Social conservatives and evangelical activists were unequivocally in President Donald Trump’s corner Friday at a major conservative gathering, offering a vibrant snapshot of the strong support the president still enjoys from the conservative grassroots a day after former FBI Director James Comey’s explosive testimony.
The unwavering support for Trump at a Faith and Freedom Coalition summit was a sharp contrast to the drama still unfolding in official Washington.
The political world continued to grapple with the fallout from Comey’s bombshell congressional appearance--and Trump’s charge that Comey lied under oath.
But at the Omni Shoreham Hotel a few miles from the White House, where evangelical and conservative activists gathered for the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority summit, there was no doubt about feelings toward Trump.
“We have never had a White House or an administration that has not only been more receptive to the issues we care about, but is willing to fight for them every single day, from the president on down,” said Ralph Reed, the coalition chairman, at a small lunch with reporters at the Omni Shoreham Hotel a few miles from the White House.
A day earlier, the conference had offered a refuge—and a stage for counter-programming—for the president himself. His address was warmly received even as Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about interactions with the president that ex-FBI chief found deeply inappropriate.
Friday, as the rest of the city parsed Trump’s early-morning Twitter swipes at Comey and the president called Comey’s characterizations of their conversations inaccurate,Road to Majority attendees generally dismissed the Comey’s remarks.
“I think Jim Comey is a loose cannon who’s gone off on his own agenda,” said Lynda Whitt Chapman, a lawyer from the Atlanta area who praised Trump’s presidency. “He needed to go a long time ago.”
Many said the broader probes into Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign were simply a distraction, largely motivated by partisanship—even though U.S. intelligence officials have been adamant that Moscow did in fact seek to meddle.
“They’re just mad Hillary Clinton lost,” said Michael Lee, a party activist from Austin, Texas, of the investigations that have consumed the White House. “The Democrats and their followers.”
Comey had been investigating possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia before Trump fired him, though he said that Trump personally was not under investigation.
On Thursday, Comey also said he felt compelled to speak out—and to bring to light memos of his conversations with the president—in part because Trump claimed publicly that Russia was on his mind when he fired him. The former FBI director said he wanted to see a special counsel appointed, and ultimately, that happened.
The full-throated evangelical support for Trump would have seemed unfathomable a year ago. This was a constituency that was sharply divided over whether to turn out for a thrice-married former Democrat with a relatively socially moderate history.
Trump’s promises to appoint a conservative, anti-abortion rights Supreme Court justice, along with his selection of Mike Pence as his running mate, helped contribute to support from a whopping 81 percent of evangelical voters in November, outpacing President George W. Bush, a born-again Christian himself, in 2004.
“It took a Manhattan billionaire male who for most of his life was pro-choice, to deliver the most impassioned defense of life I’ve ever heard,” said Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and now a counselor to the president, referring to Trump’s graphic description of a late-term abortion during the last presidential debate of the 2016 campaign.
Conway was enthusiastically received herself, earning several standing ovations as she addressed the crowd on Friday.
These days, despite the chaotic nature of this White House, there was strong evidence social conservatives remain strongly committed to Trump. Conference attendees and speakers glowingly noted his appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. They argued Trump is accomplishing much more than the media coverage suggests.
Outside the walls of the over-air conditioned Omni, though, the view was much different, even among some Republicans.
In a phone interview, former New Hampshire GOP Chair Jennifer Horn praised the Senate Intelligence Committee members for professionalism in the Comey hearing a day before, saying many stayed focused on the bigger picture of Russian involvement in the presidential election, and the threat that presents to the homeland.
She also expressed worries that too many Republicans are seeking to undermine Comey's character.
"It is concerning to me that there are many in our party who are taking this approach rather than seeking the truth," she said.
She called on Trump to welcome a full investigation.
"We can't worry about protecting individuals," she said. "We have to worry about protecting the country."
A Republican operative with deep ties to the establishment donor community said the Comey testimony underscored the extent to which Trump's problems are often self-inflicted.
"I thought it was pretty devastating, more than I had expected," said this source, who required anonymity to speak freely because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
"The most stunning thing was, Trump really brought it on himself. He couldn't leave well enough alone. He fired Comey with no investigation [into Trump] underway, he taunts Comey with a tweet which leads Comey to leak memos with the deliberate intent of spinning up a special counsel,” the source said.
“It's not clear there was any underlying crime. Just a ham-handed, idiotic, thuggish attempt, not even to cover up, but total reckless disregard for how to comport himself."
But here at this conservative gathering, the feeling was that on the big issues that most motivate the socially conservative base, Trump is delivering on his promises. The idea of Russian meddling feels distant in comparison.
“This issue is a million miles away,” said Andrew Castillo, a 21-year-old attendee from the Dallas area who largely supports the president,.
He just wishes he would stay on track with a clearer message. “I care about issues here in Texas,” he said, “Or in America.”