Trump’s Catholics: Who Is Part of the Church Flock?
The prominent staff picks include Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon.
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has named several Catholics to advise him in his inner circle and serve in his cabinet following the presidential oath of office on Jan. 20.
Some of those Catholics — such as Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager who will be a counselor to the president — come to the administration with solid pro-life credentials and are respected in Catholic circles. Others, such as Stephen Bannon, a chief strategist for Trump who also served on the campaign, bring a fair share of controversy.
But overall, Jay Richards, a professor at The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business and Economics, told the Register that he is “cautiously optimistic” with the team Trump is assembling.
“I’m very impressed, not just with the Catholics in the transition, but with the transition overall,” said Richards, who is also executive editor of TheStream.org, an internet media outlet that, according to its website, promotes “freedom, smaller government and human dignity.”
Richards said he was especially pleased that Conway, who declined an offer to be the White House press secretary, will have a close advisory role in the Trump administration.
“She will be much more valuable giving advice as a counselor than if she were the press secretary, reciting talking points all day,” said Richards, who like many other observers credits Conway with saving Trump’s campaign when she joined it last summer as a special adviser.
“Kellyanne is the reason he won. His campaign was at a lull when she came on board, and she changed it a lot,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, who told the Register that the presence of Conway and other pro-lifers in key roles signals that pro-lifers will have “a seat at the table” in the Trump White House. Said Hawkins, “So far, Trump is appointing people with solid pro-life credentials to important positions, and, for me, that is a positive sign that he is going to keep his promises to pro-lifers and the pro-life movement.”
Conway, who is also president of the The Polling Company Inc./Woman Trend, has advised pro-life groups on political messaging. In 2012, while onstage with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards at The New Yorker Festival, Conway challenged Richards’ claims that abortion and contraception were “a basic health care issue” for women. “It’s kind of insulting women who also look at health as [pertaining to] cancer and access to health care,” said Conway, who will speak at the 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27.
“As the first female to run a successful presidential campaign and as a steadfast advocate for life and family issues, Kellyanne beautifully embodies the 2017 March for Life’s theme, ‘The Power of One,’” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life.
Meanwhile, Bannon, who joined the Trump campaign around the same time as Conway, brings with him considerably more baggage.
Since Trump appointed Bannon as a strategist in November, leading Democrats and civil-rights figures have accused him of being racist, anti-Semitic and a white nationalist, often citing his role as executive chairman of Breitbart News, the conservative news portal that Bannon reportedly described as a platform for the so-called “alt-right,” a movement associated with racist views. Bannon also has prior charges for domestic violence, and he was accused of anti-Semitism by an ex-wife in divorce proceedings, allegations that his spokesman denied.
His supporters say the public image conflicts with the polite man they know in private. CUA’s Richards said initially he did not know much about Bannon and that he had some concerns after hearing media reports. But after digging into his background and speaking with people who know Bannon, Richards said a different picture emerged, and he now believes some of the criticisms are unfair. “I’m convinced overall he’s a solid guy,” said Richards, who described Bannon as being strongly pro-life and very concerned about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Joshua Mercer, political director of CatholicVote.org, told the Register he also found no substance to many of the criticisms against Bannon, whom he credited for having the insight that the Republican Party needed to focus its energies more on what is best for the working class.
Said Mercer, “One thing we give a lot of credit to Donald Trump [for] is that he has shifted the focus of the Republican Party off of the country club/chamber of commerce view and focused a lot of attention on working families and people struggling to pay the bills.”
Bannon, a former U.S. naval officer who went on to work as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before leaving the financial world for media, told Bloomberg News that he grew up in a “blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats.” Bannon said he did not become political until he joined the Navy and became disenchanted with President Jimmy Carter.
Describing himself as a Ronald Reagan admirer, Bannon has said he is not a white nationalist, but rather an “economic nationalist” suspicious of the political and financial elite. In June 2014, he gave a talk at the Vatican, sponsored by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, where he blamed the 2008 financial crisis on the greed of the banking industry and added that he opposed bailouts for that industry. In the same talk, Bannon said the West was facing a crisis of capitalism after losing its Judeo-Christian foundations. He added that secularism had sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals. Writing at CatholicVote.org, Jason Jones, who has worked with Bannon, said he is “almost obsessed by concern for the fragility of freedom and peace in our fallen world” and is someone who is “consumed by care for the vulnerable among us and unafraid to confront their powerful oppressor.”
Sean Spicer, another high-profile Catholic member of the Trump team, will be front and center as the new White House communications director. He has been the Republican National Committee’s communications director since 2011 and a chief strategist since 2015. He also worked as a senior communications adviser for Trump during the transition.
Spicer graduated in 1989 from Portsmouth Abbey School, a Benedictine boarding and day school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, before going on to graduate from Connecticut College and receive a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Those who remember Spicer from his days at Portsmouth Abbey say he was a good student and a talented athlete who was friendly to his peers and students. J. Clifford Hobbins, a history, economics and political science teacher who maintains a close relationship with Spicer, told the Register that Spicer will “bring competence, truth and integrity” to the White House.
“Sean will bring honesty — and a point of view that he’s not afraid to share with the president or members of the staff,” said Hobbins, who helped Spicer, as a senior, secure an internship with U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who was then the Senate majority leader. The experience started Spicer’s interest in government and politics.
