One day in 2015, Donald Trump beckoned Michael Cohen, his longtime confidant and personal attorney, into his office. Trump was brandishing a printout of an article about an Atlanta-based megachurch pastor trying to raise $60 million from his flock to buy a private jet. Trump knew the preacher personally—Creflo Dollar had been among a group of evangelical figures who visited him in 2011 while he was first exploring a presidential bid. During the meeting, Trump had reverently bowed his head in prayer while the pastors laid hands on him. Now he was gleefully reciting the impious details of Dollar’s quest for a Gulfstream G650.
Trump seemed delighted by the “scam,” Cohen recalled to me, and eager to highlight that the pastor was “full of shit.”
“They’re all hustlers,” Trump said.
The president’s alliance with religious conservatives has long been premised on the contention that he takes them seriously, while Democrats hold them in disdain. In speeches and interviews, Trump routinely lavishes praise on conservative Christians, casting himself as their champion. “My administration will never stop fighting for Americans of faith,” he declared at a rally for evangelicals earlier this year. It’s a message his campaign will seek to amplify in the coming weeks as Republicans work to confirm Amy Coney Barrett—a devout, conservative Catholic—to the Supreme Court.
But in private, many of Trump’s comments about religion are marked by cynicism and contempt, according to people who have worked for him. Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.
Reached for comment, a White House spokesman said that “people of faith know that President Trump is a champion for religious liberty and the sanctity of life, and he has taken strong actions to support them and protect their freedom to worship. The president is also well known for joking and his terrific sense of humor, which he shares with people of all faiths.”
From the outset of his brief political career, Trump has viewed right-wing evangelical leaders as a kind of special-interest group to be schmoozed, conned, or bought off, former aides told me. Though he faced Republican primary opponents in 2016 with deeper religious roots—Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee—Trump was confident that his wealth and celebrity would attract high-profile Christian surrogates to vouch for him.
“His view was ‘I’ve been talking to these people for years; I’ve let them stay at my hotels—they’re gonna endorse me. I played the game,’” said a former campaign adviser to Trump, who, like others quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
It helped that Trump seemed to feel a kinship with prosperity preachers—often evincing a game-recognizes-game appreciation for their hustle. The former campaign adviser recalled showing his boss a YouTube video of the Israeli televangelist Benny Hinn performing “faith healings,” while Trump laughed at the spectacle and muttered, “Man, that’s some racket.” On another occasion, the adviser told me, Trump expressed awe at Joel Osteen’s media empire—particularly the viewership of his televised sermons.
In Cohen’s recent memoir, Disloyal, he recounts Trump returning from his 2011 meeting with the pastors who laid hands on him and sneering, “Can you believe that bullshit?” But if Trump found their rituals ridiculous, he followed their moneymaking ventures closely. “He was completely familiar with the business dealings of the leadership in many prosperity-gospel churches,” the adviser told me.
The conservative Christian elites Trump surrounds himself with have always been more clear-eyed about his lack of religiosity than they’ve publicly let on. In a September 2016 meeting with about a dozen influential figures on the religious right—including the talk-radio host Eric Metaxas, the Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, and the theologian Wayne Grudem—the then-candidate was blunt about his relationship to Christianity. In a recording of the meeting obtained by The Atlantic, the candidate can be heard shrugging off his scriptural ignorance (“I don’t know the Bible as well as some of the other people”) and joking about his inexperience with prayer (“The first time I met [Mike Pence], he said, ‘Will you bow your head and pray?’ and I said, ‘Excuse me?’ I’m not used to it.”) At one point in the meeting, Trump interrupted a discussion about religious freedom to complain about Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and brag about the taunting nickname he’d devised for him. “I call him Little Ben Sasse,” Trump said. “I have to do it, I’m sorry. That’s when my religion always deserts me.”
And yet, by the end of the meeting—much of which was spent discussing the urgency of preventing trans women from using women’s restrooms—the candidate had the group eating out of his hand. “I’m not voting for Trump to be the teacher of my third grader’s Sunday-school class. That’s not what he’s running for,” Jeffress said in the meeting, adding, “I believe it is imperative … that we do everything we can to turn people out.”
The Faustian nature of the religious right’s bargain with Trump has not always been quite so apparent to rank-and-file believers. According to the Pew Research Center, white evangelicals are more than twice as likely as the average American to say that the president is a religious man. Some conservative pastors have described him as a “baby Christian,” and insist that he’s accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
To those who have known and worked with Trump closely, the notion that he might have a secret spiritual side is laughable. “I always assumed he was an atheist,” Barbara Res, a former executive at the Trump Organization, told me. “He’s not a religious guy,” A. J. Delgado, who worked on his 2016 campaign, told me. “Whenever I see a picture of him standing in a group of pastors, all of their hands on him, I see a thought bubble [with] the words ‘What suckers,’” Mary Trump, the president’s niece, told me.
Greg Thornbury, a former president of the evangelical King’s College, who was courted by the campaign in 2016, told me that even those who acknowledge Trump’s lack of personal piety are convinced that he holds their faith in high esteem. “I don’t think for a moment that they would believe he’s cynical about them,” Thornbury said.
Trump’s public appeals to Jewish voters have been similarly discordant with his private comments. Last week, The Washington Post reported that after calls with Jewish lawmakers, the president has said that Jews “are only in it for themselves.” And while he is quick to tout his daughter Ivanka’s conversion to Judaism when he’s speaking to Jewish audiences, he is sometimes less effusive in private. Cohen told me that once, years ago, he was with Trump when his wife, Melania, informed him that their son was at a playdate with a Jewish girl from his school. “Great,” Trump said to Cohen, who is Jewish. “I’m going to lose another one of my kids to your people.”
One religious group that the Trump campaign is keenly fixated on this year is Mormons. In 2016, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejected the Republican ticket in unprecedented numbers. To win them over in 2020, the campaign has made Donald Trump Jr. its envoy, sending him to campaign in Utah and other Mormon-heavy states. The president’s son has cultivated relationships with high-profile conservatives in the faith. Earlier this year, he invoked Mormon pioneers in a call with reporters to describe his father’s “innovative spirit.”
In fact, according to two senior Utah Republicans with knowledge of the situation, Don Jr. has been so savvy in courting Latter-day Saints—expressing interest in the Church’s history, reading from the Book of Mormon—that he’s left some influential Republicans in the state with the impression that he may want to convert. (A spokesman for Don Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.)
I’ve been curious about the president’s opinion of Mormonism ever since I interviewed him in 2014 at Mar-a-Lago. During our conversation, Trump began to strenuously argue that Mitt Romney’s exotic faith had cost him the 2012 election. When I interrupted to inform him that I’m also a Mormon, he quickly changed tack—extolling my Church’s many virtues, and then switching subjects. (He remained committed to his theory about 2012: During his September 2016 meeting with evangelical leaders, Trump repeatedly asserted that “Christians” didn’t turn out for Romney “because of the Mormon thing.”) I’ve always wondered what Trump might have said if I hadn’t cut him off.
When I shared this story with Cohen, he laughed. Trump, he said, frequently made fun of Romney’s faith in private—and was especially vicious when he learned about the religious undergarments worn by many Latter-day Saints. “Oh my god,” Cohen said. “How many times did he bring up Mitt Romney and the undergarments …”