee. How did you first start writing about him?
POSNER: Well, I was covering the Republican National Convention in July, and I was mostly covering not the activity on the convention floor but political activity outside the hall, particularly rallies and parties that were taking place around alt-right people and groups. And one of the things that I covered was a screening of Bannon's film called "The Torchbearer" (ph). Bannon had produced the film in conjunction with Citizens United, the nonprofit outlet that led to the Citizens United Supreme Court case. And there was a reception afterwards, and I just approached him to talk about the film and how it was going - intended to appeal both to the Christian right and to the alt-right. And it was in that conversation that he said to me that Breitbart is the platform for the alt-right.
GROSS: And was that statement to you the statement that went viral that everybody quotes now?
GROSS: What did you make of it when he said it to you?
POSNER: Well, in a way, I wasn't surprised because to me it seemed obvious that Breitbart had become a platform for the alt-right. I mean, he did say the word the platform for the alt-right. I thought that that was quite a boast because obviously there are many other websites and platforms for the alt-right that may be perhaps a little bit more vociferously an openly white supremacist or white nationalist. So I thought it was telling, though, that he was willing to state that so unequivocally that it was the platform for the alt-right. To me, it was his statement that he actually embraced the movement as it defines itself as a white nationalist movement, even though he tried to deny to me in the interview that it is a white nationalist movement.
GROSS: What else did he tell you in that interview that you think reveals his positions, his views, his goals?
POSNER: Well, I think right now this week with what we're seeing unfold with the Trump administration, the fact that he told me that it was Jeff Sessions, not Trump, who was basically the forerunner of this nationalist movement that we're seeing now in the United States; he told me quite specifically that Trump was late to this party, meaning this nationalism party, and that it was really Jeff Sessions who had been the champion of it for many years before that. So I think looking back at that statement in hindsight and knowing now from reporting by The Washington Post and others that Jeff Sessions has played a very strong hand in the executive orders on refugees and immigration that we saw last week and that Bannon is playing a very key role in advising the president, it seems that the Bannon-Sessions nexus is crucial in understanding how the Trump policy is being laid out right now.
GROSS: And in an echo of what you're saying in The Washington Post, reporters Philip Rucker and Robert Costa describe Jeff Sessions as the intellectual godfather of Trump's policy. So in what way is he an architect of the kind of policies that the Trump administration stands for now, and which policies are we talking about when we say that?
POSNER: Well, right now what we're talking about is the executive orders on immigration and refugees. So there were two immigration orders that the president signed. One was to bolster the - what he would frame as the defense of the southern border, the building of the wall, the increase in the number of border agents questioning people, detaining people. And then another which basically is going to defund cities, the so-called sanctuary cities, deprive them of federal funding if they protect undocumented people from ICE officials from being deported.
So there's that, and then obviously it's the refugee ban that has caused the uproar and the protests around the country, which bans people coming in through the refugee program through which they have already been subjected to extreme vetting, and banning people from seven countries from coming to the United States with visas, or initially it was thought green cards, although the administration has appeared to back down on that. So these very extreme measures to keep out and deport immigrants and refugees from the United States is seen as something that Sessions is championing because of Sessions' long history of anti-immigrant and anti-immigration positions in the United States Senate.
GROSS: Sally Yates, who was the acting attorney general, was fired because she refused to uphold the immigration and travel ban issued by President Trump. If Jeff Sessions becomes the attorney general, what kind of power will he have?
POSNER: Well, he will have tremendous power. I think that Trump has signaled that the Department of Justice and the attorney general are not independent of him. And it's clear that Sessions' close relationship with the president, starting with him being the first senator to endorse Trump's presidential candidacy in 2015, indicates all of these are signals that Sessions as attorney general would not be independent of the president and that they would, I think, be working together to implement these harsh policies, not just on immigration matters, some of which is under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, but on a host of other policy concerns that fall under the authority of the Department of Justice.
GROSS: So Stephen Miller, who was Trump's chief speechwriter and is now an adviser, worked with Jeff Sessions. In what capacity do you know, and what do you know about Stephen Miller and his role now?
POSNER: Well, Stephen Miller is reported to have been working on implementing these executive orders as they played out over this past weekend with all of the chaos that ensued at airports with Customs and Border Control officials not being certain about how they should be implementing it and so on according to reports. I did not report this out independently myself, but Miller was playing a role in implementing those orders.
