The appearance by presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump this weekend at the Western Conservative Summit represents an opportunity for "healing," according to summit organizer Jeff Hunt.
The director of Colorado Christian University's Centennial Institute, Hunt is in his first year leading what he calls the largest gathering of conservatives outside of Washington, D.C. The summit will take place July 1-3 at the Colorado Convention Center.
Trump has not appeared in Colorado since the state GOP convention in April, when then-candidate Ted Cruz won all 34 delegates. Afterwards, Trump said the delegates had been "stolen by phony politicians."
Hunt said the summit presents a chance for both sides to come together.
"You know, there was a lot of drama following the state convention," he said. "And I think there needed to be a moment by which the conservatives in Colorado came together. And we wanted the Western Conservative Summit to kind of be that moment," Hunt said. "We wanted the summit to really be a place where both sides could come, share their voice and hopefully kind of a collective movement could come out of that."
Trump recently met with evangelical leaders, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, in New York City. Afterwards, Dobson called Trump "a baby Christian; we all need to be praying for him especially if there ís a possibility of him being our next chief executive officer."
Hunt said Trump still has work to do in winning over evangelical Christians but added that by election day, most will realize Trump is a better choice than the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
"Her issues on life, her issues on marriage, the issues that conservatives care deeply about," Hunt said. "She is so opposed to that, that you go, 'You know what, I'm not going to get my perfect choice in this. I'm not going to get somebody that you know, checks all the boxes for me. But Donald Trump is a lot better than Hillary Clinton.' "
Read a full transcript:
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News, I’m Ryan Warner. Evangelical presidential candidate Ted Cruz won all 34 of Colorado’s delegates during last April’s Republican state convention. But when the Western Conservative Summit sponsored by Colorado Christian University begins Friday, the focus will be on Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee. This is his first campaign stop in Colorado. We are going to get a preview of this summit from Jeff Hunt, who directs CCU’s Centennial Institute. He is also a Trump supporter. And Jeff, welcome to the program.
Jeff Hunt: Ryan, great to be with you. Thanks so much for having me.
Warner: After Ted Cruz won all the delegates at the state GOP Convention, Donald Trump said "they had been stolen by phony politicians." What reservations did the Trump campaign have about the climate here in Colorado, and perhaps appearing at the summit?
Hunt: You know, there was a lot of drama following the state convention. And I think there needed to be a moment by which the conservatives in Colorado came together. And we wanted the Western Conservative Summit to kind of be that moment. I thought that there’s a lot in-fighting, there’s a lot of debate, there’s a lot of passion going on, and I understand both sides of the argument. I have friends on either side of that. And we wanted the summit to really be a place where both sides could come, share their voice, and hopefully kind of a collective movement could come out of that.
Warner: And did that make Trump reluctant to attend, eager to attend? You didn’t hear until pretty close to the summit that he would be in attendance.
Hunt: Yeah, that was more his schedule. In fact, we heard from some of the advance people that this was one of the events that they had booked further out than a lot of their other events. And so I think it was more driven by the schedule and just the fact that this campaign was so in motion that it took them until about three weeks to confirm. But, you know there were concerns and I – we had a number of Cruz delegates that expressed their interest to the Trump campaign, that they would love for him to come. And so we were grateful for that.
Warner: Although Trump is the presumptive nominee, some of Colorado’s delegates do plan to fight at the Republican National Convention next month. So, I suppose you can’t say that the Western Conservative Summit will be the salve for everyone.
Hunt: No, that’s true. But I was meeting with Paul Ryan a few weeks ago and I said to Paul, to Speaker Ryan, I said, “We’ve gotten Ben Sasse and Donald Trump coming to the same event, that’s pretty unique.” And he was even pretty impressed by that. I think, Colorado’s place as a purple state, the legacy that Bill Armstrong and John Anderson built with the Western Conservative Summit, and –
Warner: Bill Armstrong is the president of Colorado Christian University?
Warner: He’ll actually be leaving that post soon.
Hunt: Yes, that’s exactly right. A former U.S. senator. They’ve built this great legacy. There’s this unique position in the state, and the kind of timing of the largest gathering of conservatives outside of Washington, D.C., coming you know just a few weeks before the convention really created a perfect mix by which you could have both sides of this argument and hopefully, you know, my opinion is, it’s time to rally around the nominee. My hope is that we’ll come out of this summit and the convention rallying around Mr. Trump.
Warner: You mentioned Ben Sasse, the United States senator from Nebraska and not a vocal Trump supporter at all.
