Pat Robertson has been a Cold War Don Quixote for years. He’s been tilting at Russian windmills from atop his nightly perch at the 700 Club for the better part of three decades, as I spent years watching his show with my grandmother and great-grandmother. In between reports on zany plots to drop Bibles on North Korea with balloons, warnings about “AIDS handshake rings,” and a healthy weekly dose of end-times fear-mongering, Robertson has used Russia as a frequent foil, often casting it as an apocalyptic beast intent on destroying Israel and triggering Biblical prophecies held in the Book of Revelation. In my experience watching, Russia was as likely to be the menace of any given night as were Robertson’s liberal opponents.
So what a shock it must have been for fans of Robertson, the 700 Club, and his Christian Broadcasting Network to see the evangelical titan repeatedly softball President Trump on Russia during an interview that aired Thursday night.
In the wake of Donald Trump Jr.’s ensnarement in a potential conspiracy between the Trump administration and Russian operatives, an interview with Robertson seemed like an odd choice for the elder Trump. Although Robertson and his evangelical followers have been firm allies of Trump for some time—and Robertson even defended Trump during a previous scandal by saying that boasts about groping women were an attempt to “look macho”—Russia is still Russia. In the eyes of cold warriors like Robertson, any weakness against the old foe, any waning of vigilance, will result in American cities being incinerated.
Robertson certainly indicated that he would take things in that direction. His first question on American relations with Russia focused on last week’s G-20 summit and asked Trump point blank if the country can trust Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertions—likely referring to his denial of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Trump took a conciliatory stance, saying “I think we get along very well and I think that's a good thing, that's not a bad thing.” He pointed to a ceasefire in the Syrian War—a conflict that Robertson’s network has suggested will lead to Russian domination of Israel—as proof of the benefits of a working relationship.
Robertson’s second line of Russia inquiry forced Trump to do a bit more chest-thumping against Russia. The mega-preacher focused on the dire prospect of mutual-assured destruction in future conflicts, warning Trump that “it’s still there because [Putin] can decimate our country and we can do the same thing to him.” Trump’s response tried to toe the line between an evangelical-pleasing aggression and his consistent disavowals of all evidence of a Russian conspiracy. Trump claimed that Russian election hacking on his behalf made no sense because Russia would have preferred Clinton in office, “because from day one I wanted a strong military. [Putin] doesn't want to see that.” Trump also touted his vision of American energy independence as a direct challenge to Putin.
Still, Robertson didn’t press Trump on the Russia investigation. What a previous version of Pat Robertson would have thought about an American president maintaining such a willful ignorance of mounting evidence of a large-scale Russian conspiracy to influence an election—one that appears to have at least have been entertained within Trump Tower—is of course unknown. But Robertson didn’t push Trump at all. There were no questions about evil Russian plots, and relatively few references to nuclear war. He accepted the president’s answers without any serious challenge.
That was the utility for the Trump administration of a sit-down interview with an 87-year-old biblical conspiracy theorist for a network that features Pat Boone advertisements encouraging people to buy gold: If Pat Robertson says Russia isn’t a problem, then it won’t be for thousands of his evangelical followers. A good portion of Trump’s base—and perhaps even some religious folks outside the base who keep up with the 700 Club—might be persuaded that Russia is a non-issue by Robertson’s acceptance. And not only did Robertson accept Trump’s answers, he gave them his blessing as only a televangelist minister could, telling the president that “I want you to know there are thousands of people praying for you and holding you up all the time.”
Fealty from leaders like Robertson demonstrates the fundamental unity of the Republican Party, one that seems unshakeable even when real differences on doctrine and faith are revealed. There’s perhaps no greater symbol of how far the the party has stretched to accommodate its Trumpian wing than the acceptance of that wing among anti-Russia evangelicals. Several stalwarts have abandoned their closely-held principles to embrace a president who seems to have few closely-held principles at all. Now, include among that number the most dogged and delirious old Cold Warrior.