The Promise, and Peril, of a Trump White House



WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20 at the U.S. Capitol is just days away, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York will  join Christian and Jewish leaders to pray and offer readings at the solemn occasion.

“I am honored to have been asked to offer a reading from Scripture at the upcoming presidential inauguration and look forward to asking Almighty God to inspire and guide our new president and to continue to bless our great nation,” said Cardinal Dolan, whose presence will remind the nation that the U.S. bishops hope to shape the policies and tone of this new administration.

At present, Catholic leaders across the nation are still taking the measure of an unanticipated populist leader and his likely impact on issues of concern to the faithful.

While there is general agreement that Trump will likely reverse controversial regulations, like the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate that mired the Little Sisters of the Poor in years of costly litigation, there is also anxiety that Trump’s immigration policies could spark a new era of church-state tensions, because those regulations would affect Latino Catholics the most. And there is concern about his temperament and ability to lead a nation fractured by political divisions and moral confusion.

In California, for example, the state’s bishops view Trump’s ascent with mixed emotions. On the one hand, many eagerly await new federal pro-life policies and conscience-rights protections that could give local Catholic institutions breathing room. At present, the new administration is expected to reverse a 2016 ruling by the Obama White House that upheld a California law requiring health insurers to cover abortions.

“The state of California is as blue as it gets right now in the U.S. All elected officials statewide, from the governor on down, are Democrats, and Democrats hold a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the state Legislature,” Edward “Ned” Dolejsi, the executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register.

“But there is hope that at the national level, where federal law and regulation can override state concerns, there will be a reset on life and family issues, and that could affect what we can do in the state,” said Dolejsi.

But Church leaders also fear that the poor and vulnerable could be harmed if Trump fulfills his campaign pledge to crack down on immigrants living in the United States without legal recognition, a view shared by state officials who have hired Eric Holder, a former U.S. attorney general under Obama, to defend their laws aiding immigrants as well as other state legislation the new administration might oppose.

“We don’t know what will happen,” Auxiliary Bishop William Justice of San Francisco told the Register. “Statements were made in the political campaign, but [since then] no one has said, ‘We will cancel the Dream Act totally,’ of ‘If you don’t have papers, we will have you deported.’”

Thus far, local Church leaders have sought to calm the fears of the state’s many Hispanic Catholics.

“I want to assure you: Rhetoric is one thing, and reality is something else — you all have lots of support here in our community, and we are here to accompany you, to help you and, if it becomes necessary, to protect you,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the congregation at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The cautious, nuanced response of the California bishops to a new Trump administration underscores the unprecedented nature of his rise to power. The thrice-married real estate tycoon has never held elected office and, during the campaign season, Catholic public intellectuals like Robert George repudiated his comments about registering Muslims and reviving the use of torture to better respond to terrorist threats and strengthen national security. But as Trump pledged to defund Planned Parenthood and nominate pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, he gained further traction with many Catholic voters who rejected Hillary Clinton’s stance on abortion and religious freedom, among other issues.


Obamacare Reforms

Since the election, many of these same supporters have applauded Trump’s appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama for attorney general and Georgia Rep. Tom Price, an opponent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, known as Obamacare), as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

In previous budget plans, Price, an orthopedist, provided a blueprint for the dismantling of Obamacare. Thus, even before Trump’s inauguration, Republican lawmakers announced the outlines of their plan to “repeal and replace” the ACA, and House Speaker Paul Ryan confirmed that the GOP’s legislation would also strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding.

Catholic health care leaders are closely watching the unfolding battle and appear to be waiting for more details about the Republican Party’s plan before taking a stand on new reforms.

While Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, an industry lobby, played a decisive role in the ACA’s passage, she declined to comment for this story, and CHA provided a post-election statement that took a neutral position on any forthcoming health care legislation.

“Because health care is so critical to the well-being of individuals and the country, we must exercise great care in making changes,” read CHA’s statement.

“We at CHA commit ourselves to working with all people of goodwill in this new administration to make health care delivery worthy of the dignity of all the people of our country.”

The expansion of health care coverage under the ACA has benefited an estimated 20 million Americans. The GOP plan, which is expected to retain some popular ACA provisions while crafting a market-based approach, will give more power to individual states and consumers to customize coverage. But details still need to be worked out, and the transition to a new health care framework is fraught with danger for Trump and GOP lawmakers, who face intense pressure to protect new policyholders and minimize disruptions to the insurance marketplace.


Leadership Opportunities

Some of the nation’s largest Catholic health care networks also benefited from the ACA, and it is not clear how new federal policies could affect their bottom line. That said, Catholic leaders also expect to get some relief from a Trump White House, which is expected to reverse federal rules that threaten the religious freedom of Catholic health care providers, including the Health and Human Services’ mandate and a new regulation that requires doctors to perform “gender-reassignment surgery” for patients with gender-identity disorder.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore has called on the Trump transition team to quickly repeal these burdensome rules, and if the new administration complies, that will mark a new era of improved church-state relations, at least with regard to life and religious-freedom issues.

