Trump Backtracks on Campaign Promise, Won't Overturn LGBT Protections

Donald Trump

The White House has made an exception to a campaign promise amid mounting pressure from LGBT activists.

In a statement issued to The New York Times, a spokesman said President Trump has decided not to unilaterally undo all of President Obama’s executive orders — a promise he made repeatedly on the campaign trail. If he had kept that pledge, it would have required Trump rescind an Obama executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people in hiring or firing.

Based on public statements from the White House during the first 10 days of the administration, the decision to keep the Obama order in place was made only recently. The Times reports that Trump himself made the decision.

The White House press secretary was asked during his very first daily briefing last week by the Washington Blade whether President Trump planned to repeal LGBT protections. “I don’t know,” said Sean Spicer at the time. 

Today he was again asked about repealing the order and refused to give an answer. Earlier in the day, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement claiming an anti-LGBT executive order had been drafted within the White House and could be issued as soon as this week. Many assumed the new executive order might be a repeal of the inclusive antidiscrimination rule.

“I’m not getting ahead of the executive orders that we may or may not issue,” Spicer said earlier today. “There’s a lot of executive orders, a lot of things the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now.” 

Hours later, as outrage spread that Trump could start rolling back LGBT rights, the White House reversed course. It issued a statement to a newspaper that Trump regularly derides on Twitter, The New York Times, and reporter Jeremy W. Peters.

“President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election,” it read, according to the Times. “The president is proud to have been the first ever GOP nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression.”

This is a case of Trump once again patting himself on the back for that speech, in which he publicly opposed the murder of LGBT people. Opposing mass murder was a low bar for LGBT allyship. And Chad Griffin, president of HRC, headed to Twitter to label this latest announcement as yet another example of defining downward what it means to support LGBT people.

Griffin went on to note that the White House still hasn’t denied HRC’s claim that Trump plans to sign an executive order supporting so-called religious freedom protections. “License to discriminate” laws have created intense debate around the country, and Trump promised during the campaign to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which is essentially a federal version. It’s still possible the Trump administration could add an exemption to the existing Obama order for those with “sincerely held religious beliefs,” in the same way other religious freedom laws operate. 

Religious groups such as Catholic Charities have opted against serving as a foster or adoption agency, for example, wherever they are required by state governments to treat same-sex couples equally to straight couples. They could seek exemptions as a federal contractor that would enable them to hire or fire LGBT people by citing religion.

Trump has at times tried to appear welcoming of LGBT people, though not always smoothly. He talked often about the Pulse shooting but skipped opportunities to visit the memorial, even opening a campaign office across the street. Trump smiled on the campaign trail while holding a rainbow flag — albeit upside down and with “LGBTs for Trump” written on it in black marker. His supporters point to a 17-year-old interview with The Advocate in which Trump reiterates his opposition to same-sex marriage but says he'd support revising the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include protection for gays and lesbians — an idea actually proposed in Congress but that isn't now supported by Trump.

He alarmed LGBT voters by picking Mike Pence, the Indiana governor, as vice president despite his lengthy anti-LGBT record. Trump’s Cabinet nominees are also alarming, with his secretary of Defense on record as opposing gays and lesbians serving openly in the military even long after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed. His pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, twice voted against the hate-crimes laws he’d now be expected to enforce, if confirmed.

One nominee has quietly tried to claim credit as an LGBT ally. Peters of The New York Times also wrote a story this weekend in which past colleagues of Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos claimed that she’d been an overlooked LGBT ally, despite having never publicly stated support. “Betsy DeVos, a Friend of L.G.B.T. Rights? Past Colleagues Say Yes,” it read. Even that story, though, came with a disclaimer: “Ms. DeVos declined to comment for this article.”

During her confirmation hearing at the Capitol, DeVos was given several chances to voice support for LGBT people when asked about her extended family’s donations to anti-LGBT groups. DeVos said “I fully embrace equality” while still never using the words “gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender,” or even the acronym “LGBT.” She also claimed her name had been incorrectly added to official documents for a family group that made anti-LGBT donations.

Trump has often cited LGBT people explicitly when making the case for his Muslim ban. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 people were murdered, Trump held a news conference and claimed he was a bigger LGBT supporter than Hillary Clinton because he wanted to bar Muslims from entering the United States, arguing that Muslims want to harm LGBT people. His administration made a similar statement on Friday when Trump signed an executive order codifying that Muslim ban. It effectively stops Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States, though Christians from those same countries could still be allowed entry.

Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven was among those on Monday calling for Trump to retain the Obama order, especially since he so frequently cited support for LGBT people to justify his Muslim ban.

“LGBT people refuse to be pawns in Mr. Trump's dangerous and inhumane game,” said Tiven in a statement after the ban was announced. “We utterly reject his discrimination against Muslims in the guise of concern trolling for LGBT rights. If he really wants to help LGBT people, he can pledge to retain the Executive Orders that help protect us and to nominate a Supreme Court justice who supports equal treatment of all regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to pick Supreme Court nominees who would overturn the marriage equality ruling — though he said in the interview with 60 Minutes immediately after winning the election that he was “fine” with the marriage ruling but still planned to pick justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Trump is set to name his Supreme Court nominee during an address to the nation at 8 p.m. Eastern Tuesday. 

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