Miller is a former staffer to Jeff Sessions, thought to be very close to Jeff Sessions and worked very closely with the Trump campaign. He often opened for Trump at campaign rallies, getting the crowd warmed up for the sort of typical Trump red meat that he was throwing at his rallies as a candidate. Oddly, I saw Miller open for Trump at a campaign stop in Johnstown, Pa. very late in the campaign. And the interesting thing there was that Miller is from - his family hails from Johnstown, Pa., and he told a story about how his immigrant ancestors came to Johnstown and built a life there. So that now seems rather ironic, to say the least.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Posner, who covers the intersection of religion and politics. She's a reporter for The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. After a break, we'll talk about a documentary film Steve Bannon and wrote and directed, and about Trump and the Christian right. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY CONNICK JR.'S "VOCATION")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sarah Posner, who writes about the intersection of religion and politics and has been covering the Trump administration's relationship with the alt-right and the Christian right. Posner is a reporter for The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Her articles are published in Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. When we left off, we were talking about Steve Bannon, president Trump's chief strategist, who now also has a seat on the National Security Council's Principals Committee. Bannon is the former head of Breitbart News, which he described as a platform for the alt-right. Let's get back to Steve Bannon. Do you see his leadership style, his vision, his goals reflected in any of the executive orders that President Trump has issued so far, in the president's leadership style?
POSNER: Both. On the substance of the executive orders, I think that - when I think back to what he said to me at the Republican convention about nationalism and how these nationalistic movements were really taking hold and that it was really about, in his in terms, not race but rather national identity - that these are executive orders intended to keep out people thought to - thought by the Trump administration not to be part of our American nationalistic identity.
Moreover, the way he described Islam to me similarly frames that as not a religion that's entitled to the protections of the First Amendment free exercise clause. He described Islam to me as a political ideology similar to Nazism or communism. So in his mind, Islam is not a religion but rather a political ideology that is in conflict with Western values.
GROSS: I see. So if you frame it as a political ideology, then it no longer has the protections of religion.
POSNER: Right. I mean, the free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects people's religious exercise, but if it's not a religion, it's not entitled to that. Now, of course, Islam is a religion despite Steve Bannon and many other conservatives efforts to portray it as a political ideology rather than a religion. But this is part of their political strategy. It is to frame Islam as an enemy of the West. And that is what underlies these efforts to keep Muslims out.
I mean, Rudy Giuliani admitted on television - on national television that Trump had asked him to look at a Muslim ban and how he could legally do it. And the ideology that underlies that is the view that Islam is a political ideology that endangers America and the West and needs to be kept out.
GROSS: Last week was Holocaust Remembrance Day. And President Trump has been criticized by many people for having issued a statement about Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning either Jews or anti-Semitism. When you first met Steve Bannon at the Republican National Convention last summer, he had screened a film that he directed and wrote called "The Torchbearer." You describe it as being about the war between good and evil and how tyranny and oppression occur when society abandons God. How did the Holocaust figure into that film?
POSNER: Well, the film depicts various moments in history as being the result of the banishment of God from the public square or the abandonment of religion, namely, Christianity (laughter). And so it has a very lengthy sequence on the Holocaust with much footage of concentration camps, people being shipped to concentration camps. It's really terrible and painful, actually, to watch. But the film does not discuss anti-Semitism as a cause of the Holocaust. It fits the Holocaust in with these other moments in history like the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. It's just a bizarre retelling of history. But what struck me about it was it doesn't discuss anti-Semitism.
And in the interview of him that I conducted at the reception after the screening, I had asked him very specifically about something that happened to one of his former Breitbart employees, a reporter and editor named Ben Shapiro. Now, Shapiro broke with Breitbart after that notorious incident where Corey Lewandowski, who was then the campaign manager for Trump, grabbed the Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields by the arm at that press conference in Florida. And Shapiro was one of the people who left Breitbart as a result of the news outlet not defending Fields in the face of everything that happened to her. She was a Breitbart reporter at the time, as well.
