In August, President Donald Trump implored a group of evangelical leaders to use their pulpits to endorse political candidates during a closed-door meeting at the White House, repeating his false claim that he has done away with a law prohibiting churches and charitable organizations from doing so.
Though members of the press had left the room ahead of Trump’s comments, NBC News obtained recorded portions of his remarks.
The law Trump referenced — generally referred to as the Johnson Amendment — is still very much on the books.
> But Trump cited this alleged accomplishment as one in a series of gains he has made for his conservative Christian supporters, as he warned, "You're one election away from losing everything that you've got," and said their opponents were "violent people" who would overturn these gains "violently."
The president said all of the gains he has provided the evangelical Christian community will disappear if Democrats retake control of Congress:
> "The level of hatred, the level of anger is unbelievable," he said. "Part of it is because of some of the things I've done for you and for me and for my family, but I've done them. … This Nov. 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it's a referendum on your religion, it's a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment."
> If the GOP loses, he said, "they will overturn everything that we've done and they'll do it quickly and violently, and violently. There's violence. When you look at Antifa and you look at some of these groups — these are violent people."
> "Now one of the things I'm most proud of is getting rid of the Johnson Amendment," the president said. "That was a disaster for you."
Trump has claimed to have repealed the Johnson Amendment on more than one occasion, but as president, he does not have the power to repeal laws — that is the job of Congress.
The Supreme Court could also render a law unconstitutional, but as NBC notes, this has not occurred regarding the Johnson Amendment.
What does the law prohibit?
> The law says churches and charities "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."
During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised evangelical leaders he would abolish the law if elected, but efforts to accomplish this have failed.
When the president says he did away with it, he is most likely referencing an executive order he signed early in his tenure that essentially is all bark and no bite:
> In May 2017, Trump signed an executive order that purported to ease enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. But experts — and the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes repeal of the provision — say the Trump order was basically toothless.
> "It does almost nothing," Gregory Magarian, a constitutional law professor at Washington University Law School.
Nevertheless, Trump told those in attendance that they are no longer beholden to the Johnson Amendment and encouraged them to go out and make use of their newfound freedom.
> "Now you're not silenced anymore. It's gone and there's no penalty anymore and if you like somebody or if you don't like somebody you can go out and say, 'This man is going to be great for evangelicals, or for Christianity or for another religion. This person is somebody that I like and I'm going to talk about it on Sunday."
Oddly enough, the law is rarely enforced to begin with, and it does not prohibit individual speech, according to NBC.
In fact, over 2,000 predominantly evangelical Christian pastors have intentionally violated the law as a form of protest against it since 2008, but none have been punished and only one faced an audit by the IRS.
Trump turned to another falsehood — though generally a crowd pleaser — during his remarks: the rebirth of the phrase “Merry Christmas”.
> "Little thing — Merry Christmas. You couldn't say Merry Christmas," Trump said. "I'm telling you — when I started running I used to talk about it and I hate to mention it in August, but I used to talk about it. They don't say Merry Christmas anymore."