ROME – While President Trump prepares for his first meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican May 24, policy makers and journalists have been scratching their heads trying to predict the topics and results of their short yet historic encounter.
Trump is making three important stops to major religious sites during his nine-day trip: Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam; Jerusalem, including a stop at the Western Wall; and the Vatican, in order to meet Francis. The choice of countries underscores an effort by the Trump administration to show its commitment to the importance of religion, and to religious liberty.
The trip also has an ulterior purpose of offering a distraction from rising concerns back home, where Trump has been under media scrutiny for firing the FBI director and allegedly sharing confidential information with Russian officials.
A lot is at stake during this Trumpian tour, so many have tried to gauge how he might be preparing.
Media outlets related that Trump had numerous meetings with his staff and aides. Reuters reported that state officials struggled in an effort to prep the president on foreign policies and concerns. Unnamed National Security Council officials claim to have put Trump’s name in as many paragraphs as possible in order to get the easily-distracted president to read them, and even resorted to using pictures and maps to get his attention.
The White House Chief of Staff told reporters on the plane to the first destination in Saudi Arabia that Trump spent the flight preparing for his speech, meeting with staff and catching up on a little shut-eye.
To figure out what could be going on in Trump’s mind, it might be more useful to take a look at who will be joining the president during his trip. The answer is… pretty much everyone. Trump seemed to want the full team deployed for this crucial moment for the presidency.
Not only is he taking his wife Melania along with him, but also his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner. Among others, Chief strategist Steve Bannon, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, press secretary Sean Spicer, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, and director of strategic communications Hope Hicks all will be hitching a ride on Air Force one.
Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be present for the final stop in Sicily for the G7 meeting.
The impressive cast is made up of very diverse personalities who don’t always “play well” with one another. Many of them have a different background and agenda that they might bring forward on this important stage.
The people who have the president’s ear most likely will influence the pope’s meeting with Trump.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner
It’s common knowledge that Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism in order to marry Jared Kushner in 2009. Their religion will obviously play an important role during the visit to Israel, especially after the unseemly gaffes committed by the Trump administration regarding the Holocaust and the Jewish community.
But in Rome Ivanka will take up her other role of advocate for women in a meeting with the Community of Sant’ Egidio, a lay humanitarian organization, where they will discuss human trafficking.
It has been confirmed that Ivanka will be present at the meeting with the pope, and though it is unlikely that they will speak beyond cordial presentations, her commitment to this issue that is dear to the pontiff will definitely send a message.
Since it’s crucial that the papal visit be a success, the ‘presidential’ couple might have a vested interest in pushing forward the more liberal voice of the Trump administration and could be advising the president to put forward a less stern stance on issues such as immigration and the environment where he and the pope don’t see eye to eye.
Chief strategist Steve Bannon, a Catholic, has been having a bit of a downslide in recent months, after his rise from far-right media mogul to manager of one of the most controversial presidential campaigns in U.S. history.
His rift with the more liberal pockets of the Trump administration has left him weakened, though still an important player for the upcoming meeting between the president and Francis.
Bannon’s affiliation with the conservative bastion of the Catholic Church has often spiraled into the realm of speculation, though still supported by a strong base of truth.
The chief strategist has met with Cardinal Raymond Burke, a frequent critic of Pope Francis and one of the authors of the dubia, letters containing questions on the pope’s controversial encyclical on marriage, Amoris Laetitia.
Bannon has also publicly called for a “Church militant” against the threat of Islam and secularization, and criticized the pope’s advocacy for refugees and his condemnation of capitalism and the free market economy.
Though Bannon might be out of favor for the moment, he has often expressed a willingness to meet with Pope Francis and could view the encounter as an opportunity to press forward his agenda.
Bannon will probably be pushing Trump not to avoid the issue of migration with Pope Francis, which many believe should be set-aside during the encounter. It is also likely that he will encourage the president to take a more hostile approach toward Islam in an effort to engage Francis in the “culture war.”
The pope has recently returned from an important trip to Egypt, where he called on Muslims to denounce the use of violence in the name of religion. Still, Francis has always tried to maintain a stance of dialogue and encounter with Islam in an effort to obtain peace.
A newcomer to the Trump administration, Gary Cohn has become an outspoken promoter of a more liberal approach in the White House. The former president of Goldman Sachs shares a moderate and Wall Street-friendly mentality with Ivanka and Jared, and was quick to join their ranks.
The three of them represent the main moderate front that could see the Trump and Francis summit as the push left that the administration needs in this time of turmoil and who might be hoping that some of the pope’s views rub off on the president.
He has taken over Bannon’s role in Trump’s court and gained favor with the president. A registered Democrat, Cohn has pushed forward policies that oppose Bannon’s anti-establishment agenda and has butted heads with the former Trump favorite on a plethora of issues including immigration and even the proposal of a carbon tax.
The presidency has so far shown no interest in environment-friendly policies, a major difference between Trump and Pope Francis, who wrote the encyclical on the care of creation Laudato Si.
Cohn has also been in charge of the president’s controversial tax reform, which many believe will only benefit the highest-earning Americans at the expense of the poor. This probably does not sit well with Pope Francis who every other day has called states and individuals to cater to the poor and the marginalized.
