Trump accepts Al Smith dinner invite for first time since claiming Clinton hated Catholics in 2016

Matt Mathers
·4-min read
President and Clinton traded barbs at 2016 dinner (Andrew Harnik/AP)
President and Clinton traded barbs at 2016 dinner (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Donald Trump has accepted an invitation to this year's virtual Al Smith dinner for the first time since 2016, when he was jeered for claiming his then-presidential rival Hilary Clinton hated Catholics.

The white-tie event, set up in name of the late Democrat and New York governor, Alfred E Smith - the first Catholic to be nominated as a major party's presidential pick - will take place mostly online this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with speakers delivering remarks via video.

At the 2016 dinner in New York - held less than a month out from that year's election - Mr Trump, 74, went on the attack against Ms Clinton, a Methodist, claiming her private views were in stark contrast to those she espoused in public.

"Hillary believes it's vital to deceive the people by having one public policy. And a totally different policy in private. That's okay,” Mr Trump said, referring to the then recently-hacked emails released by WikiLeaks, “I don't know who they're angry at, Hillary, you or I? For example, here she is tonight in public, pretending the not to hate Catholics,” he added, poking fun at the religious differences between the two faiths in a jibe that went down badly with audience.

Ms Clinton, 72, quickly shot back."Some look at Statue of Liberty and see a symbol ... Donald sees a four or maybe a five, if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair," she said, referring to a wave of misogyny accusations levelled against Mr Trump during the2016 election campaign.

Organisers of this year's event, hosted by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, said they anticipate the president's Democratic rival, Joe Biden, will attend as well. But Biden's campaign hasn’t confirmed he will attend the event.

Mr Biden's political minders have sought to keep their candidate under wraps during the coronavirus pandemic. The 77-year-old has made few public appearances since the pandemic struck back in March. Some analysts have suggested that, with a strong led in all major polls, team Biden is keen to keep the former vice-president out of public view to avoid any unnecessary gaffes, with just over a month to go before November's vote.

On Tuesday the Democratic challenger will go head-to-head with the president tonight in the first of three televised debates, with each candidate set to be quizzed on the pandemic, the economy, the supreme court and social unrest amid a wave of protests over the police killings of black Americans. Mr Trump is likely to face a grilling over the recent revelations that he has paid next-to-no federal income tax in the past 15 years.

This year's virtual Al Smith dinner will originate from multiple locations, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan presiding from the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in Manhattan and opera singer Nadine Sierra performing the National Anthem from St Patrick’s Cathedral.

After Smith was defeated by Herbert Hoover, John F Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic elected president when he defeated Richard Nixon in 1960. Mr Biden would be the second if he defeats Mr Trump.

Organisers said this year's dinner will be dedicated to essential workers who helped save lives and keep the city running during the worst of the pandemic. Typically, when then event is held in an election year, it's meant to promote collegiality and good humour among political rivals, organisers added.

Last year's keynote speaker, US secretary of defence James Mattis joked about the president calling him “the world’s most overrated general".

"I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress,” Mr Mattis said. “So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals, and frankly that sounds pretty good to me.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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