Saturday 24 March 2018

Donald Trump to address students as row continues over James Comey sacking

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at a 'celebration of military mothers' event at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at a 'celebration of military mothers' event at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Darlene Superville

President Donald Trump will address students at a Christian university in his first extended public appearance since he fired James Comey as FBI director this week.

Mr Trump is delivering his first commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, whose leader was among his earliest and most vocal supporters.

The president has stayed largely out of public view since Tuesday, when he removed the head of the agency that is investigating Russia's role in the 2016 election, along with possible ties between Mr Trump's campaign and the Russian government.

He lashed out at Mr Comey on Friday, tweeting that Mr Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

Mr Trump's chief spokesman refused to comment on Friday on whether active listening devices are in the Oval Office or elsewhere in the building, a non-denial that drew comparisons to the secretly taped conversations and telephone calls that led to President Richard Nixon's downfall in the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Mr Trump had earlier criticised Mr Comey as a "showboat" and a "grandstander," and the president's warning prompted new accusations of interference with the FBI's Russia investigation.

In his weekly address to the nation, Mr Trump said he was "delighted to be participating first hand in the excitement" as students and faculty celebrate Liberty's more than 18,000 graduates.

The commander in chief typically addresses graduates of one of the US military service academies and Mr Trump is scheduled to speak at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut on Wednesday.

"To young Americans at both schools, I will be bringing a message of hope and optimism about our nation's bright future," Mr Trump said.

Jerry Falwell Jr, Liberty's president, helped Mr Trump win an overwhelming 80% of the white evangelical vote.

A recent Pew Research Centre survey marking Mr Trump's first 100 days in office, a milestone reached on April 29, found three-quarters of white evangelicals approved of his performance as president while just 39% of the general public held the same view.

Christian conservatives have been overjoyed by Mr Trump's appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with his choice of socially conservative Cabinet members and other officials, such as Charmaine Yoest, a prominent anti-abortion activist named to the Department of Health and Human Services.

But they had a mixed response to an executive order on religious liberty that Trump signed last week.

He directed the IRS to ease up on enforcing an already rarely enforced limit on partisan political activity by churches.

He also promised "regulatory relief" for those who object on religious grounds to the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act health law. Yet, the order did not address one of the most pressing demands from religious conservatives: broad exemptions from recognising same-sex marriage.

Still, Mr Falwell, who endorsed Mr Trump in January 2016 just before that year's Iowa caucuses, praised his actions on issues that concern Christian conservatives.

"I really don't think any other president has done more for evangelicals and the faith community in four months than President Trump has," Mr Falwell said.

Press Association

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