Warner: Who has openly written to his fellow Republicans asking them not to support Trump. Last week Trump met with evangelical leaders in New York City where they asked him about his policies, his faith, and reaction was mixed. Some think he’s just the leader the country needs now, others think there is too big a gulf between his values and those of evangelical Christians. You initially supported Jeb Bush, then moved to Marco Rubio, then to Ted Cruz as the field changed on the GOP side. What concerns did you have as a Christian in considering supporting Donald Trump?
Hunt: The primary issues were it came down to character issues, right. That’s really important for evangelicals, and I kind of like this tension. I think it’s great because what you have is that evangelicals who hold on to character in their leaders is very, very important. You know, that you love your wife, that you care for your family, or you love your husband. You know, whatever it might be. But that you’re a person of character and leadership is really, really important. And so that was I think our primary concern initially during the primaries.
Warner: And how did you reconcile that?
Hunt: Well, for me, and I don’t really let my personal side get into the upcoming Western Conservative Summit, but on the political side, honestly that’s how bad Hillary Clinton is. I mean, you look at the fact that Hillary is disastrous when it comes to foreign policy as her leader – with her leadership as secretary of state, what’s happened in the Middle East. In my opinion, the Middle East is far worse now than it was when Barack Obama inherited it, and Hillary Clinton was his secretary of state. Her issues on life, her issues on marriage, the issues that conservatives care deeply about, she is so opposed to that, that you go, you know what, I’m not going to get my perfect choice in this. I’m not going to get somebody that you know, checks all the boxes for me. But Donald Trump is a lot better than Hillary Clinton.
Warner: But it doesn’t sound like you reconciled his values with your evangelical values. It’s a bit like you’re holding your nose values-wise because the alternative in your mind is such a poor choice.
Hunt: Yeah, well his policies line up more. Does he have personal failures? Absolutely. We have concerns about those and evangelicals have concerns about those.
Warner: Like what?
Hunt: Because – well, marriage matters to us, you know, and those types of things that he’s referenced in the past, those are concerning to evangelicals, and rightly so. And they should be.
Warner: In terms of how he speaks about marriage?
Hunt: About – yeah, his previous marriages, the ways he’s talked about women. Those are deeply troubling, and should be. And I’m glad that evangelicals wrestle with that. But at the same time, it’s ... we didn’t get the perfect choice and so the question before us is, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?
Warner: Well, or a third-party candidate.
Hunt: Yeah, but I just don’t think that’s very likely. I mean, I worked with Governor Romney. I worked with Rick Santorum before that. I know what goes into building a national infrastructure. This is primarily why I supported Jeb Bush initially. I thought Jeb understood what was necessary to build a national campaign. I don’t think a third party can do. Now maybe this year they might be able to. And listen, I’m friends with Bill Kristol, I’m friends with Ben Sasse. I’m friends with these people that have put forth ideas that maybe David French could have taken that role. But I thought that was unlikely as well. I think this is a good reference. Someone asked the president of Liberty why he was endorsing Donald Trump.
Warner: Liberty University?
Hunt: Yeah, Liberty University, another evangelical school out of Southern Virginia, probably the largest evangelical school. And they asked him why he supported Donald Trump and he said, “Donald Trump at least allows me to be the Christian I want to be.” With Hillary Clinton, we have serious concerns around religious liberty issues. Look at what evangelicals had to face with the Obama administration where it was lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit to be able to practice our faith. The Hobby Lobby decision, the Little Sisters of the Poor decision, Colorado Christian University is now dealing with Title IX exemptions, that’s the next thing that’s coming down. So, does Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump better allow evangelicals to practice their faith? I think it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump does that.
Warner: If you look though at Donald Trump on the faith issue, you could point to his statements about the Muslims, and say this is a man who makes judgements about people based on their faith. Do evangelical Christians look at that and worry?
Hunt: And I think we have work to do there. I am a very, very, very big proponent of religious liberty. I represented persecuted Christians in Washington D.C. for years. I deeply understand what it is like to be a minority faith in a majority faith country. And Mr. Trump has work to do there. We have got to be a country that supports and embraces the importance of religious freedom. I think we’re forgetting our history. I think we’re forgetting what happened in Europe when different faiths got control and persecuted minority faiths. So my hope is that with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a lot of those bodies that are set up and have influence in Washington, D.C., that we’ll be able to help Mr. Trump understand how important religious freedom is to the health of our society. But I also get where he’s coming from, that there are deep concerns with the Muslim community on the violence that is coming from there and that needs to be considered.
Warner: You know, and some would say that the threat is from white men. That most shootings are not at the hands of Muslims, but of white men. You look at Aurora, and you look at you know, Oklahoma City, and you look at so many of the other mass shootings.
