New Trump lawyer speaks directly to the evangelical base

A new addition to Donald Trump’s legal team blasted into the consciousness of Americans after he ran the gamut of Sunday news shows this week, but for the US president’s dedicated evangelical base he is a familiar and reassuring face.

With the appointment of Jay Sekulow to his legal team, Trump seems to be taking a page out of President George W. Bush’s book. The former president often laced his speeches with phrases taken from the Bible or from beloved hymns that signaled to evangelicals that he spoke their language and was one of them.

Trump has yet to try the religious doublespeak and makes no claims to being inside the evangelical fold, but in dispatching Sekulow to face the Sunday talk-show interrogations, he is sending a message to the religious right that he has the support and approval of their reigning high priests. And Sekulow’s hiring—likely by Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who put together Trump’s lineup of personal lawyers—shows that the White House is very much attuned to the evangelical base that propelled this administration to office.

Sekulow has been known to evangelicals for decades. He is the Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization founded by evangelist and media mogul Pat Robertson in 1990 as a counterbalance to the ACLU, and has argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court on the issues most important to the evangelical community.

His personal profile has been raised by the daily radio show, ‘Jay Sekulow Live!’ that he has hosted since 1995. Today, the show has millions of listeners and is carried by more than 850 radio stations nationwide, as well by satellite radio. He also fronts a weekly television show, ‘ACLJ This Week’, that is aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world’s largest Christian Television network as well as on Christian networks Daystar and Sky Angel. And he is the author of at least nine books that include such titles as Knowing Your Rights: Taking Back Our Religious Liberties and The Christian, The Court, and The Constitution.

In using Sekulow as his surrogate, not only is Trump borrowing from the Bush playbook but relying on the same personalities as well. When Bush signed the partial-birth abortion ban in 2003, Sekulow was standing by his side along with a cabal of evangelical bigwigs, including Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition; Adrian Rogers, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention; Christian talk-show host Janet Parshall; and renowned evangelist Jerry Falwell.

Sekulow rose to evangelical stardom via a circuitous route. He describes himself as “a short, Jewish guy from Brooklyn, New York.” He was, indeed, raised Jewish, in Brooklyn, Long Island and Atlanta, Georgia, but he converted to Christianity while in college at what is now the Atlanta campus of Mercer University.

Only 30 at the time, Sekulow argued—and won—his first case before the Supreme Court in 1987, helping Jews for Jesus defeat a rule that prohibited the distribution of religious literature at Los Angeles International Airport.

Sekulow became a known quantity to non-evangelicals far more recently. Many Americans would have registered his name for the first time on Sunday, when he ignited a Twitter storm after arguing on the morning shows that Trump was not being investigated—despite the president’s own tweet saying that he was—and then slipping on ‘Fox News Sunday,’ when he said that Trump is under investigation. He later admitted that he didn’t know if the president was, or wasn’t, the target of an investigation.

The backlash from liberal quarters on social media was swift and severe.

The president’s supporters dismiss such criticisms as just more whining from the left. And unless and until Trump is actually convicted of a crime, they are likely to continue to rally behind him.

Although, unlike George W. Bush, he is not one of them, Trump has gained the loyalty of evangelicals by appointing conservative judges whom they hope will pass laws to curb abortions—the issue this die-hard pro-life bloc cares about most. Just last week Trump announced the nominations of 11 conservative judges for federal and district positions. Evangelicals have long been convinced that the most effective route to building a nation that reflects their values is through the courts, and they are hoping that Trump will be able to change the shape of the judiciary for decades to come.

Political commentators have pointed out that Sekulow is out of his element in defending an embattled president, that his forte is crusading and litigating ,and not representing white-collar clients or political figures. And while those critiques are true, they miss the point. Sekulow’s counterparts on Trump’s legal team, Marc Kasowitz and John Dowd, have that side of things covered.

Sekulow is on the team for an entirely different purpose. He is there to serve as the president’s mouthpiece, and to communicate to a very specific audience. He is there to make sure that through all the legal wheelings and dealings, the support of the evangelical base remains intact. And for that job, he is uniquely qualified.