(White House)

How U.S. presidents use Pope Francis to push their agenda

President Trump had a pretty brilliant announcement Thursday afternoon.

In front of religious figures assembled in the Rose Garden to celebrate the National Day of Prayer, the president said he would travel to the Vatican, Israel and Saudi Arabia — the religious centers of three major faiths — to unite people of faith in a common cause of fighting terrorism and intolerance.

While the visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia are strategically planned to rally key military allies in the fight against ISIS and the efforts to contain Iran, the president’s trip to the Vatican feels more like a PR stunt.

And in many ways, it essentially is.

—The White House will be able to frame Trump’s papal audience as an important discussion on the plight of suffering Christians in the Middle East. Unlike the president’s other meetings with foreign leaders, there will be no press conference. It’s likely that the details we learn from the meeting will come from White House aides. This allows them more leeway to frame the discussions (RE: terrorism and Mideast Christians.)

Being escorted by Swiss Guard through the Vatican’s ancient corridors to the Apostolic Palace is a momentous and humbling experience, so the details of the meeting will likely emerge in low-key form as opposed to some of the more showboating ways the administration is known for.

— To be clear, the Holy Father will surely pressure Trump on the immigration front. We probably just won’t hear about it. Francis has publicly spoken against efforts to build walls instead of bridges. But papal audiences with visiting dignitaries are generally short and private. As indicated after his visit to Egypt last week, Francis keeps his private conversations with world leaders private.

— No president has been better at taking advantage of Francis’ star power than President Obama, who used the pope’s 2015 visit to America to focus on inequality, the environment and migrants. Obama was approaching lame-duck status and used the papal visit to jumpstart talk around some of his initiatives. The pope’s White House meeting with Obama was much more high-profile than Trump’s will be. But because Francis and other Catholic leaders were also talking about religious freedom and abortion during the three-day trip, Obama had less leeway to frame the visit.

— It’s not that Pope Francis is being foolishly played by American politicians. Protection of migrants and Mideast Christians, eliminating poverty and safeguarding the environment are all issues near and dear to the pontiff. He has agreements and disagreements with both administrations. Rather, both Trump and Obama simply highlight the things they have in common with the pope in order to bank on some of the international goodwill that Francis has garnered.