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Trump’s prayer event began with an inaccurate 2016 election map and ended with a rage-tweet

The White House spectacle exposed the toll impeachment is taking on the president.

President Trump Announces Guidance On Constitutional Prayer In Public Schools
Trump speaks during the White House prayer event on Thursday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

An event at the White House Thursday meant to promote prayer in public schools indicated that President Donald Trump is struggling to deal with the strain of his impeachment trial.

As Chief Justice John Roberts was being sworn in to oversee that affair, Trump was a few miles away, surrounded by a group of students and teachers who were there to praise him for waging war on secularism in schools. In front of him on the Resolute desk was a map that appeared to divide the country into a red/blue map based on the 2016 election results.

Trump during the prayer event. Screencap via C-SPAN

Trump, however, did nothing with the map. It just sat there in front of him, unmentioned, for the entire half-hour event. And while the map appeared to be very red — an emotionally reassuring symbol of his popularity — Twitter sleuths quickly determined it wasn’t entirely accurate. Some counties that went for Hillary Clinton were colored red.

As it turned out, exaggerating about his popularity was far from the only lie Trump pushed during a prayer event that also exposed the hollowness of his efforts to shore up his evangelical base.

Trump told a pack of lies and then lost it on Twitter

The purpose of the event was ostensibly to promote new federal guidance for prayer in public schools. It began with Trump lamenting the supposed inability of students to pray on football fields, and criticized the “growing totalitarian impulse on the far left” that he claims wants to “prohibit religious expression.”

Though those comments suggest otherwise, the actual text of the guidance is fairly boilerplate and explicitly says “Teachers and other public school officials ... may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities, nor may school officials use their authority to attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.” A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union characterized it as “nearly identical to the existing guidance issued in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush.”

Trump, however, reassured students who told brief stories about having expressions of their religion suppressed in schools that he wouldn’t stand for it. That sort of pandering stuff is pretty par for the course for Trump, who as president has tried to ban people from Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States while leaning into his support from Christians. Also typical for Trump was a quip he made a few minutes later about shredding the Constitution and serving more than two terms in office.

“So while I’m president — which will be hopefully for five years, and I dunno, maybe we’ll work with the media on a major extension of that — but we will not let anyone push God from the public square,” he said, while the students and teachers behind him chuckled.

After a number of testimonials from students and others, Trump took questions from reporters. The only one he took on a topic related to religion exposed how transactional his thinking is, even when it comes to matters of faith.

Asked why Catholics should vote for him later this year, Trump said, “I have a great relationship with Catholics. I’ve done so much for Catholics. You take a look at the abortion issue.” He made no mention of his own views or why he thinks faith is important in the first place — he just pointed to one position he has that the Catholic Church agrees with him on.

But perhaps the most memorable thing about the event was the string of dubious claims Trump pushed as reporters asked him about impeachment. Asked about Lev Parnas, a former fixer for Rudy Giuliani who has deeply implicated him in the efforts to pervert Ukrainian diplomacy that resulted in his impeachment, Trump claimed 13 times over his two-minute response that he doesn’t know Parnas.

“I don’t know him. I don’t know Parnas other than I guess I had pictures taken” with him, Trump said. “I don’t know him at all.”

Parnas’s credibility is questionable — he’s under indictment for campaign finance crimes — but at the very least, the two men seem to have known each other in passing.

Moments after the event ended, Parnas’s attorney posted a video that appears to show Parnas and Trump partying together in December 2016 — which makes Trump’s claims to know nothing about the man hard to buy.

Trump’s eyebrow-raising comments about Parnas reflected a broader lack of truthfulness about the facts surrounding the Ukraine scheme — one that included telling a series of easily fact-checkable lies about the timeline of the impeachment process.

He claimed a whistleblower who first sounded the alarm about his Ukraine dealings “wrote a report that bore no relationship to what was said” during his infamous July 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, even though the White House corroborated key aspects of it. He accused House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff of lying about his call with Zelensky, only to be set straight once the White House released a summary of the conversation, but in fact he had it backward — the paraphrasing Trump is mad about happened during a hearing held about the call summary’s release.

As soon as Trump wrapped up his lengthy and factually incorrect harangue about impeachment, one of his handlers started screaming at reporters to exit the event. Moments later, Trump posted an all-caps rage-tweet that simultaneously mischaracterized his phone call with Zelensky and didn’t reflect a prayerful attitude.

Even though he never mentioned it, the map on Trump’s desk during the event alludes to his real defense of his conduct — to the winner go the spoils, and he won big in 2016 (never mind that land doesn’t vote, and that more voters supported Hillary Clinton).

It’s telling, however, that even when the truth will suffice, Trump seemingly can’t help but lie. And this lie, like many others Trump tells, is impervious to correction.

The inaccurate election map “has been a talisman [for Trump] since soon after [then-Attorney General Jeff] Sessions recused from the Russia probe,” New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted after the event. “He started handing them out to people shortly before [special counsel Robert] Mueller was named; aides got the first large one to frame the day after [FBI Director James] Comey was fired.”

Sessions recused from the Russia probe nearly three years ago. Yet in all that time, nobody around Trump has bothered to get him a map that doesn’t exaggerate his popularity in a way that erases the plurality of people who didn’t support him.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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