“In Room 10, where I teach, there is a photo on my wall that dates back to the Bush II administration, when Sean was Republican National Committee communications director,” Hobbins said. “The photo is of Sean wearing the Easter Bunny costume for the White House Easter Egg Roll. He sent it to me back then with a note saying, ‘Look at me now!’”
Daniel McDonough, the headmaster of Portsmouth Abbey, also told the Register that Spicer returned to the school in April 2014 and gave a well-received talk, and students stayed afterwards for questions and further discussion. “We take great pride in the accomplishments of all of our alumni, but few are in the public light the way Sean is now,” McDonough said. “Having a high-profile job carries many risks and responsibilities, and we are grateful that Sean has devoted his professional life to helping guide our nation.”
Meanwhile, at Franciscan University of Steubenville, the administration and faculty are just as proud of Andrew Bremberg, the incoming director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Franciscan before attending law school at The Catholic University of America.
“Andrew is a real, quality person who is not one to react quickly, but instead he will look for the right sources to seek the right answers,” said Tim Delaney, the alumni director of Franciscan University, who told the Register that Bremberg’s education at Steubenville has prepared him well for the White House.
Said Delaney, “He has a quiet confidence about him, and he will be a steadying influence on the administration.”
Bremberg worked as the 2016 Republican Party Platform’s policy director and served in a lead policy and administrative role for the president-elect’s transition team.
He worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during President George W. Bush’s tenure and was also a policy adviser for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
Delaney said Bremberg was a founding member of Franciscan University’s rugby team who double majored in psychology and theology, with a minor in human life sciences, focusing on interconnecting legal, ethical and biological issues. Delaney, who was a year ahead of Bremberg in college, said he has gotten to know Bremberg better through alumni events. “He has always been a kind and generous guy,” Delaney said.
Mercer also said he expects Bremberg to succeed in the Trump administration. Said Mercer, “He is one of these guys who really knows his stuff from top to bottom and just has a ton of experience. I think he’s going to do very well.”
Andrew Puzder, the president-elect’s nominee for labor secretary, is, like Bannon, a somewhat controversial pick.
Puzder, the chief executive of the company that franchises the fast-food restaurants Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., has been a critic of minimum-wage increases and worker-protection regulations enacted by the Obama administration. Puzder has been criticized for advertisements his company, CKE Restaurants, has run that frequently feature women wearing skimpy outfits and eating burgers. Puzder told the industry publication Entrepreneur, “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American.”
Those kind of ads, though, got Puzder in trouble with Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts college in California. In 2003, Puzder resigned from the college’s board of directors over a commercial that featured Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, surrounded by women. The college president said the school stood for principles in direct conflict with Hefner and Playboy.
But Puzder received a strong endorsement from Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who supported Trump’s presidential candidacy, in a Jan. 11 statement.
Dannenfelser praised Puzder as “a longtime pro-life and pro-woman leader,” citing his “efforts in the ’90s to bridge the gap between pro-life and pro-choice by making adoption easier and more mainstream,” as well as subsequent work “to champion the dignity of women and children as a philanthropist and businessman.” Added Dannenfelser, “Attempts to paint him as anti-woman are part of an ideologically motivated and unfair attack.”
In August 2016, Puzder delivered a speech in Chicago, before Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and members of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, on the topic of free enterprise, which he said enables people to use their God-given talents. “My Catholic upbringing taught me that jealousy and resentment were wrong and that if I put my faith in God and worked hard to fulfill my potential, everything else would take care of itself,” said Puzder, who added that only in the United States could a “working-class Catholic kid” like himself aspire to success with a realistic chance of achieving it.
Michael Flynn and Others
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Michael Flynn will serve as Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn, a lifelong Democrat until throwing his support behind Trump, grew up in Rhode Island in an “Irish-Catholic family of blue-collar Democrats,” according to Politico.
Like Bannon, Flynn has courted controversy with some of his statements, such as referring to Islam as a political ideology masked behind a religion, tweeting that it is rational for people to be afraid of Muslims, and retweeting conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic comments. The Obama administration in 2014 removed Flynn from his post at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn said it was because he raised alarm bells over Islamic terrorism, while CNN reported concerns over his management style.
Noting that Flynn was an early Trump supporter, Mercer said Trump has remained loyal to Flynn despite the red flags. “We’ll see how that shakes out,” Mercer said. “Is it going to be absolutely devastating to have him there? Maybe not. I just think it’s poor judgment.”
The Trump team also includes U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who is the incoming director of the Office of Management and Budget. Mulvaney has been a member of the congressional Pro-Life Caucus. On his website, Mulvaney said he has been “committed to standing up for the lives of the unborn in Congress.”
In 2006, when he was a freshman legislator in the South Carolina House of Representatives, the Palmetto Family Council identified Mulvaney as its “Freshman Legislator of the Year” for his work on a South Carolina ultrasound bill.
Mulvaney has also been active in his local community as a founding member of the Indian Land Rotary, a youth baseball coach and a parishioner of St. Philip Neri Catholic Church. He is also a founding member of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Mission in South Carolina and has been credited for his outreach to the Latino community.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the incoming secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Boston. He served as an enlisted Marine in the early 1970s before attending college and receiving his commission as a Marine Corps officer.
Kelly retired from the military in February 2016 after three years at the helm of the U.S. Southern Command. His knowledge of border security and challenges posed by illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America will be assets for an administration focused on staking a harder line on immigration policy.
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.