The Memo: Pope, Trump set for first meeting

The Memo: Pope, Trump set for first meeting
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When President Trump and Pope Francis meet for the first time at the Vatican on Wednesday, every move will be scrutinized for signs of friction.

That’s hardly surprising given the taut history between the two men. More than a year ago, Francis criticized Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico — and the then-candidate for the White House shot back.

Francis said in February 2016 that anyone who focused on building walls rather than bridges “is not Christian.” Trump, who at that point was still seeking the Republican presidential nomination, took to Facebook to respond.

“If and when the Vatican is attacked by [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE would have been President because this would not have happened,” he wrote.

Trump also said that it was “disgraceful” for a “a religious leader to question a person’s faith.”

That was only the most memorable of the run-ins between two leaders who seem like polar opposites in virtually all respects.

Francis’s efforts to show his modesty have not always sat well with the commander in chief. Back in 2013, Trump complained on Twitter that he did not like seeing the pontiff standing in line to pay his hotel bill.

“It’s not Pope-like!” the future president said.

Trump's views on pontifical decorum appear fluid. Asked by a Twitter user the following year who his first choice would be as a participant on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” Trump responded, “The Pope!”

Francis himself has kept his focus on more somber matters.

He has emphasized the importance of social justice in his teachings and has offered critiques of capitalism itself.

In his criticisms of “profits at any price,” some free-market American conservatives have detected a socialistic worldview. In 2016, Francis said that one of the causes of “terrorism” was a “world economy [that] has at its center the god of money and not the person.”

In September 2015, The Washington Post reported that just 45 percent of conservative Catholics in the U.S. had a favorable impression of the pope, which was down from 72 percent a year before.

Francis has focused on issues of war and peace as well.

After the U.S. dropped the largest conventional bomb in its arsenal on an ISIS-related target in Afghanistan last month, Francis objected to the device’s colloquial name: the Mother of All Bombs.

“I was ashamed when I heard the name," Francis told a group of students earlier this month. "A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is happening?”

There are other differences as well, including on the topic of climate change. Francis sees global warming as an acute threat; Trump has appeared skeptical of environmentalists’ concerns.

For all those reasons, many observers are fascinated at what kind of meeting might transpire at the Vatican.

“It has got to be the most discordant meeting of a pope and the president of the United States in recent history,” said Josh Zeitz, a historian and the author of “White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics.”

“There is really very little these people share," Zeitz added.

Direct media coverage of the meeting is expected to be confined to brief photo opportunities before and after a conversation that will take place behind closed doors. Most experts, including Zeitz, do not expect there to be overt public criticisms amid such a formal setting.

But that doesn’t mean the differences will be ignored, other experts note.

Francis favors “more open approaches to immigration,” said Stephen Schneck, an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.

“The Trump administration — and the Trump campaign — obviously signaled a different tone. I can’t image those differences won’t be discussed, at least ‘downstairs,’ at the staff level," he said.

Despite his differences with the current pope, Trump did very well with white Catholic voters in last November’s election.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of exit poll data, Trump received a bigger share of the white Catholic vote — 60 percent — than any other candidate in the past five presidential elections.

Even his performance among Hispanic Catholics defied expectations, improving by 5 percentage points on the showing of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Those figures underline that there are opportunities, as well as potential pitfalls, for Trump in Wednesday’s meeting.

“Catholic voters were ultimately critical to Trump’s election last year,” said Mark Rozell, an expert on politics and religion and the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“I only see an upside for Trump” in meeting Francis, Rozell added. “He is seen in his role as an international leader with the head of the Catholic Church. Even many Catholics who voted against Mr. Trump have a very strong reverence for the pope.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.