The economic advisor could council Trump to set aside his profit-based and capitalistic persona in favor of the “Deal Maker” who is willing to find compromises on the environment and free trade deals.
Dina Powell is probably among the most experienced politicians of the bunch, having served in several offices during the George W. Bush administration. Now the deputy national security adviser under Trump, she has a wide array of tools in her utility belt.
She is no stranger to Vatican dynamics. In fact, it was she who personally spoke to Francis Rooney about becoming U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, according to Rooney’s book The Global Vatican.
Fluent in Arabic, Powell is a Coptic Christian who emigrated from Egypt to Texas at the age of four. She insists that her faith is not relevant when talking about Islam, and was quoted saying “I hate when people bring religion into it.”
Yet her actions tell a different story: Powell was the key architect for the release of Muslim aid worker Aya Hijazi of Egyptian-American descent, one of the few wins of the Trump administration.
Powell has also expressed a strong stance against religious persecution and will probably advise Trump on how to frame that conversation with Pope Francis. Another former Goldman Sachs employee, Powell was brought into the circle by Ivanka and is rumored to be in the more liberal spectrum of the Trump administration.
The former speechwriter will join a chorus, led by Bannon, advising Trump to promote his “America first” campaign during the meeting with Pope Francis, both on the issue of migrants and trade.
Pope Francis’s remarks on welcoming refugees and frequent criticism of countries that close their borders irked the far-right conservatives in the White House, and Miller might view the meeting as an opportunity to tell Pope Francis, who garners enormous popularity in the U.S., to keep his nose out of American affairs.
A self-described “practicing Jew,” he has also written the speech that Trump will give to Muslim leaders during his trip to Saudi Arabia affirming the U.S. position in the fight against radical Islam.
Sean Spicer has taken the brunt of the media retaliation against the Trump presidency and emerged as a stout and loyal defender of the president.
He is also a devout Catholic and as vehement a champion of religious freedom as he is of Trump, an interesting quality for the president’s religiously charged trip.
“The president and the vice president both understand that one of the things that makes our country and this democracy so great is our ability to express our religion, to believe in faith, to express it, and to live by it,” he said during a February presser. “Whether it is a small business owner or an employee who wants to have some degree of expression of faith at the company.”
In light of this, Spicer will probably favor a focus on common issues such as religious freedom during the president’s meeting with Pope Francis, though he will surely be there to take the punches in the unlikely event that the summit results in a catastrophe.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster
Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster is not starting out this trip on precisely the right foot. During a White House briefing McMaster fumbled around the question on whether the Western Wall, an important Jewish religious site, was a part of Israel.
McMaster also said that Trump “will be honored” to have an audience with the pope and set the topics of their discussion around the issues of religious freedom, religious persecution, human trafficking, and the possibility of a partnership for humanitarian missions.
But McMaster might also advocate for putting Russia’s influence in the Middle East on the table for discussion between Pope Francis and Trump. The general was pivotal in planning the decision to bomb a Syrian airbase in early April, following the use of chemical weapons by the country’s dictator Assad.
The adviser, who has a vast experience being stationed in the Middle East, has often pointed to the problems raised by Russia’s policy of supporting the Syrian dictator. Putin, on the other hand, credited Francis in late 2013 with helping to head off a Western offensive in Syria and the Vatican has been open to accepting Assad as a lesser evil.
As Trump faces ‘Russiagate’ back home, McMaster might advise the president to present the pope with a more hostile stance toward Russia, packaging it as an opportunity for peace.
The young director of strategic communications was in charge of handling trump’s response after Pope Francis’s famous statement that whomever is more concerned in building walls instead of bridges is not a Christian, after he was asked a question about Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Her personal views remain uncertain though sources define her as a loyal fighter and a first row spectator to Trump’s ever-changing moods. However Trump might be feeling ahead of his meeting with the pope, Hicks will definitely be among the first to know.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders
The daughter of Governor and previous presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has scored a position as deputy press secretary in the Trump administration. Since then she seems to have been following the tide and leaving her Christian beliefs outside of the temporal realm.
But if some of the religious zeal of her minister father rubbed off, Sanders could be a help for Trump, translating his often-blurry Christian lingo into something that Pope Francis and the Vatican can understand.
Michael Anton recently joined the Trump administration as a staffer on the National Security Council. A former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Anton has fallen under scrutiny for writing several essays that expressed far-right views against Islam and immigration.
“Diversity” is not ‘our strength,’ it’s a source of weakness, tension and disunion,” Anton wrote in a 2016 essay published on the Unz Review website.
“Immigration today is not ‘good for the economy’,” he wrote. “It undercuts American wages, costs Americans jobs, and reduces Americans’ standard of living. Islam is not a “religion of peace”; it’s a militant faith that exalts conversion by the sword and inspires thousands to acts of terror — and millions more to support and sympathize with terror.”
Needless to say, he and Pope Francis might struggle to find common values, yet Anton will probably join Bannon and company in urging Trump to remain faithful to the initial spirit of his campaign.