White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a practicing Catholic who openly discusses his faith, did not attend President Trump’s audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday.
First lady Melania Trump and first daughter Ivanka Trump, both clad in black lace dresses and veils, were among Trump’s envoy to the Apostolic Palace. So too was Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, who is also a White House senior adviser and key foreign policy strategist in Trump’s White House. Ivanka Trump and Kushner are orthodox Jews.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, State Department policy planner Brian Hook, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, security chief Keith Schiller and two members of Trump’s communications team, longtime aide Hope Hicks and social media director Dan Scavino, were also on hand.
The Vatican said economic adviser Gary Cohn and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell were also in attendance.
The pope gave each member of Trump's envoy tokens in white boxes and rosaries he had blessed.
Chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who were on the first leg of Trump’s foreign trip, had already returned to Washington. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, who is also Catholic, did not go on the trip.
Spicer’s absence caught the attention of media outlets back home. Spicer has talked about how he gave up alcohol for Lent this year and wore ashes on his forehead in television interviews conducted on Ash Wednesday.
CNN cast his exclusion as evidence of his diminished status in Trump’s pecking order. There is talk that Trump is considering shaking up his communications staff upon his return from the nine-day trip, although most of the stories about imminent firings and demotions have failed to materialize so far.
“It is not surprising that gossip-obsessed outlets like CNN and Politico would rather fan another round of ridiculous palace intrigue stories to distract from the President’s historic and extremely successful trip,” a White House official told The Hill. “Frankly, it’s pathetic and voters couldn’t care less.”
At the meeting, Trump presented Pope Francis with a first-edition set of five books written by civil rights icon Martin Luther Ling Jr. and a bronze sculpture made by American artist Geoffrey Smith.
Francis gave Trump a medal made by a Roman artist with a symbol representing peace and several encyclicals, including one on protecting the environment.
The White House said that in a private meeting, Trump and Francis discussed the plight of refugees in the Middle East and how they can work together to “promote human rights, combat human suffering and protect religious freedom.”
They also discussed the ravages of famine, with Trump telling the pope that the U.S. would invest $300 million to combat hunger in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria.