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Trump Opens Prayer Breakfast With Remarks About 'Apprentice' Ratings


Today President Trump has been talking about religion. He spoke this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington. The breakfast is an annual event with more than 3,000 guests, including politicians of both parties. Trump talked about his own upbringing and stressed his commitment to religious freedom.

We'll talk more about one of his proposals on that in a moment. And as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, Trump also slipped in a few comments that had little to do with faith.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Prayer Breakfast highlights something Americans may find hard to believe. Members of Congress, liberal and conservative alike, get together once a week to pray. The Senate chaplain, Barry Black, told the breakfast gathering today that he's always moved at the end when the members stand and join hands.


BARRY BLACK: To see Republican, Democrat, Independent praying together, I find myself thinking, where are the C-SPAN cameras when you need them?

GJELTEN: But after Chaplain Black, the event took a more secular turn. The task of introducing the president went to Mark Burnett, who created "The Apprentice" TV show. Burnett talked about how he needed a real winner to host the show and settled on Donald Trump. Taking the podium, the president boasted, we had tremendous success on "The Apprentice." But then Trump left the show to run for president.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It's been a total disaster. And Mark will never ever bet against Trump again. And I want to just pray for Arnold if we can for those ratings, OK?

GJELTEN: Turning to more religious matters, Trump noted how often people around the country come up to him with five words.


TRUMP: I am praying for you.

GJELTEN: In a declaration that caught the attention of many Christian conservatives in the audience, Trump repeated a promise he made at the Republican Convention last summer. He'll work to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, a law that bars tax-exempt institutions like churches from participating in or opposing any candidate's political campaign.


TRUMP: I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that. Remember.


GJELTEN: Trump then pivoted to how religious freedom is under threat across the globe.


TRUMP: The world is in trouble, but we're going to straighten it out, OK? That's what I do. I fix things. We're going to straighten it out.

GJELTEN: But if he is to fix things, he may first have to repair some strained relations. Trump has already had testy conversations with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. When you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it, Trump told the breakfast crowd. We have to be tough. We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually.

The breakfast crowd included hundreds of foreign guests - among them, Jordan's King Abdullah. Jordan plays an important support role in the fight against ISIS. And Trump has said several times he wants more help from Middle Eastern countries.


GJELTEN: People leaving the breakfast generally demurred when asked about Trump's remarks. Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, was one of several who simply said they were glad Trump had come to the event.

SHIRLEY HOOGSTRA: President Trump has a big job. He's trying to do the best he can. I think this is less familiar territory to him than business. I think he's learning, and I am going to be a praying person for him.

GJELTEN: Like many others here, Hoogstra has been to several of the National Prayer Breakfasts. It's become an important event for faith leaders from around the country associated with good will at a time when rancor seems to prevail. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.