Why White House Catholics are concerned about Trump’s Catholic tweets

trump phone getty  U.S. President Donald Trump works on his phone during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Officials working in the Trump administration have told CNA that they have been frustrated by recent presidential tweets elevating controversial Catholic figures, saying the tweets undermine the work many Catholics in the administration hope to accomplish.

In recent weeks, the president's Twitter account has cited support from two figures with polarizing reputations among Catholics: former papal nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and the author and online polemicist Taylor Marshall.

While both men have been publicly supportive of the president, both are better known for their criticism of Church authorities than for their views on secular politics.

Two Catholics in senior positions in the administration told CNA the decision to elevate Viganò and Marshall has put the White House at odds with the U.S. bishops, instead of putting a focus on issues of agreement, and has frustrated some Catholic administration officials.

"It puts those of us who care about the Church and care about the work we are doing here in a bind," one White House official told CNA. "I believe in the work I'm doing, and believe it matters as a Catholic. But I spend enough time just defending that simple premise – I don't want to have to deal with crazy Catholic Twitter too."

"Everyone knows the campaign needs religious voters, and Catholic voters for sure. But there is such a divide between the people working on policy stuff around here and the people doing this. For us, we are doing things that matter: on religious freedom, on life issues."

A second senior administration official, who attends weekly meetings with the president in the Oval Office, told CNA the president believes he has not been supported by U.S. bishops for his efforts on religious liberty, and that White House strategists have urged him to court Catholic votes through figures like Marshall and Viganò.

Both officials requested anonymity because of the nature of their positions.

The officials each independently attributed the decision to highlight support from outside the Catholic mainstream to Dan Scavino, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and the president's social media director. They said it is part of a broader effort to stoke enthusiasm among the president's most ardent supporters through social media engagement.

"You know who is putting [Viganò's letter] in front of the president?" one official said, "It's coming from [Dan] Scavino. He runs all of that side of things."

"Around him and the rest, they have only one plan right now, or only one they are talking about: weaponize the base, the base, the base."

Earlier this year, the Trump administration garnered attention for hosting telephone calls with bishops and other institutional Catholic leaders regarding both the impact of the coronavirus on Catholic schools and the decision of some bishops to begin limited reopenings of public Masses in the early stages of a national reopening.

In those calls, the president promised his administration's support to Catholic initiatives, and to financially struggling Catholic schools. Bishops, including New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, faced criticism for seeming to lend implicit support to the president's reelection bid, a charge Dolan and others disputed, while defending their engagement with the president.

The administration is continuing to advocate for parochial school assistance in coronavirus relief legislation.

But Trump's more recent Catholic overtures have been of a different stripe.

Both administration officials told CNA that after Trump's June 2 visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine, a decision was made by Scavino and other strategists that the president should cultivate Catholic support from leadership figures outside the mainstream.

"The president doesn't get why the bishops aren't with him for doing work on religious liberty – especially after the shrine visit, he was pissed about that," one official said.

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The official told CNA that Scavino, himself a Catholic, views the support of figures like Viganò as a means of delivering Catholic votes without the implicit or explicit support of diocesan bishops.

The president's shrine visit came at the height of protests and demonstrations across the county, following the killing of George Floyd. It also came one day after the controversial dispersal of demonstrators in Lafayette Park, opposite the White House, to accommodate a presidential photo-op in front of the historic St. John's Episcopal Church.

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory issued a stinging critique of the shrine visit, calling it "reprehensible," and saying the shrine had been "egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles."

The next week, on June 10, Trump's Twitter account retweeted a long letter from Archbishop Carlo Viganò, former papal nuncio to the United States, in which the archbishop lavished praise on the president and repeated his own theories about an international conspiracy to use the coronavirus pandemic to bring about a one-world government.

"Both of us are on the same side in this battle," Viganò wrote to Trump, calling criticism of the president's June 2 visit to the National Shrine of St. John Paul II part of an "orchestrated media narrative" against the president.

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Viganò gained national headlines in 2018, when he claimed that he had warned Pope Francis about allegations of sexual abuse against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and then called on the pope to resign. Since then, the archbishop has lived in self-imposed exile, writing frequent open letters that make apocalyptic claims, proffer globalist conspiracy theories, and denounce sitting diocesan bishops and the Second Vatican Council.

Viganò last month denounced Washington's Archbishop Gregory as a "false shepherd" after Gregory's criticism of Trump's shrine visit.

One administration official said Scavino saw Viganò's letter as a way of touting support for Trump in the face of Gregory's opposition.

"He thinks it's a punch back against [Archbishop] Gregory," said the official.

On July 2, Trump's Twitter account tweeted about an appearance by Taylor Marshall on the One America News Network, in which Marshall said "there is a war on Christianity," and praised the president's leadership.

Marshall has recently been associated with the traditionalist priestly Society of St. Pius X, who are in "irregular communion" with the Catholic Church. He has tweeted that Catholic men should not attend diocesan seminaries, spoken about his "resistance" to Pope Francis, and has recently clashed with Bishop Robert Barron, who reportedly referred to him as an "extremist," amid a disagreement over the role of clerics and laity amid the destruction of the statues of saints.

Marshal's 2019 book "Infiltration" claims to outline a plot by which "Modernists and Marxists hatched a plan to subvert the Catholic Church from within. Their goal: to change Her doctrine, Her liturgy, and Her mission," according to the book's website.

