Politicking from the pulpit
President Donald Trump vowed at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast to “totally destroy” a provision that bars religious groups and charitable organizations that receive tax-exempt status from engaging in politics.
“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,” he said. “I will do that. Remember.”
A repeal of the Johnson Amendment — under which churches and other organizations risk losing their tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose political candidates — would be in line with Trump’s campaign pledge to uphold religious liberties, reports Newsday’s Emily Ngo.
The 1954 tax-code change, a bill sponsored by then-Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and approved by a GOP-controlled Congress, sought to separate church and state.
Religious conservatives have argued it violates First Amendment rights, while other civic organizations say eliminating the rule would amount to taxpayers footing the bill for political activities.
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, based in Washington D.C., noted that the IRS rule applies to charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, as well as houses of worship. “If these groups could engage in partisan politics, the government would be subsidizing partisan politicking with citizens’ tax dollars,” Moline said.
I say a little prayer for you ...
Trump took aim at “The Terminator” at the National Prayer Breakfast — using the occasion to ask for divine intervention on behalf of Arnold Schwarzenegger, his replacement on NBC’s “The Apprentice.”
“They hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place, and we know how that turned out,” the president said. “The ratings went right down the tubes. It’s been a total disaster. ... I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings.”
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger, a former Republican governor of California, responded by saying: “Arnold is praying that President Trump can start improving his own approval ratings, which were the worst in history by an incoming president, by taking his job seriously and working inclusively.”
Schwarzenegger also shot back with a video on Twitter, suggesting that he and Trump swap jobs, reports Newsday’s Emily Ngo. “You take over TV, because you’re such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job, and then people can finally sleep comfortably again,” he said.
Trump has a message for those concerned by his recent brash phone exchanges with world leaders — “Just don’t worry about it.”
Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump responded to the uproar over reports he berated Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto during separate phone conversations with those key U.S. allies.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it,” Trump said, adding, “The world is in trouble, but we’re gonna straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do, I fix things.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sought to smooth over relations with Australia when reports surfaced that Trump cut short his conversation with Turnbull after arguing over a refugee resettlement agreement the U.S. and Australia had agreed to before Trump took office.
“I called Australia’s ambassador to the United States this morning to express my unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance,” McCain said in a statement.
McCain added that he asked Joe Hockey, the Australian ambassador to the U.S., to “convey to the people of Australia” that Americans value their longstanding alliance.
Iran ‘ON NOTICE’
The White House is considering imposing additional sanctions on Iran in response to the nation’s recent missile test, reports CNN.
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of 22 senators wrote Trump a letter calling on the administration to impose additional sanctions on Iran in response to the missile test.
“Iranian leaders must feel sufficient pressure to cease deeply destabilizing activities, from sponsoring terrorist groups to continued testing of ballistic missiles,” wrote the senators, including 10 Democrats.
The letter follows warnings from the Trump administration to Iran that it was “on notice” after the missile tests.
Trump issued an all-caps warning via Twitter to Iran, advising that nation’s leaders they have “been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.”
In a follow-up tweet, Trump said, “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a lifeline in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion.”
White House weighs in on Israel
The Trump administration on Thursday said Israel should reconsider the construction of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, saying that doing so “may not be helpful” in achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement issued Thursday evening.
The statement marks a shift in tone from Trump’s “previous lock-step support for the polices of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” notes Politico.
The White House statement adds: “As the President has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu, when he visits with President Trump later this month.”
The take-away: All eyes on DeVos
It now becomes a serious question whether the Senate will confirm Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary, or make her an exception to the rule.
The rule is that a Republican-run Senate will approve, if not rubber-stamp, the nominees of a Republican White House.
The exception would be voting DeVos down, or forcing her to withdraw — which would mark a unique rebuke for Trump.
During a rare early-Friday session, the Senate cleared the way for what would be a razor-close vote early next week on her confirmation, by changing relevant procedural rules. This has not removed the suspense of the actual vote.
Read Dan Janison’s Newsday column here.
Taking Trump to court ... again
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is looking to join the ACLU’s federal lawsuit against Trump’s executive order restricting travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Schneiderman filed a motion in federal court to join the lawsuit, which seeks to permanently block Trump from enforcing the order, reports Newsday’s Michael Gormley.
The Democratic AG is no stranger to legal battles with Trump — he filed a federal lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of New York students who alleged they were defrauded by Trump’s for-profit school, Trump University; a settlement was reached after the election. In October, he ordered Trump’s charitable foundation to stop soliciting donations in the state after it repeatedly failed to file mandatory reports to the AG’s office.
In legal motions filed Thursday, Schneiderman said Trump’s restrictions would create “profound” harm for New York by restricting or banning immigrants who contribute to the state’s economy. He argued in court papers that Trump’s immigration ban would hurt New York, particularly in the high-technology, medical and financial sectors.
“We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight this discriminatory ban and protect all those caught in the crossfire of its chaotic implementation,” Schneiderman said in a statement.
Also Thursday, a Brooklyn federal judge extended a restraining order issued Saturday that prohibits the removal of foreign travelers with visas and green cards from the seven majority-Muslim countries that Trump outlined in his travel restriction order.
The restraining order was set to expire on Feb. 11, but U.S. District Judge Carol B. Amon said she extended it until Feb. 21 to give both sides more time to address the merits of the case, reports Newsday’s John Riley.
Dodd-Frank walks the plank
With another executive order, Trump on Friday is expected to set a framework for Dodd Frank Law restrictions imposed after the last financial crisis to be lifted.
Today's Twitter tiffs
Trump put out a slap-dash series of messages early Friday on Australia, Iran, and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- some defensive, others hostile.
What else is happening
- Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, will go before the full Senate for a confirmation vote. Democrats had attempted to delay the confirmation by boycotting his committee-level confirmation, but Republicans suspended the committee’s rules to circumvent the boycott.
- Kellyanne Conway, the Trump surrogate, referred on TV to a "Bowling Green massacre" in Kentucky that never occurred.
- Yemeni-American bodega owners came forward at Brooklyn Borough Hall to rally against the travel ban, which reportedly has disrupted some small businesses.
- Ivanka Trump's fashion brand was a dud, so Nordstrom's is cancelling it.But that may be small potatoes, since the presumably "populist" First Daughter gathered top banking retail and finance moguls at her house for a dinner party.
- Vice President Mike Pence’s keynote speech at last week’s March for Life demonstration, which drew thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators to Washington, created a shortfall for the group because of added security costs, reports Newsday’s Michael Gormley.
- Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has dropped out of Trump’s business advisory council. The move comes after users of the ride-hailing app boycotted the service, citing Kalanick’s ties to the Trump administration.
- A Gallup Poll shows 47 percent of Americans think Trump is moving too fast on his executive orders. In comparison, 22 percent felt the same way about Obama at the start of his administration.
- Pence may be the tiebreaking vote when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ nomination comes up for a full Senate vote, reports Politico.