WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump veered off script at the start of the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday when he asked a room full of lawmakers, foreign dignitaries and religious leaders to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger so that ratings of his show — NBC’s “The Apprentice” — would go up.
Trump, who lauded the six-decade long traditional gathering as a “testament to the power of faith” was introduced by Mark Burnett, the television producer who teamed up with Trump to create “The Apprentice.” The hit show arguably launched Trump’s political ambitions.
Trump left the show, however, in 2015 as he explored a presidential run and Burnett replaced him with Schwarzenegger, the movie star and former California governor.
"We know how that turned out," Trump said, knocking Schwarzenegger. "The ratings went right down the tubes. It has been a disaster."
Trump then turned to the audience and said: "I want to just pray for Arnold ... for those ratings."
The comment may have been intended as a joke, but Trump's opening came in sharp contrast to how past presidents have addressed the breakfast.
Trump and Schwarzenegger have been a public back-and-forth since the former California governor took over the show.
The annual multi-faith breakfast is held on the first Thursday of February each year. Lawmakers and religious leaders from about 70 countries gather at the Washington event, first organized in 1953. It is meant to bring bipartisan political leaders and their religious counterparts together to meet, pray and build relationships. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has headlined the event.
The keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast was Barry Black, the chaplain of the United States Senate.
Moved by Black's remarks, Trump lauded him.
"Thank you as well to senator chaplain Barry Black for his moving words," he said.
Trump added: "I don't know, chaplain, whether that's an appointed position? Is that an appointed position? I don't know if you're Democrat or Republican, but I'm appointing you for another year. The hell with it."
To many, especially the religious leaders in the room, "hell" is a swear word.
When then-President Barack Obama spoke at the national prayer event in 2016, he highlighted the importance of needing to overcome fear through faith.
In 2013, neurosurgeon Ben Carson rose to political prominence after giving an impassioned speech at the breakfast. Carson, Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, attacked what he saw as government overreach including in the area of health care, one of Obama's signature policy achievements.
His performance made him a favorite of conservatives, in no small part because his full-throated denouncement came with Obama sitting near him at the head table.
Obama's final speech focused on overcoming fear through faith. The 2016 breakfast came one day after Obama made a historic visit to a Baltimore mosque and spoke about the importance of religious inclusivity.
"Fear can lead us to lash out against those who are different or lead us to try to get some sinister 'other' under control," said Obama, making a veiled reference to divisive rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail.
This is Trump's first time attending the breakfast.