If Trump collaborates effectively with Congress to produce solid health care reforms, he will earn credibility with skeptics who have questioned his ability to lead.

“There are people in the Republican caucus, like House Speaker Ryan, who think seriously about policy and who are principled,” noted Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America. “How much influence they can have with Trump and his closest advisers will be a crucial factor in how things work out. Our first indications here will be the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court.”

Further, Trump will earn wide praise if he can make good on his promise to get more Americans back to work.

“Between 1969 and 2016, both comparable peak years in the business cycle, there has been a long-term decline in work by prime-age men, from 94.5% to 85.0%, and by young black men, from 76.3% to 53.2%,” noted a new report published in the winter 2017 issue of the journal National Affairs.

Trump wants to address this problem by securing trade deals that bring jobs back to the U.S., cutting corporate taxes and repealing regulations that boost the cost of doing business in the U.S., and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.

Thus far, Trump has taken to Twitter to shame corporations that seek to move jobs outside the U.S., but soon he will need to implement a more comprehensive plan that can inspire his working-class supporters to feel confident about the future.


Catholic Social Principles

R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the editor of First Things, believes the U.S. bishops can enhance the policy debate on jobs and social entitlement reform by offering Catholic social principles that express solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, but also affirm the nobility of human labor.

“The bishops need to remind legislators that we should provide for the needs of the least advantaged, including help with housing, food and basic income, but that’s not the same as empowering people, and work is the great source of empowerment for most people,” Reno told the Register, while noting that the unpaid work of parents caring for their families and volunteers serving communities also should be affirmed.

Catholic university leaders like John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, are closely following Trump’s moves on education reform and hope for a reduced federal role that allows Church-affiliated colleges to foster a distinctive campus culture. Patrick Reilly at the Cardinal Newman Society, a group that seeks to strengthen the religious identity of Catholic schools and strongly opposes the federal Common Core K-12 guidelines, expects Trump to repeal the Obama administration’s expansive interpretation of Title IX regulations that bar discrimination based on sex in schools that receive federal aid.

“A top priority is to restore the intended definitions of ‘sex discrimination’ under Title VII (concerning employment) and Title IX (concerning education) to refer to man and woman, not ‘gender identity,’ ‘sexual orientation’ or family planning and abortion,” Reilly told the Register.

Trump has yet to confirm his plans for repealing these regulations, and Catholic activists like Reilly will look to his cabinet appointees and close advisers, a number of whom are Catholic, to follow up. Meanwhile, the nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education has stirred hopes that the new administration will look to support school-voucher initiatives as well as charter schools.


Tempering Expectations

For now, as the nation prepares for a populist president in the Oval Office, specialists contacted by the Register advised the faithful to adopt clear, but modest, expectations.

The election of Donald Trump prevented Hillary Clinton from adopting policies that would “further erode religious freedom, further entrench abortion rights and transgender ideology, further strengthen the hand of the state,” said CUA’s Lewis.

“But what Trump himself will do remains mysterious. He is not what Margaret Thatcher called a ‘conviction politician’; he seems to operate largely by instinct, so one cannot search his principles for illumination.”

A case in point is Trump’s perplexing array of views on foreign-policy matters. Since the start of his campaign, he has expressed appreciation for Russian leader Vladimir Putin and has suggested that the U.S. should reassess its NATO obligation if European allies don’t pay their fair share of military costs.

“Putin does not seek American greatness. As your allies, we do,” read a letter to Trump penned by 17 current and former officials from Central and Eastern European countries that was published Jan. 10 in The Washington Post. “As your treaty-bound allies, we appeal to Americans in the new U.S. administration and Congress to stand firm in the defense of our common goals and interests: peace, Atlantic strength and freedom.”

Trump’s ability to calm such fears and develop a strong, balanced foreign policy that keeps America safe and defuses crises around the world will give him additional political capital to secure his domestic agenda. And supporters contend that he will likely moderate his views on such matters, once he receives daily briefings from trusted advisers, including pro-life Vice President Mike Pence.

In the meantime, Catholic leaders and the faithful can use the breathing space this new political moment provides to begin to tackle the angry partisan divisions and anxiety about the nation’s future that defined the 2016 election.

“The Church, precisely by focusing on its spiritual transcendent mission, is a constant reminder that politics is not ultimate,” noted Reno, who said it would be a mistake to look to Trump, or any modern political leader, to heal the breach.

“Politics cannot fill the void. We need to remember that our primary mission is not state craft, but soul craft, and soul craft is the primary gift to state craft.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.