Trump gets mixed response with LGBT pitch

Trump gets mixed response with LGBT pitch
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE has fashioned himself as a champion for LGBT rights in the wake of a terrorist attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead.

Trump and his surrogates have cast rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE as a late-comer to causes important to gay people. They have accused the likely Democratic nominee of being a hypocrite, pointing to the Clinton Foundation's acceptance of money from Middle Eastern countries where gay discrimination is codified into law.

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Trump has also argued that he’s the only candidate willing to stand up to terrorists who are inspired by radical Islam, and by extension, the only one who can protect the LGBT community from further attacks.

“Ask the gays what they think and what they do in not only Saudi Arabia, but in many of these countries with the gay community,” Trump said at a rally in Atlanta on Wednesday. “Then you tell me – who is your friend? Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?”

He continued that argument during a Thursday rally. "LGBT is starting to like Donald Trump very much lately, I will tell you, starting to like Donald Trump very, very much lately,"

Trump’s direct pitch to the gay community – first made in a speech in New Hampshire on Monday, less than 48 hours after the attack - has surprised LGBT activists on both sides of the aisle.

Several high-profile gay Republicans, who say they’ve long felt marginalized by their own party, have been energized by Trump’s remarks and are describing him as a trailblazer responsible for a turning point in the relationship between gay people and the Republican Party.

They say that many Republican leaders were initially hesitant to acknowledge that anti-gay bigotry was a likely motive in the attacks, but that after Trump’s remarks, GOP officials have felt more comfortable addressing the issue head-on.

“Mr. Trump’s speech in New Hampshire was historic,” said Gregory T. Angelo, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group.

“Never before has the presumptive Republican nominee so directly and explicitly made an appeal to the LGBT community,” Angelo said. “Have we ever even had a nominee use the phrase 'LGBT'? I don’t think so. He’s showing leadership where others in the party were reluctant to even confront why those people [in Orlando] were targeted.”

At the same time, Trump’s remarks have provoked outrage among gay liberals, who have dismissed his pitch as pandering and accused him of seeking to capitalize on a tragedy.

Trump’s message to “the gays,” as he put it, has spawned a mocking hashtag on Twitter called “#AskTheGays.”

Activists from the Human Rights Campaign, a liberal LGBT group, protested outside of a Washington, D.C., law firm on Wednesday where Trump arrived to give a deposition in an unrelated lawsuit.

They argue that Trump still supports “traditional marriage” and has said he will consider appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn the landmark decision last year that legalized gay marriage.

And Democrats have leaped to defend Clinton from criticism that she was slow to evolve on gay marriage, describing her as a fierce advocate for LGBT causes even before she came around to support same-sex marriage.

And Trump’s critics note that he continues to court social conservatives who largely oppose gay marriage and promote religious liberty laws that many in the gay community believe are bigoted against them.

“Trump says that deporting Mexicans, banning Muslims, and keeping gay people from getting married will make America great again,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, who co-founded the now-defunct conservative gay advocacy GOProud, but has since left the Republican Party and will support Clinton for president.

“I don’t think Donald Trump is an anti-gay homophobe – he’s a Manhattan businessman, for crying out loud,” LaSalvia continued. “But gay people whose lives have always been used as political pawns have a strong distaste for his divisive politics. That ‘us vs. them’ marginalizing of different groups because of who they are really hits home for most LGBT voters.”

There is little public polling on the political leanings of gay people in the U.S.

The most widely cited recent poll released last month by Whitman Insight Strategies found that 84 percent of gay voters support Clinton, against just 16 percent who said they support Trump.

That poll stands in contrast to exit polls that found the three previous GOP nominees taking between 22 percent and 28 percent of the vote.

But Chris Barron, who co-founded GOProud with LaSalvia and is in the process of launching a new pro-Trump LGBT outreach group, said he believes Trump’s pitch on terror will win him scores of new gay voters.

“I couldn’t believe that passionate defense of the LGBT community was coming from the GOP nominee,” Barron said of Trump’s Monday speech.

“He’s the only candidate who recognizes that this was not a hate crime - it was an act of war against LGBT Americans by people who want to see us exterminated,” said Barron, a former political director for Log Cabin Republicans. “President Obama and Hillary Clinton are trivializing this when they call it a hate crime or make it about guns. That’s an insult.”

At the very least, Barron and other gay Republicans believe they have a GOP candidate in Trump who will not be openly hostile or dismissive to them. 

Still, Trump has a fine line to walk.

With his outreach to the gay community, Trump is seeking inroads into a liberal stronghold at a time when he still hasn’t shored up support among the conservative base he needs to be competitive in the general election.

Trump has a high-stakes meeting with social conservatives on Tuesday in Manhattan. He still has his work cut out for him in convincing skeptical Christian leaders that he will be a trusted advocate on causes important to them.

The meeting was arranged by Christian luminaries, including Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, who believes homosexuality is a disorder and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who has called gay marriage “contrary to nature.” 

“That’s why you can’t undersell the importance of Trump’s remarks – he did this even though it carries significant political risk for him,” said Angelo. “It’s a major sea change in rhetoric for Republicans, many of whom were tiptoeing around what happened in Orlando. Instead of running from it, Trump ran to it. Now you’re seeing other elected officials follow him.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about whether the candidate has further outreach planned to the gay community.

Angelo said he first put in a request to meet with Trump or his senior advisers back in November, but didn’t hear back until his Log Cabin Republicans group released a statement praising Trump’s response to the terror attack. Now, Angelo says he’s regular contact with the campaign.

Liberals, meanwhile, scoff at how little it takes for gay conservatives to feel included by the GOP. They say they aren’t worried that LGBT voters will suddenly shift away from Democrats.

“The Republicans have put together an entirely untenable coalition,” said LaSalvia. “No Republican nominee, not even Trump, will be willing to go too far in their outreach for fear of backlash. I’d guess that specifically mentioning LGBT people in a speech is as far as he can go in that outreach without facing consequences from Tony Perkins and the intolerant wing of the party.”