At a series of meetings to court evangelical leaders in New York City on Tuesday, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump took issue with Hillary Clinton’s religious beliefs, suggesting that she gets a pass on her faith.
In a closed-door meeting, Trump asserted that people don’t know “anything about Hillary in terms of religion,” according to a video posted on Twitter by Bishop E.W. Jackson, a Virginia pastor who attended the events in New York City.
“She’s been in the public eye for years and years and yet there’s no – there’s nothing out there. There’s like nothing out there,” Trump continued at a gathering with about 50 evangelicals at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
In a phone conversation after his tweet, Jackson told NBC News that Trump's remarks were a reference to a double standard placed on Republican candidates, whose religious beliefs are always deeply examined, compared to Democrats. "Hillary Clinton hasn’t been examined about what she believes and what kind of religious practice she believes in," Jackson said describing Trump's remarks.
Clinton is a practicing Methodist and has spoken and written about the meaning of faith in her life repeatedly.
"It is very important to me," Clinton said recently. "I am a person of faith, I am a Christian, I am a Methodist, I have been raised Methodist, I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received starting in my family but through my church, and I think that any of us who are Christian have a constantly, a constant conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how best to do it."
Trump has previously questioned other opponents' faith. After the Orlando massacre, he suggested Obama is a Muslim. "Well, there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn't want to get it," Trump said on NBC's Today Show.
Trump’s focus on Clinton’s religion comes as he is working to salvage a strained relationship with evangelicals, an influential voting bloc in Republican electoral politics.
Trump announced an "evangelical advisory board" Tuesday with over two dozen faith leaders, including early backer Jerry Falwell and prominent social conservative activists like former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
He also spent the morning in three separate meetings with evangelical leaders and activists from around the country, many of them skeptical of the nominee. While he softened hearts, reservations exist.
At a news conference following the conference, seven faith leaders were asked if any would endorse Trump today. None raised their hands.
Tony Perkins, who has millions of followers, said, "Where will this lead? I’m not quite sure. But a conversation happened today that will continue over the next 130 days (until Election Day)."
“I don’t know why I’m here,” said Chris Osborne, a Southern Baptist pastor from College Station, Texas before the meeting. He said he’s not sure if Trump understands evangelicals and the issues important to them, which he defined as following “Jesus and scripture.”
Afterwards, Osborne wasn’t sold. He said the meeting, which was closed to the press, didn’t provide much that was new.
“He didn’t answer a lot of the questions directly,” Osborne said, adding that “it wasn’t much different from his stump speeches.” But Osborne described the election choices like this: “Hold your nose and pull the lever.”
Christian leader, Michael Farris didn't attend the meeting. He wrote in the Christian Post Tuesday lamenting the decision of those deciding to meet with Trump. He said today's events mark "the end of the Christian Right."
"The premise of the (first Moral Majority meeting) in 1980 was that only candidates that reflected a biblical worldview and good character would gain our support," Farris wrote. "Today, a candidate whose worldview is greed and whose god is his appetites (Philippians 3) is being tacitly endorsed by this throng."
At the largest meeting, with up to 1,000 evangelical leaders and activists, around ten questions were asked, according to multiple sources in the room. James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family, asked the first question about religious liberty. And many of the subsequent questions revolved around that issue.
Trump has made it difficult for some evangelicals to get on board during his campaign. He has said he Planned Parenthood provides beneficial services, he previously supported abortion rights, he opposed the North Carolina bathroom law - before he supported it, and he has said he doesn't ask God for forgiveness.
As problems plague Trump’s campaign, including dismal fundraising numbers, staffing and operational deficits, tense relationship with Republican leaders and low polling numbers, Trump could use the evangelical community’s help.
Evangelicals are a large voting bloc as they vote overwhelmingly Republican, with 56 percent identifying themselves as part of the party according to Pew Research. And nearly half of Republican primary voters - 48 percent - identify as evangelical.
While many evangelicals would not consider voting for Clinton, the danger with the evangelical voter is that they will stay home on Election Day.
Trump did sway the opinions of some in attendance Tuesday. Jackson previously said he was supporting Trump reluctantly just because he wasn’t Clinton. But after Tuesday’s meeting, he said, “I walk away feeling a lot better about my support about Donald trump after today’s meeting.”
But the question remains if these leaders, many of whom have influence over hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, will help Trump get out the vote, raise money and spread Trump’s word.
Penny Nance, who is executive director of Concerned Women of America and has also been critical of Trump, said that while Trump was strong on his understanding of the importance of the Supreme Court to conservatives, she’s not sure about her level of involvement. She said Trump broke no new ground except that Trump said he plans to release four or five additional Supreme Court justice options soon.
"The question for me today is whether I feel comfortable exhorting other people to follow my lead to also support him,” Nance said.
Trump held three separate meetings with evangelicals. The first started with a small group just before 8:00 a.m. at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Included in that group was one critic of the nominee, Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council, the largest Hispanic Evangelical coalition in the country.
Rodriguez told NBC News recently that he would not support Trump and that he is “perplexed” at why Trump keeps speaking disparagingly about Mexicans. Trump repeatedly attacked a federal judge for his “Mexican heritage,” saying he couldn’t give Trump a fair trial on his Trump University case because Trump wants to build a wall on the border of Mexico.
After Tuesday’s meetings, Rodriguez appeared to be more open to the idea of a Trump presidency.
“I am pleased with he fact we are having a conversation on the Hispanic American electorate,” Rodriguez said. “And the fact that Donald trump is listening speaks accolades.”
Trump also held a second meeting with another group of evangelicals at the Marriot Marquis. Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State, and adviser to Our Principles PAC, the super PAC working to defeat Trump in the primaries, was in the second meeting. Trump came to the meetings in Manhattan Tuesday to have a “conversation” with Trump.
Blackwell said he’s support Trump over presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but noted that his support doesn’t mean that he will “work to elect” him.
“He still has some work to do,” Blackwell said. “Those of us who are still slow walking our support but understand in politics you’re provided with choices and some choices are better than others.”