President Donald Trump this week has kept up the fast pace that has characterized his schedule since he took office two weeks ago, the Associated Press reports. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, the president discussed options to increase religious freedom in the U.S. and defended last week’s controversial immigration ban. Additionally, Trump’s cabinet is starting to take shape as the Senate continues to hold confirmation hearings this week on each of his appointments. The president also declared February National African American History Month on Thursday, honoring a tradition recognized by presidents from Ford through Obama.
Trump talks religious freedom
Declaring that religious freedom is “under threat,” Trump vowed Thursday to repeal a rarely enforced IRS rule that says pastors who endorse candidates from the pulpit risk losing their tax-exempt status.
“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,” Trump said during remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile event bringing together faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries.
The provision, named after then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, has been in place since 1954, but it is very rare for a church to be penalized. Trump did not detail how he might scrap the IRS rule, which he has previously pledged to do away with.
Trump also defended his recent executive order on immigration at the event, decrying what he called “generous” immigration policies and arguing that there are people who seek to enter the country “for the purpose of spreading violence or oppressing other people based upon their faith.”
For many religious conservatives, whose overwhelming support helped propel Trump to the White House, a more pressing issue they hope he will address is protection for faith-based charities, schools and ministries who object to same-sex marriage and abortion.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration said in a statement that the president ”continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election.” The administration also announced that it would leave intact a 2014 executive order that protects workers for federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
Still, LGBTQ groups worry the president could use his executive powers to curb legal advances they have made.
“We think it is entirely possible there could be an executive order that creates religious exemptions,” said James Esseks, LGBT project director for the American Civil Liberties Union. He added that the “narrative” that Trump won’t harm the LGBTQ community was “not correct.”
Trump’s cabinet appointment progress
Republicans suspended Senate committee rules Thursday to muscle through Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, confirming Scott Pruitt despite the fact that Democrats boycotted a meeting.
As the meeting to discuss Pruitt was gaveled to order, the seats reserved for the 10 Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee were empty for the second consecutive day. Committee rules require that at least two members of the minority party be present for a vote to be held.
The 11 Republicans voted unanimously to temporarily suspend those rules and then voted again to advance the nomination of Pruitt, the state attorney general of Oklahoma.
Committee chairman John Barrasso accused the absent Democrats of engaging in delay and obstruction.
“The people spoke and now it is time to set up a functioning government,” Barrasso said of the November election. “That includes a functioning EPA.”
While Pruitt’s nomination to lead EPA has been praised by Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, Democrats and environmental groups said his confirmation would be a disaster.
Democrats did attend meetings of the Senate budget and homeland security committees Thursday as Republicans approved Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s nominee to lead the White House Budget Office, for a vote by the full Senate. The move came over the opposition of Democrats who warn of his support for cutting rising costs of Medicare and increasing the age for claiming Social Security benefits.
Physician David Shulkin headed toward likely confirmation to head the Department of Veterans Affairs after offering repeated assurances to sometimes skeptical senators that he will work quickly to meet the medical care needs of millions of veterans without dismantling the beleaguered department.
Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary appeared to be on thin ice after two Republican senators vowed to vote against her. The billionaire Republican donor who has spent more than two decades promoting charter schools has been one of Trump’s most controversial picks.
If all other GOP senators support DeVos, and all Democrats oppose her, she would end up with a 50-50 vote in the Senate and Vice President Mike Pence would have to break the tie to confirm her. A vote is expected in the coming days.
Trump to recognize Black History Month
Like his predecessors, Trump plans to commemorate Black History Month with an official proclamation, a gala and receptions at the White House to celebrate the contributions of the United States’ black citizens.
Trump issued a proclamation Thursday declaring February as National African American History Month. The proclamation names Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and one of three black women whose roles in the space race were featured in the recent film “Hidden Figures.”
“I’m proud to honor this heritage and will be honoring it more and more,” Trump said Tuesday, surrounded by African American supporters and government officials who were invited to the White House for a listening session.
Black History Month is considered one of the nation’s oldest organized history celebrations, and has been recognized by U.S. presidents for decades through proclamations and celebrations.