Both Marshall and Viganò have large online audiences; Marshall's YouTube videos regularly draw more than 100,000 viewers, and Viganò's missives are regularly published on popular conservative and traditionalist websites.

But one administration official told CNA that Catholics working in the executive branch have been discouraged by the president's decision to promote Viganò and Marshall, especially because they believe the administration's work on life issues and religious liberty is important, and would benefit from more engagement with the bishops.

"You feel like you can't win," the official said. "Frankly, we'd have liked a little more support from the bishops – not for the president personally or the campaign, but for the work we are doing. There is stuff here that is important. But absent that, the thinking from the comms side seems to be 'have the friends we can get,' and if they're crazy, who cares? It's so frustrating."

Both officials told CNA that there exists a clear line between those senior Catholics in the administration working on policy priorities and those pursuing Trump's social media strategy.

"There is no way the serious Catholics in the administration are pushing this stuff. They have too much to do," the first official told CNA.

The other senior source said the same, and lamented that some in the administration seem to view a combative stance against the bishops as a good in itself.

"For headbangers like Scavino, 'real Catholics' are the ones on message with the president, it doesn't matter how off the reservation they might be in the Church."

"To [Scavino and Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller] the [U.S.] bishops are all shades of Pope Francis, especially on immigration, which drives Miller crazy."

The first official agreed, telling CNA that: "The president doesn't know who Viganò is, he just knows he's an archbishop, he definitely doesn't know who Taylor Marshall is – even I had to look him up. But you bet Dan [Scavino] knows, knows they are anti-establishment and have a following, and that's the campaign they want to run with everyone – get to the people who are already there, intensify them, get them working for you – and give the president some proof of support for what he's been doing."

"[Scavino] has this idea that the more you can talk around the bishops the better the more radical you can be and the more you will deliver with the base. Him and [Stephen] Miller love that kind of stuff."

The White House first conceded in 2017 that Scavino "assists President Trump in operating the @realDonaldTrump account, including by drafting and posting tweets to the account."

Scavino is an unlikely figure to mastermind the most famous Twitter account in the world.

A 2018 New York Times profile recounts that he first met Trump while acting as his caddie during a round of golf on a course upstate in 1990. In 2004, he returned to the course, then owned by Trump, as assistant manager, rising to manager four years later before starting his own business.

He returned to the Trump orbit at the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, eventually began helping candidate Trump run his Twitter account and later managed his social media output. Scavino earned a reputation for playing hard along the way. On one occasion, Scavino retweeted a video alleging that Sen. Ted Cruz was having an affair with a married former aide, Amanda Carpenter, who called the allegations a "smear."

Carpenter told the New York Times Magazine that "What Scavino did to me and what he still does to others would get any other professional fired. In Trump's universe, it's a qualification. A willingness to engage in lies and smears on behalf of Donald Trump is a sign of loyalty that Trump treasures."

In the same profile, Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks told the Times Magazine that Scavino is the "conductor of the Trump train," and that his role in the administration is to "tell [Trump] how things are playing with his people. That's a gauge for him that the president takes seriously." Hicks left the White House in March 2018 but was named a counselor to the president in February this year.

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has also credited Scavino with bringing fringe figures and social media personalities to the president's attention. Bannon told the Times Magazine that he used to share with Scavino an office in the West Wing and "he has his hands on the 'Pepes,'" in a reference to a popular cartoon image used by alt-right internet posters.

"[Scavino] knew who the players were and who were not. He'd bring me Cernovich - I didn't know who Cernovich was until Scavino told me," Bannon told the magazine of Mike Cernovich, an alt-right blogger who has made highly controversial comments on race, women's rights, and rape.

According to Politico, Scavino's ability to represent Twitter support to the president has real-world policy effects. In a 2019 profile, Politico quoted two sources saying Trump turned to Scavino to justify the announcement of his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Trump himself told Politico that "Oftentimes, I'll go through Dan."

"You know, I'll talk it over. And he can really be a very good sounding board. A lot of common sense. He's got a good grasp."

While not a well-known public figure, Scavino has attracted controversy through his responsibility for the president's Twitter account.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump came under fire for the use of alleged anti-Semitic imagery in a graphic describing Hilary Clinton as the "most corrupt candidate ever." The image featured Clinton, a red star of David, and images of cash.

While the campaign initially dismissed criticism of the image, insisting that the star was meant to resemble a sheriff's badge, it later altered the image to a circle. CNN also reported that the image was originally posted on an "anti-Semitic and white supremacist message board."

It was Scavino who defended both the original image and the eventual alteration, saying that it "was not created by the campaign nor was it sourced from an anti-Semitic site." Scavino rejected any insinuation of anti-Semitism, citing his wife's Jewish family, but took personal responsibility, saying "I would never offend anyone and therefore chose to remove the image."

The White House did not respond to questions from CNA regarding Scavino's role in Trump's retweets of Marshall and Viganò.

One White House official told CNA that the president's recent Catholic retweets fit Scavino's approach.

"I totally get why people like Viganò and Marshall appeal to Scavino. Conspiracy theories, communists, freemasons, tons of retweets and YouTube followers? It's right up his alley," the official said.

"The problem is it has happened now, even if this isn't the president's idea, one thing you're not going to do is change his mind – there is no reverse gear."

"It drives the Catholics around here crazy because we are trying to do real work," the first official said. "We take the faith seriously, we came here to serve."

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