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Trump Touts Apprentice Ratings, Tells Prayer Breakfast: 'Pray For Arnold'

President Trump, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, pledged to "totally destroy" a law that bars political activity by religious institutions.
Evan Vucci
President Trump, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, pledged to "totally destroy" a law that bars political activity by religious institutions.

Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET

Despite the religious underpinning of the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump couldn't resist settling a score.

He slammed former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his successor as host of Celebrity Apprentice, for poor ratings. He also got in a dig at the show's creator, Mark Burnett, who introduced Trump at the breakfast.

"We had tremendous success on The Apprentice, and when I ran for president, I had to leave the show. That's when I knew for sure I was doing it," Trump began. "And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It's been a total disaster. And Mark will never, ever bet against Trump again."

"And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK."

Burnett was critical of Trump during the campaign, saying, "I am not now and have never been a supporter of Donald Trump's candidacy. I am NOT 'Pro-Trump.' Further, my wife and I reject the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign."

Schwarzenegger responded in a video on Twitter with a provocative proposal:

"Why don't we switch jobs? You take over TV because you're such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job and then people can finally sleep comfortably again, hmm?"

The tone — given the usual sobriety and apolitical nature of the gathering of religious leaders, lawmakers and other dignitaries — was stunning, if not unsurprising given how Trump has long ignored the usual rules.

Trump did get to a serious point, pledging to "totally destroy" a law that bars political activity by churches and other religious institutions.

Referring to the "Johnson Amendment," an Internal Revenue Service rule that forbids clergy to preach politics, Trump said he "will get rid of and totally destroy" the amendment and "allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution."

Trump also made a reference to a report in the Washington Post that he had a contentious phone call with the prime minister of Australia, one of the nation's closest allies.

"When you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it," Trump told the breakfast gathering in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. "We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It's not going to happen anymore."

Trump referred to the controversial temporary ban on travel from seven nations and the pause in immigration he has implemented.

"We want people to come into our nation," he said, "but we want people to love us and to love our values, not to hate us and to hate our values."

Many religious leaders have been critical of the refugee ban. The Johnson Amendment is named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who proposed the rule forbidding tax-exempt institutions such as churches to become involved in politics. It was imposed in 1954. Trump promised several times during his campaign to revoke it. He has not said how or when he intends to follow through on his pledge.

Trump called the annual gathering a testament to the power of faith and one of the great customs of the nation. He said he hopes "to be here seven more times with you."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.