And after that, Shapiro, who's Jewish, was subjected to a lot of anti-Semitic harassment and abuse online, including - after he announced on Twitter the birth of his and his wife's second child - a tweet that said to the ovens with all four of you. And I asked Bannon about that - about what had happened to his former employee with his anti-Semitic abuse that included Holocaust imagery being directed at him as part of that abuse. And Bannon kind of cut me off and said Ben Shapiro is a whiner. And I was so struck by that - that he would not even say something anodyne like, I'm sorry that that happened to Ben, my former employee, but rather that he would call him a whiner. And I think that that was very telling. And that this Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that the White House issued and then doubled and tripled down on is extremely troubling.
This White House has tried to make itself seem like it is a friend of the Jews, a friend of Israel, and yet now every single Jewish organization across the spectrum even ones that were allied with Trump like the Zionist Organization of America - they have been critical of this Holocaust statement.
GROSS: So the film that you were talking about, "The Torchbearer," was narrated by Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty." Is that the same person from "Duck Dynasty" who was out at the Republican convention?
POSNER: He was at the convention. He was at the screening of the film. And I talked to him very briefly before the film started, and I asked him why he wanted to make this film and why he thought it was important. And, you know, he said that, you know, we were in a moral crisis in this country. It was very, you know, sort of vague. I'm not sure. I don't know. It was just - it was strange, you know? Like, they have this guy who made his name on this reality TV show. He's pretty much a hero, a star in conservative circles and, particularly, in some conservative evangelical circles. And so they're using him as the narrator for this film, which is ahistorical and strangely put together (laughter). And at the end of the film, they show him baptizing people in a Louisiana bog (laughter).
And just - I couldn't help but think that the goal of this was to reach the evangelical community. Bannon admitted that to me that the target audience for the film was evangelicals. And he also said that, you know, without an alliance with the evangelicals, the alt-right wouldn't be able to push back the left. So he's clearly looking to embrace this other Trump constituency that Trump himself also courted by playing to a theme that they have been concerned about for some years now, particularly, during the Obama era that their religious liberty is under threat by the Obama administration or by secularism. So it's clear that that's part of Bannon's agenda through this. And I think it was part of the reason why he chose Robertson to narrate this film.
GROSS: So when you spoke with Steve Bannon at the Republican convention over the summer, he wasn't yet part of the Trump campaign, right?
POSNER: That's right. He was still the head of Breitbart. It was about three or four weeks later that Trump tapped him to be the CEO of his campaign.
GROSS: So Steve Bannon recently brought on Julia Hahn, a Breitbart writer, to serve as one of his aides. What do you know about her?
POSNER: Julia Hahn reported on or wrote about immigration for Breitbart, and bringing on Breitbart staffers - just in and of itself regardless of who it is from Breitbart - indicates an ongoing blurring of the lines between the White House and Breitbart. Bringing in these young Breitbart staffers to be White House staffers is yet another clear indication that the White House is going to employ the Breitbart strategy under Bannon. And...
GROSS: What do you mean by the Breitbart strategy?
POSNER: So Breitbart is not really a news site in the sense that it covers news that is happening or news - there's some breaking news and it's newsworthy because it's breaking news. Everything has to fit into their worldview and their narrative about the left or about Muslims or about immigrants. So you know, by Bannon's own description to the reporter Joshua Green, you know, this is about creating a narrative more than it is about breaking news, right? So it's about feeding this ongoing narrative about who America's enemies are or who is threatening - you know, who's a threat to America or why Trump is good for America. And so bringing on former Breitbart staffers who have been trained in this kind of narrative-making, you know, by Bannon's own admission, like I said, indicates that the Trump White House is at least amenable to using that sort of strategy itself.
GROSS: In the Breitbart narrative, as you describe it, or in Steve Bannon's worldview, who are the allies and who are the enemies of the United States globally?
POSNER: Well, he pointed to me - and I think Breitbart has covered some of these far-right nationalist movements in Europe. So you know, he pointed to me, you know, these French nationalists or Polish nationalists movements.
GROSS: French nationalists like Marine Le Pen, would she fall in that category?
POSNER: Yes. Yeah, so these are...
GROSS: She's described as the leader of the far right in France.
