Oval Office prayer meetings: Journalists still struggling with what to make of them

We’ve seen this before: A gallery of people lumped together as “evangelicals” all gathered around President Donald Trump, each with one hand extended toward the man or actually placing that hand on his shoulders.

A bevy of folks just happened to be in the Old Executive Office Building next door on Monday when they were whooshed into the Oval Office for an audience with not only Trump but Vice President Mike Pence. If Trump had wanted that session to be private, he was out of luck, as photos appeared on Twitter and Facebook as soon as the participants were out the door.

All this occurred during a press blackout on Trump's activities, meaning that the 27-some evangelicals and Pentecostals broke the news themselves. Here’s what the Daily Mail led off with

This is the moment evangelical leaders laid their hands on Donald Trump's back as they prayed over him in the Oval Office.
Evangelical pastor Rodney Howard-Browne led a prayer circle alongside his wife Adonica in the White House and then shared the image on Facebook.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence can be seen closing their eyes and bowing their heads in the solemn moment. 
The group were invited to pray with Trump during a meeting with members of The Office of Public Liaison. Others pictured included Jack Graham, the pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and Michele Bachmann, the former Republican congresswoman from Minnesota. 

Howard-Browne (pictured with this post) is the South African-born evangelist who took the American Pentecostal world by storm when he pioneered the “holy laughter” movement in the mid-1990s. I interviewed him in 1994 for Charisma magazine and a subsequent piece for the Christian Research Journal.

He was quite portly at the time, but 20 years later, a much thinner version appeared at a revival in Washington DC, which was covered by RNS’s Jerome Socolovsky, then writing for VOA News. Howard-Browne wasn't a part of Trump's original faith advisory board last year, but he's obviously on the inside now and wanted to make sure the world knew. He said on his Twitter feed:

Highlight after all these years of fighting for America -- standing in the Oval Office with @realdonaldtrump and @vp and @paulamichellewhite and other leaders - listening to our great President talk about America - Great Job Mr President -- Great Job #ovaloffice #westwing#whitehouse #washingtondc

Clearly at a loss as to how to explain this gathering, most media paired the prayer visit with Trump’s Russia troubles. CNN said

President Donald Trump, who has remained out of public view since returning from Europe late Saturday, welcomed evangelical leaders into the Oval Office on Monday for a prayer session.
Photos posted by some of the invitees show the group surrounding Trump and laying their hands on his shoulders as his head is bent in prayer. The picture was posted by Johnnie Moore, a former senior vice president at Liberty University, a large evangelical university in Virginia. It also showed Vice President Mike Pence, with his eyes shut, participating in the Oval Office prayer session…
Moore, reached on Wednesday, said the meeting happened after a number of national faith leaders were invited to meet the President as they met with representatives from the Office of Public Liaison.
"We similarly prayed for President Obama but it's different with President Trump," Moore said. "When we are praying for President Trump, we are praying within the context of a real relationship, of true friendship."
Trump, in between two foreign trips, finds himself embroiled in yet another story about his campaign's ties to Russia. ...

Religion News Service took a similar tack.

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence met with evangelical supporters this week as news was breaking about the president’s son’s connections with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
The evangelicals did not know they would be meeting with the president ahead of time, he said. Nor did they discuss the unfolding Russian meddling story with him.
“At a certain point in the day we visited with the President and Vice President,” Moore told RNS in an email. “They just heard we were on the property and took time to say ‘hello.’”

The article helpfully showed a stack of social media posts made by the participants.

Moore and other leaders took to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook on Tuesday to recount their latest visit with the president, noting that they prayed for him in the Oval Office and remain confident in his administration.
Asked if evangelical leaders are worried that people would consider their presence in the Oval Office an indication that they’re not concerned about the Russia-related controversies, Moore said: “Evangelicals consider it a responsibility and an honor to advise and pray for the administration.”
He said their prayers Monday and the meeting in general were “not at all” related to Russia.

To get to the main point: I can't fault reporters for making the Russia connection, as the Los Angeles Times explained it:

President Trump arrives in Paris on Thursday for a hastily planned visit to meet with France’s new, young president and attend Bastille Day celebrations, his first public appearances after four days that have been dominated by mounting questions over what he knew about Russian efforts to assist his campaign…
Instead, on Monday, a group of evangelical pastors and religious leaders prayed with Trump in the Oval Office, with some laying their hands on the president, their heads bowed, according to photos posted online. And on Wednesday he gave an interview to the conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, host of “The 700 Club” program, on Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
The moves highlighted the White House’s strategy of solidifying support among evangelical conservatives, a core constituency.

But here is the big question: Was this meeting an accident or was it planned? The Washington Post gave some background:

The leaders met with Jennifer Korn, deputy director and liaison from the White House, for a day-long meeting to discuss several issues, including the Affordable Care Act, religious freedom, pending judicial nominees, criminal justice reform and support for Israel. During their visit the leaders paid a visit to the Oval Office where Vice President Pence and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, dropped in.

To get Trump, Kushner and Pence all in one room together sounds pretty planned to me. And Howard-Browne tweeted a thank you to Paula White "for making all this possible."

Now, the meeting with Korn had been planned well before anyone was aware of the Donald Jr. emails. Nevertheless, on the day of, the president clearly needed a pick-me-up and he knew where to find it. 

It does seem pretty odd to have news about certain White House meetings come out on the Twitter feeds of evangelists rather than via the Associated Press. Obviously, this is a president who trusts the former much more than the latter. These are some of the folks Trump likes to hang out with, so if reporters aren't already tracking some of these evangelical and Pentecostal leaders, they might want to get started now.

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