Trump tours Welfare Square looking for ‘tuna fish,’ praises ‘good stuff’ the Mormon church does and vows to protect religious freedom

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crowds protest President Donald Trump outside LDS Welfare Square at 700 S. 800 W. as he tours the facility with church leaders Monday Dec 4.

Donald Trump may be the least popular Republican president in recent decades to meet with high-ranking Mormon officials, but you would never know it from his encounter Monday with LDS authorities.

President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the Utah-based faith’s governing First Presidency, and Russell M. Nelson, head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, were all smiles as they greeted the commander in chief at the LDS Church’s Welfare Square in Salt Lake City.

They were joined by Jean B. Bingham, president of the women’s Relief Society, and Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, who oversees the church’s vast business and real estate holdings along with its welfare outreach.

Utah’s most powerful Mormon politician, Sen. Orrin Hatch, who helped arrange the president’s tour, was there as well.

“I know so many people that are in your church,” Trump told the assembled leaders. “The job you’ve done is beyond anything you could think of — 180 countries, taking care of people ... and the respect that you have all over the world.”

Eyring explained to the president that Welfare Square provides food and materials for the poor, including victims of natural disasters.

Indeed, in recent months, 50 semi-trailers of food from Welfare Square and other church facilities were sent to Houston to assist in hurricane-relief efforts, the church said in a news release, including 2 million pounds of commodities and nonfood items.

“This is simply an example,” Eyring informed his special guest, “of what we do across the world, the idea being that we think we have an obligation to God to look out for the people who, without our aid, have tragedy in their lives, be it poverty or hunger.”

Trump enjoyed a short tour of Welfare Square.

“Good stuff,” he said, grabbing a shopping cart and taking it for a spin. He later joked that, as he went around the store, he “wanted a nice can of tuna fish … and they had plenty.”

Hairnet-clad workers at the Mormon facility posed for selfies with the wide-eyed president as he wandered through the aisles with his entourage in tow.

Nelson relayed to the Republican chief executive that last week he was in China, where the LDS apostle heard talk about what “a wonderful job President Trump had done.”

Trump returned the compliment, calling Nelson a “great heart surgeon; one of the best in the world.”

“He [Nelson] decided to help even more people,” Trump noted, by giving up a distinguished medical career to become a global religious leader.

Nelson, 93, is next in line to lead the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormon authorities presented Trump with a replica of the Christus statue (a smaller version of the massive Christ in the North Visitors’ Center on Temple Square) before he departed for the Utah Capitol.

President Thomas S. Monson, Mormonism’s 90-year-old leader who is suffering from age-related impairments, was not there. Nor was his second counselor, Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

Monday’s friendly formalities stood in stark contrast to tangible tensions that developed during the 2016 campaign.

When the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump bragging about groping women became public, the LDS Church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News, said the GOP nominee should drop out of the race. On Election Day, far fewer Utahns voted for him — about 45 percent — than cast ballots for favorite son Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W. Bush.

Outspoken Mormon politicians, including Romney and outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have soundly criticized Trump, condemning both the president’s style and positions on refugees and immigration.

Recent polls show Trump’s approval rating among Mormon Republicans is among the lowest in the nation for GOP voters.

Although most Latter-day Saints still voted for Trump (only evangelicals scored higher), they did so at historically unenthusiastic levels for a membership that ranks as the the most Republican of any U.S. faith group.

Why might that be? That’s where Trump’s personal characteristics enter the equation.

“It’s because Mormons still hold to the quaint attitude that values matter in politics,” Brigham Young University political scientist Kelly Patterson said during a recent edition of The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast.

Even so, after Trump’s November surprise, the LDS Church congratulated him on his victory. And Hatch has stood steadfastly by the president, especially as the longtime lawmaker strives to steer a landmark tax package through Congress.

This past week, Utah’s senior senator called Trump “one of the best [presidents] I’ve served under.”

Hatch likewise called Welfare Square one of the “greatest symbols of Utahns’ service, perseverance and self-reliance.”

At the LDS facility, reporters asked Trump if he was encouraging Hatch to run for an eighth term.

“Yes,” Trump said.

Was the president, the press further inquired, trying to send a message to Romney, who has moved to Utah, that he doesn’t want the 2012 GOP presidential nominee to pursue Hatch’s seat?

Trump paused and replied, “He’s a good man, Mitt’s a good man.”

During their private meeting with the president, Mormon officials thanked Trump for his efforts to protect religious freedom, which remains a key concern for LDS higher-ups and this administration. Trump reinforced his support during his speech later at the Utah Capitol.

“We will ensure the right of the people to live according to their faith in their hearts,” he vowed, “which is why we will always protect your religious liberty.”

There were signs of anti-Trump dissent around Welfare Square.

Protesters and placards began appearing outside even before Trump’s arrival. One woman shouted “shame on you“ at the president’s motorcade.

Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a grass-roots group that sprouted after Trump’s election, reminded the president of the LDS Church’s support of refugees and immigrants, especially its overarching desire to keep families together.

“We were once refugees — driven out of Missouri by an extermination order in 1838 ... and so our hearts are with all refugees,” leaders of the organization wrote in a Tribune op-ed Sunday.

The president’s primary purpose in coming to Utah was to shrink two national monuments, including one called for by a coalition of Native American tribes. The op-ed touched on that topic and environmental protections for public lands as well.

“Most of us are descendants of immigrants, and we honor the culture and sacred spaces of those of us who were not — our Native American sisters and brothers,” it said. “ … We believe that we are stewards of the Earth and will be held accountable for the way our greed and gluttony have ravaged this planet.”

The previous presidential visit with top Mormon brass came on the eve of the LDS Church’s April 2015 General Conference. Eyring and Uchtdorf, along with apostles L. Tom Perry, who has since died, and D. Todd Christofferson — met privately with then-President Barack Obama at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City.

At that gathering, the men (no women) discussed the church’s long record of service, including its work on disaster relief and other humanitarian issues, and efforts to fix the broken immigration system.

They also talked about the need to forge more common ground across differences and to promote service to neighbors, both in the United States and around the world.

Obama’s immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, visited Utah more than any other U.S. president, coming four times, including a visit to open the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Three other presidents visited three times while in office: George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and William Howard Taft, according to the book, “When the White House Comes to Zion.”

Other presidents who visited Utah while in office include Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Several addressed the Mormon faithful in the iconic tabernacle on downtown Salt Lake City’s Temple Square; some even made campaign speeches there.

“We don’t have that [anymore],” Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said on “Mormon Land,” “because of trying to have some more barriers with church and state.”

Reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this report.