POSNER: Right. So these far-right figures in Europe who are on the rise, you know, people like Viktor Orban in Germany or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Marine Le Pen in France or Golden Dawn in Greece - so these people and parties are admired by the alt-right. They're a template and an ally for the alt-right. And for Bannon, when he talked to me, he cited these nationalist movements in Europe as evidence of the nationalist movement in the United States not being a white nationalist movement. That it's really more about, you know, nationhood identity as opposed to race. So that was his defense against the charge that the alt-right is a white nationalist movement. So they see these far-right movements as, like I said, like a template or an ally. And these movements are also very anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Sarah Posner. She's a reporter for The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. She's been covering the alt-right and the Christian right and their relationship with Donald Trump and his administration. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Posner. She's a reporter for The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. She's been covering the alt-right and the Christian right and their relationship with Donald Trump, his campaign and now his administration.
You say that the question really is, in terms of Donald Trump's relationship with the Christian right, did he win them over or did he divide them? Why do you think that's the question?
POSNER: Well, he both - he both divided them and won them over. So over the course of the primary, there were deep divisions in the Christian right about whether to support Trump - deep divisions - mainly because Trump, you know, out of the box, is an unknown quantity to them from the standpoint that he's not an evangelical himself. He's not a conservative Catholic. He's not a conservative. He doesn't have a record opposing abortion. He doesn't have a record opposing LGBT rights. He doesn't have a record supporting their vision of religious liberty. So he's known as a philanderer. He's known as a casino mogul. You know, he's known as a reality TV star. These aren't things that typically draw the Christian right to a presidential candidate.
So yes, they were deeply divided over the course of the campaign. But in the end, when he won the primaries, I think that a lot of the leadership conceded that he had won over their base, despite the fact that many of them were not supporting him. And so, in many ways, he kind of forced the leadership of the religious right to capitulate to him because he had been more attractive to their base than they were.
So it was a very unprecedented dynamic between the Christian right leadership and a presidential candidate. Because normally what you see, the playbook goes something like this. The candidate goes to the Christian right. They tell their own faith story. They tell the story of how they came to be saved. They tell the story of their anti-abortion activism, or their anti-abortion legislation or policy that they supported if they were previously an elected official.
So, you know, that's kind of the standard playbook. They try to outdo each other to get the endorsements of leading religious right figures. And Trump really did not do that. He did get the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr. very early on. But I think that - I mean, by Falwell's own admission to me that, you know, it was really the base that led first, right? So the base wasn't listening to the leadership. The base was the one that was drawn to Trump.
GROSS: Donald Trump changed his position on abortion. He used to be pro-choice. And then was it in 2011 that he changed it and became anti-abortion?
POSNER: Yes. And he did this. And he publicized this through appearances on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which is the network that was started by Pat Robertson, who in a way was one of the big pioneers of bringing the Christian right into presidential politics, both through his own presidential run in 1988, in which he lost in the primary to George H. W. Bush, and through his leadership of the Christian Coalition. Now Robertson's network has become a place where Trump goes when he wants to speak to the evangelical community. And this started back in 2011 when he appeared on a show called "The Brody File," which is hosted by a newscaster named David Brody. And Brody has given Trump many, many opportunities to speak to his evangelical audience through his program. And this is something that Brody is proud of.
For a story that I did for Rolling Stone last year, I spoke at length with Brody about this. And, you know, he was very proud that the statement that Trump made on his program announcing his change of view on the abortion question was now being cited all over the place as evidence of what Trump's position on the abortion question was. And now you're seeing, you know, in one of Spicer's press conferences a CBN reporter got the second question. And so this is an indication that it's not just Breitbart that the White House is favoring. It is now also favoring outlets like the Christian Broadcasting Network that has given him a platform to have pretty easy questions thrown at him, easy open-ended questions to defend himself and his policies so that he can reach an evangelical audience with those statements.
GROSS: Let's talk about Vice President Mike Pence. What is he best known for in the world of politically-motivated evangelical Christians?
POSNER: He is very well-known and widely trusted for bringing, in their view, his Christian values into governance. Before he was governor of Indiana, he was a member of Congress representing a district in Indiana. And he was well-known to the Christian right leadership inside the Beltway for his stalwart defense of their issues, whether it was opposition to abortion, opposition to LGBT rights, religious liberty.