Hunt: Sandy Hook.
Warner: Sandy Hook.
Hunt: Sure, yeah.
Warner: But Muslims are not really where the concern should be.
Hunt: Well, it’s – I wouldn’t say that it’s an either/or, but a both/and. You’ve got to take both considerations seriously.
Warner: James Dobson, founder of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family was at that meeting of evangelicals in New York. And he gave an interview to a Pennsylvania pastor named Michael Anthony. Here’s a minute of that exchange.
James Dobson: I mean he did accept a relationship with Christ. I know the person who led him to Christ. And that’s fairly recent.
Michael Anthony: Really, no kidding?
Anthony: How recent roughly?
Dobson: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know when it was, but it has not been long.
Dobson: And he, I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian. We all need to be praying for him especially if there’s a possibility of him being our next chief executive officer.
Anthony: That’s huge.
Dobson: And I think that he’s open, he doesn’t know our language, you know we had forty Christians together with him. He used the word ‘Hell’ four or five times. He doesn’t know our language. He really doesn’t. And he refers a lot to religion and not much to faith, and belief.
Warner: Now a skeptic would say, Trump is doing what he has to do to be elected. You know, appealing to as many people as he can. I just want to point out, Jeff Hunt from the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, just days before that he told the gay community he’d be quote, “Much better for the gays.” Not something a candidate backed by the evangelicals normally says. How do you square that?
Hunt: Yeah, I mean, for Mr. Trump, he’s clearly trying to build a coalition. I think what he was saying in reference to the LGBTQ Community was protecting them and having to do with their safety more than endorsing their social policies. But I think he’s building a coalition, and when you’re down to two choices that’s what’s going to happen. Listen, we’re evangelicals and evangelicals have differences of opinions with Mormons. And I served with Governor Romney even though I have serious theological differences with the Mormon community. But at the end of the day I felt that he was a better choice than Barack Obama, was going to better represent our community than that. Similarly, with Mr. Trump, if someone that yeah, like Dr. Dobson said, you know, is learning the language of the community, is he with us a hundred percent on everything? Probably not. But he’s going to better represent us than the alternative is. And when you’re down to two choices, that I’m a bit of a pragmatist on this.
Warner: I want to push back on the idea that you can count on what he has told you. PolitiFact, which is a Pulitzer Prize -winning project of the Tampa Bay Times, fact checked statements made by politicians, and in its file on Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, it said, “Twelve percent of her statements were found to have been false, or pants on fire false.” Twelve percent. For Trump, the number was 59 percent, right. More than half of what he says PolitiFact finds to be inaccurate. So how can you trust the assurances you’ve heard from Donald Trump that make him an acceptable candidate in your mind?
Hunt: Yeah, that’s a great question. And honestly, maybe it’s the assurances of Secretary Clinton that I should be more concerned about. Yeah, I agree that Mr. Trump has an issue there. And my hope is that he’s going to reflect us if he is elected. But if you look at again, the two choices and Hillary Clinton says that she’s going to continue to challenge religious liberty issues when it comes to the LGBT Community and the debates that are happening there, she's adamantly pro-choice. She’s terrible on foreign policy. I mean, we may have a challenge with Mr. Trump on kind of you know, making sure that he’s consistent in his policy follow-ups and what he’s going to say, but I’m honestly, I’m far more concerned with the fact that Secretary Clinton is going to do what she is going to do, or what she is saying because that’s a bigger challenge to us.
Warner: And yet isn’t honesty an important Christian value?
Hunt: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and again my hope is that he’s going to be somebody that would follow-up on his policies. But we’re dealing with somebody here that, with regards to Mr. Trump, that hasn’t held elected office, so a lot of this is new charted territory. So my hope is that he’s going to be a person that’s honest. And again, this gets into the kind of character issues that evangelicals are concerned about and that’s reflected in the polls that you saw where evangelicals have these deep concerns about Mr. Trump. But again, we’re facing a Mr. Trump/Hillary Clinton decision and Hillary is far worse for evangelicals.
Warner: So, when you have conversations with other evangelicals who are not sold on Donald Trump, first of all, where are they leaning? Do they lean to not voting at all, do they lean third party, do they lean Clinton?
Hunt: They’re just kind of living in the tension right now. They haven’t made up their mind. I think – you know, and I walked through this in 2012. There was a period by which there had to be a transition to the nominee. A lot of people that were Rick Santorum supporters or Mike Huckabee supporters in 2012.
