Washington (CNN)The fresh admission that he had reimbursed his attorney for a porn star's hush payment did not deter President Donald Trump from heralding his commitment to religious faith in the Rose Garden on Thursday.
Trump silent on porn star payment storm at National Day of Prayer
Instead, he appeared upbeat and unperturbed as he signed an executive order creating an initiative focused on religious liberty and faith-based programs.
"Prayer has always been at the center of American life, because America is a nation of believers, right?" Trump said under intense sunlight on the Rose Garden steps. "So true."
Trump made no mention of the reimbursement, which he'd acknowledged hours earlier on Twitter. He'd previously said he had no knowledge of the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who alleges she had sex with Trump in 2006. Trump has denied the encounter.
Instead, Trump sought to underscore his own religious bonafides, including his insistence that he'd revived the use of the term "one nation under God."
"They're starting to say it more, just like we're starting to say 'Merry Christmas' when that day comes around," he said as a crowd of faith leaders watched on. "You notice a big difference between now and two or three years ago?"
Though the event began with a performance by a gospel choir and prayers recited by six leaders from different faiths, Trump only arrived to deliver his remarks at the end. As the prayers proceeded, he was seen through a window sitting inside the Oval Office a few paces away, speaking with his chief of staff John Kelly.
After his speech and signing ceremony, Trump lingered for a moment to speak with some of the guests as a reporter shouted: "Why are you changing your story on Stormy Daniels?"
One of the guests shouted back, "shame on you."
A fact-sheet circulated by the White House said the new initiative will focus on four areas: providing recommendations on how the administration's policies affect faith-based and community groups, finding ways to cooperate with faith-based and community groups to fight poverty, apprising the administration of any "failures" in the Trump administration to protect religious liberty; and reducing "burdens on the free-exercise of religion."
Under Presidents George W. Bush, who created the first White House faith-based office, and Barack Obama, who continued the office, the administration focused less on religious freedom concerns and more on partnering with local faith and community groups. The shift to a greater emphasis on religious freedom could be seen as a way of keeping the Trump administration's priorities in line with his white evangelical base, who, under past administrations, have seen the federal government more as a threat than a potential partner.
"It is written to ensure that people of all faiths will have equal access," said Johnnie Moore, a de facto spokesman for a group of evangelicals who regularly meet with and advise Trump.
"People in the Trump administration really do have a conviction that private charities, churches and other faith-based groups do really effective work and we ought to be doing everything in our power to reduce the barrier to entry so they can participate in government programs," Moore said.
It is unclear who will head the initiative, which will report to the Office of Public Liaison, according to the executive order, or how it will be funded.
Moore said the administration has been discussing the executive order for seven months, and denied speculation that it was hastily added to the schedule for National Prayer Day to deflect from the porn star payment controversy.