You know, I've covered Values Voters Summits since they started in 2006. And Pence is often a speaker there, often welcomed, very well-received, very trusted. He's definitely one of them in this community, something that Trump was not. So I think that Pence was clearly a pick in some ways to assuage any doubts that the Christian right might have had about Trump's commitment to standing firm on their issues.
GROSS: Do you have a sense how much power Mike Pence has within the Trump administration?
POSNER: Well, it would appear apart from Trump's statement that he intends to keep President Obama's executive order protecting their employment rights of LGBT federal workers, that apart from that Trump has pretty much done everything that the Christian right might hope for in the first several weeks of his administration. The global gag rule on abortion, signing that was a big deal to them. His Cabinet appointments have been for the most part very well-received among evangelicals and Christian right leaders from Betsy Devos to Scott Pruitt to Jeff Sessions, Ben Carson. You know, the picks are people who are more than satisfactory to the Christian right.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Posner. She's a reporter for the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. We'll talk about President Trump and prosperity preachers after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is journalist Sarah Posner who covers the intersection of religion and politics and is the author of a book about prosperity preachers called "God's Prophets." One of Trump's spiritual advisors is Paula White who is a prosperity preacher and televangelist. Tell us what she is known for in the world of televangelism.
POSNER: Well, Paula White is one of six televangelists who were investigated by the Senate Finance Committee under Senator Charles Grassley about 10 or so years ago. The Senate Committee opened an investigation into whether these televangelists were using their nonprofit status to enrich themselves. So in other words, were they using donations that were brought in, you know, with promises that whoever gave them money was going to be blessed by God in return, whether they were using those donations to buy themselves luxury homes or luxury cars or even private airplanes - or in White's case plastic surgery?
And this - pretty - this investigation pretty much got shelved, even though it was clearly an investigation into whether they were misusing their tax-exempt status for their own personal gain. The Christian right raised objections that the government was meddling into questions of theology because the prosperity theology is quite controversial, even among Christians. So, you know, the fact that Trump has embraced White, you know, she's his longtime, quote, unquote, "spiritual adviser," and she gave the invocation at his inauguration - to me, you know, is not just a sign that he doesn't have any interest in the transparency or accountability questions about the prosperity preachers, but it's also his just unabashed embrace of the idea that God wants you to be rich. And if you have enough faith, God will make you rich.
And Trump is kind of the apex of a Republican candidate who's most like a prosperity preacher, you know, the idea that perhaps, you know, somehow he's - his wealth is evidence of God's blessing or that his wealth is evidence of his strength. These are all ideas that are put out there by the prosperity gospel, and Trump is, to me - Trump is the most prosperity televangelist candidate and president we've ever seen.
GROSS: Because you've been following the alt-right and writing critically about it, have you been besieged by social media, you know, like social media trolling for members of the alt-right - or I don't know if you're Jewish or not - or if you are if you've gotten anti-Semitic tweets?
POSNER: I have a little bit, and I've been, you know, The Daily Stormer which is a neo-Nazi website has a section of its website called the Jewish Problem, and they've placed me there. But, you know, I'm a strong believer in what I do as a reporter, and I'm, you know - I don't believe in being intimidated.
But this is part of the ecosystem now, even, you know - even reporters who are not Jewish are subjected to it. There's an ongoing effort to discredit the media. That's why you hear words like lugenpresse, and you even heard people shout it at Trump rallies over the course of the campaign. It was a word used by the Nazis. It means lying press in German.
GROSS: Lying press?
POSNER: Yes. And it was used by the Nazis to describe the press and discredit the press. You've seen it now be used by the alt-right in the United States. It's used by these far-right groups in Europe as well.
GROSS: It's used by the president but in English, the lying press, the dishonest press.
POSNER: That's right. It's part of Trump's M.O. to discredit the media. It's meant to not only try to intimidate the media, but it's also meant to cause people to question their trust in the media, question what they're seeing with their own eyes and try to convince them that they should believe what Trump says and not what their eyes tell them.
GROSS: Sarah Posner, thank you so much for talking with us.
POSNER: Thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Sarah Posner is a reporter for The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Her articles are published in Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like our interview about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch or our interview with Dr. Haider Warraich about how life-extending medicine and technologies have also prolonged death, check out our website, and check out our podcasts.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say Viktor Orban is in Germany. Orban is actually prime minister of Hungary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.