Warner: Let me say that Rick Santorum won Colorado
Hunt: Yes, that’s right. In 2012, and won Iowa. In fact, I think he won eleven states. And there was a period of transition. Now this transition has taken longer, I’ll grant you that. It’s far different than it was in 2012. But I think when you get down again to what the choice is going to be in November, the likely choice, you’re going to walk into a ballot box and you’re going to have to choose between Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I think most evangelicals by that point will have come to terms with supporting Donald Trump.
Warner: Are you afraid they’ll stay home?
Hunt: That’s a real challenge. And that, honestly that’s an infrastructure challenge as well. So, if you look at this point, by this point in 2012, Governor Romney had a whole floor of an office building in Lakewood that we were working out of. We had a whole team. We had probably thirty staffers there. I had five or six people on my coalition team by that point. We had four communications directors. We had ground games in every major county. That was what was happening at this point in 2012. I haven’t seen that come out in this election from the Trump campaign, and that is very concerning. So will they stay home? It’s a combination of factors. One; can they find that they have a champion in their candidate, right? Or at least somebody like the president of Liberty said that, “Is going to allow me to be me.”
Warner: And two; will they be asked, I guess is what you’re saying by the campaign, will there be the ground game to get them moving?
Hunt: Right. Will that infrastructure be there to get them out to vote? So it’s a combination of factors and honestly, it’s a concern.
Warner: Back to the summit, who is the audience for it?
Hunt: It’s kind of a big tent. They tend to be social conservatives, what I would call the three-legged stool Reagan conservatives, right. People that are concerned about social issues, concerned about economic free markets, low government regulations, and then strong national defense in an act of foreign policy. So with that said, we do have a lot of libertarian friends that show up. We have friends from kind of more moderate leanings, new people that show up. But for the most part, it’s that kind of three-legged stool Reagan conservative that will be there.
Warner: Do you hope that he’ll announce his veep this weekend?
Hunt: That’s a good question, yeah.
Warner: Are you wondering if this is the moment?
Hunt: We have not heard that. That’s our straw poll, so at the summit we’ll release at the end who our delegates will find as the vice president, who they would like to see be that person, so.
Warner: Is there a list, or anyone can nominate anyone?
Hunt: We’ll have a list, yeah, we’ll have list.
Warner: Can you tell us who’s on it?
Hunt: I’ve asked that Carly Fiorina be on it. I’m a big fan of Miss Fiorina. She’s brilliant. She spoke at last year’s summit. Very, very smart, very kind, strong on all the issues, strong on the social issues that we care about.
Warner: And a former presidential candidate?
Hunt: Yes. Yeah, Ted Cruz recognized it as well, yeah. So, we’ve even put some fun ones on there, Mr. Ben Sasse. So, we’ll see.
Warner: This is your first year running the summit after the retirement of former Colorado state senator, John Andrews. And the Centennial Institute says, the summit is the largest gathering of conservatives outside of D.C.
Warner: Your other speakers include Sarah Palin this year, Carly Fiorina will be there.
Warner: And Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty, who's been something of a cultural lightning rod. What are your hopes for this summit?
Hunt: I'm really, am interested in conversation. And we’ve brought in what I would consider the best and brightest minds of particular issues. So, if you look at previous summits, last year we had seven presidential candidates and that was fine, but after seven stump speeches it’s – you’ve kind of heard a lot of the same things, right? You know, Barack Obama's terrible, all that stuff. But I wanted to focus particularly on policy issues and finding experts in particular, policy issues. So we have Ryan Anderson who’s on kind of the marriage transgender issues. Lila Rose on life issues. Frank Gaffney on Muslim issues. David Keene, former president of the NRA on gun issues. So we’ve brought in experts on particular issues to really drive really good conversation around how conservatives can respond to the hottest topics of the day.
Warner: No doubt Monday's Supreme Court ruling on abortion in Texas will be fodder at the summit.
Hunt: Yes, absolutely. And I'm very grateful to have Lila Rose. Lila Rose is the president of Live Action. I don't even think she's reached the age of thirty yet and has built arguably one of the biggest and most influential pro-life organizations in the country.
Warner: What does Donald Trump get out of this summit by attending?
Hunt: I mean we're going to have a really important moment. We haven't talked a lot about this publicly but the person that's going to introduce Donald Trump is Steve House, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party who, after everything that happened here in the state convention, it needs to be a moment of coming together.
Warner: A lot of frustration among Republicans that there wasn't, for instance, a straw poll taken at the caucuses and then the tension obviously that followed through to the state convention. Thanks for being with us, Jeff.
Hunt: Yeah, great to be with you, Ryan. I'm always a big fan of Colorado Public Radio. Keep up the good work.