Donald Trump is many things, but a paragon of right-wing moral virtue is not one of them. That hasn’t stopped conservative evangelical leaders on the Religious Right from supporting him.
On Tuesday, Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins said in an interview with Politico’s Isaac Dovere that recent reports claiming Trump had an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels and paid her $130,000 to stay quiet about it were not a big deal if evidence proved the reports to be true.
“I would not say it’s not a problem, again, this election… evangelicals did not vote for Donald Trump based on his moral qualifications, but based upon what he said he was going to do, and who he surrounded himself with,” he said. Perkins noted that evangelical support “is not unconditional” and if Trump were to start misbehaving as he did in recent years, the support would disappear.
“We kind of gave him — ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,'” Perkins said.
The Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group because of how it denigrates the LGBTQ community, is very critical of pornography, and marital infidelity (Trump’s alleged affair happened four months after his wife Melania gave birth to their son). But a search of its website does not yield any statements on marital infidelity with a porn star.
“The president is not the pastor-in-chief,” Perkins said. “I do believe he needs to be a moral leader.”
He added that “with the exception of the way the president’s gotten into some things and handled some things and gotten into these spats…the president is providing the leadership we need at this time…. The president has not done anything, believe me, if the president had done anything immoral, the media would be all over it.”
Perkins’ comments are in direct contradiction with his own past statements. In 2011, the same year Stormy Daniels gave her only recently-disclosed interview about her 2006 affair with Trump, Perkins tweeted that “lionizing porn stars & normalizing pornography” will cause tragedy for children.
Do we really believe lionizing porn stars & normalizing pornography won't tragically impact how they these children view women/sexuality?
— Tony Perkins (@tperkins) November 15, 2011
Two years earlier, in 2009, Perkins lamented public figures whose private morality did not live up to their public policy positions. “If you’re going to champion those issues you’ve got to live by a higher standard,” he said in an interview on MSNBC. “I think all public servants to be faithful to their vows of marriage. I can’t imagine why voters would think politicians would be faithful to them if they’re not faithful to their spouse.”
Trump doesn’t fit the definition of “faithful” public servant that Perkins once espoused. But the evangelical leader seemed not to care about any of that once Trump locked up the GOP nomination.
Perkins did get what he wanted, in a sense: a Religious Right-friendly vice president, a conservative GOP platform, and a promise from the White House to appoint conservative judges once in office. The Trump administration has also undertaken a series of extreme actions that conform to the Religious Right’s agenda: banning transgender people from the military; establishing a “religious freedom” executive order; penning a “religious freedom” Justice Department memo which provides a license to discriminate against same-sex couples; and signing a global gag rule that bans funding to foreign groups that provide abortions, among other things.
“Why should I not support [Trump] now, when he’s actually doing the things I asked him to do?” Perkins said in the Politico interview, after being asked if his acceptance of Trump was hypocritical.
Perkins has been happy to reciprocate for the many right-wing gifts Trump’s administration has given him over the past year. According to The New York Times, Perkins said in August 2017 that he had been to the White House many more times in Trump’s first year than he had during President George W. Bush’s first year.
He’s also been happy to act as Trump’s scapegoat, on occasion. One of their earliest public interactions occurred after Trump misstated a verse from the Bible during a speech at Liberty University in January 2016. Trump cited “two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” The audience laughed, and afterwards, Trump blamed Perkins for the gaffe.
“Tony Perkins wrote that out for me — he actually wrote out ‘2,’ he wrote out the number 2 Corinthians,” Trump said, according to CNN. “I took exactly what Tony said, and I said, ‘Well Tony has to know better than anybody.'”
Perkins, in a sign of things to come, took the blame, telling CNN, “I’m guilty as charged. That’s exactly what I did.”
Perkins has similarly defended Trump during his worst moments. Following the release of the now-famous Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump could be heard bragging about being able to get away with sexual assault, Perkins said he still backed the business mogul for president.
“As I have made clear, my support for Donald Trump in the general election was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns,” he told the Washington Post in an email. He compared Trump with his opponent, saying that “we are left with a choice of voting for the one who will do the least damage to our freedoms.”
The pair’s one minor disagreement came in July 2017, after Perkins decided to sign a letter to Trump from the Conservative Action Project, in support of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. At the time, Trump was fulminating about Sessions on Twitter, blaming the attorney general for having a “weak” position on Hillary Clinton’s private email server. However, the letter was otherwise supportive of everything Trump had done and said as president, and targeted “the distinctly partisan investigation into his family.” In the end, Trump reportedly chose not fire Sessions.
Despite his forgiving nature with Trump, Perkins has not applied the same standard to other high-profile individuals. In the same Politico interview where Perkins gave Trump a “mulligan” on the Stormy Daniels affair, he attacked Hillary and Bill Clinton for unnamed moral transgressions.
“…Hillary Clinton herself…does not have a pristine background, you know, with some of the stuff with her and Bill,” he said.
In 2011, Perkins also tweeted outrage about Anthony Weiner’s numerous sexting scandals, simultaneously blasting Planned Parenthood and finding a way to buff up his own anti-abortion image.
“When asked why she engaged in relationship w/Rep Weiner, “porn star” responded, ‘His advocacy of Planned Parenthood,'” Perkins wrote. “Wow. #prolife.”
When asked why she engaged in relationship w/Rep Weiner, "porn star" responded, "His advocacy of Planned Parenthood." Wow. #prolife
— Tony Perkins (@tperkins) June 16, 2011
A few other lucky conservatives have managed to win Perkins’ support over the years, despite their own moral shortcomings.
When Perkins and other right-wing figures were concerned about Mitt Romney winning the Republican nomination in 2012, Perkins said that Newt Gingrich’s past marital infidelity, which had been drudged up during the primary, should not prevent him from receiving evangelical support.
“The evangelicals, the social conservatives…they understand forgiveness,” he said during an interview on MSNBC. “Newt Gingrich’s past or any candidate’s past is their past.”
In 2009, Perkins bypassed any outrage he might have had over former Sen. David Vitter’s (R-LA) confession that he had solicited prostitutes, co-hosting a local town hall with Vitter instead, and had him on his radio show to talk about former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ apparent ethical problems.
Perkins also helped to cover up sexual assault committed by an anti-gay politician he supported. Three years ago, a rising evangelical star in Ohio, state legislature candidate Wesley Goodman, fondled an 18-year-old boy in a hotel after an event raising money for his campaign. The event was organized by Perkins, who is also the president of the Council for National Policy. Perkins expressed disapproval when the boy’s stepfather, who was a member of the council, confronted Perkins about it, but the incident did not come to light until late last year. Goodman had defeated two other candidates in the primary and won the general election, and all the while, even though Perkins asked Goodman to leave the race, he said nothing in public about the incident.