The Trump administration opened the door to allowing more firearms on federal lands. It scrubbed references to “L.G.B.T.Q. youth” from the description of a federal program for victims of sex trafficking. And, on the advice of religious leaders, it eliminated funding to international groups that provide abortion.
While these initiatives lacked the fanfare of some of President Trump’s high-profile proclamations — like his ban on transgender people in the military — they point to a fundamental repurposing of the federal bureaucracy to promote conservative social priorities.
The aggressive regulatory effort, which runs counter to the Trump administration’s less-is-more credo about government meddling, has led to policy changes related to gun ownership, gay rights, reproductive choices, immigration and other divisive political issues, according to a New York Times review of government documents and court records, as well as interviews with more than four dozen people involved in or briefed on the efforts.
The overhaul is unfolding behind the scenes in Washington at agencies like the Health and Human Services Department, where new rules about birth control are being drafted, and in federal courtrooms, where the Justice Department has shifted gears in more than a dozen Obama-era cases involving social issues.
The turnabout stems in part from lobbying by evangelical Christians and other conservative groups. In interviews, these groups said they have regular discussions on domestic and foreign policy with the administration — more so than during the presidency of George W. Bush, the last Republican to occupy the White House and someone who identified as a Christian conservative.
“Everybody has points of contact, and not just secretaries either,” said Johnnie Moore, a Christian leader who owns a public relations firm and advises the White House on religious matters. “It is higher up people — directors or deputy directors. And it is all across the government.”
Top White House officials have led the outreach, including Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, and Vice President Mike Pence, a staunch social and religious Christian conservative. Kellyanne Conway, a senior aide, counted some of these groups among her paying clients before joining the White House.
Yet the new direction has also met some resistance among rank-and-file civil servants. Within the Justice Department, several long-serving lawyers have decided to retire or quit rather than help carry out the new policies, according to people briefed on the departures.
While turnover is natural after an election, some of these departing lawyers worked at the department through previous Republican administrations — under Ronald Reagan and both Bushes — and they have privately told colleagues that recent changes twist the law in directions that make them uncomfortable.
For example, a debate arose over immigration in recent weeks, when high-ranking Justice Department officials explored whether they could apply a law commonly used to prosecute businesses to instead punish so-called sanctuary cities, according to several former officials briefed on the issue.
Mr. Trump has roundly criticized these cities, which limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and he has threatened to withhold federal funding to them. Some of the department’s veteran lawyers opposed the more aggressive options as not legally justifiable.
Some of these lawyers also faced the unpalatable task of undoing their work defending Obama-era regulations, such as those on birth control and transgender rights. Rather than help roll back those rules, the officials decided to leave the government, according to the people briefed on the departures, who were not authorized to speak publicly about personnel matters.
“All of the things you count on the Justice Department’s institutional bureaucracy for — thoughtful, deliberate attention to process, including all stakeholders — it seems to have been thrown out,” said Sharon McGowan, a former senior career official who joined the Justice Department in 2010 and worked in the civil rights division until departing a few weeks into the Trump administration.
Ms. McGowan, the only former career official who agreed to comment for this article, noted that some of her former colleagues are staying despite concerns.
“Some are absolutely staying because they feel like they’re afraid of who’d get put in their seat if they left,” said Ms. McGowan, who now works at Lambda Legal, an advocacy organization focused on L.G.B.T. rights.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, while a White House spokesman said that the president “is proud to promote a conservative agenda that has been far too long ignored by the Obama administration.”
Despite their bond, some religious conservatives have expressed disappointment in Mr. Trump or faced pressure to distance themselves from controversial positions. Some denounced Mr. Trump’s response last month to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and disagreed with his move to end the program that blocks young undocumented immigrants from being deported.
For Mr. Trump, who only recently adopted socially conservative causes, an alliance with the religious right might seem an odd fit. And with his newfound deal-making with Democrats in Congress, it is unknown if his social priorities might change. But these conservative groups voted for him in large numbers, and as president, Mr. Trump has remained loyal: He appointed Neil Gorsuch, a favorite of social conservatives, to the Supreme Court, and he stocked his cabinet with others like Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The alliance has alarmed social liberals, who enjoyed considerable victories and an expansion of rights under the Obama administration.
“It feels like everything is up for grabs,” said David Edwards of Minneapolis, who successfully fought for transgender inclusion at a school he said had discriminated against his then 5-year-old child. The conservative groups, he said, have been “thirsting for political power and for someone to advocate their agenda,” adding, “They found an answer.”
With the shift in Washington, many top conservative groups have increased their spending on lobbying. In the first half of this year, the National Rifle Association almost doubled what it spent in the same period last year, according to Senate data.
Spending by the top anti-abortion lobbying groups increased as well. The Susan B. Anthony List spent $390,000 in the first half of this year and projected it would spend $400,000 in the second half, almost doubling the yearly total for 2016, which had been its biggest year.
And, for the first time, the group has directed some of that money toward lobbying the White House and Health and Human Services Department, instead of targeting only Congress.
Mallory Quigley, communications director for the group, which backs political candidates opposed to abortion, said that over the last eight years it “never even had an opportunity to start building relationships” with the executive branch.
In early March, Steven J. Lechner, the top lawyer for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, was feverishly preparing to argue a gun-rights case in court when he received a call from the Justice Department.
The Obama administration’s Justice Department had spent more than three years defending a policy that largely prohibits firearms on Army Corps of Engineers property. Mr. Lechner’s group wanted to overturn the policy, setting up the court battle.
But the Trump administration, the caller indicated, was rethinking the government’s support for the prohibition.
On the eve of oral arguments, the Justice Department filed an emergency motion stating that the Army Corps was “reconsidering the firearms policy challenged in this case,” sending the case to mediation. The Justice Department’s motion signaled a likely victory for Mr. Lechner, stating that “this reconsideration has the potential to fully resolve plaintiffs’ objections.”
“We hope that all federal land management agencies recognize the Second Amendment right to carry handguns for self-defense,” Mr. Lechner said in an interview, noting that guns are already allowed in national parks.
A spokesman for the Army Corps referred questions about the case to the Justice Department, but added that the agency is accepting public comments on a number of existing regulations, not just the firearms rule.
The Army Corps case is among those identified by The Times — more than a dozen this year — in which the Trump administration took a right turn on contentious social issues in court. And because the Justice Department represents a wide array of federal agencies in legal matters, it is on the front lines of the shift on those issues.
In each of the cases identified by The Times, the Justice Department either reversed an earlier position, announced that the government was reconsidering an existing rule, or became newly involved in a legal fight, court records show.
Two of the cases focused on the Army Corps’s firearm ban, while others pertained to voting issues. In at least nine cases, the department stated in court papers that the Trump administration was considering changing an Affordable Care Act rule that requires companies to provide employees with free insurance coverage for birth control.
And in July, the department inserted itself in a workplace discrimination case in New York. The department’s brief argued that a ban on sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not protect workers on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The brief was a sharp change in direction from that taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was illegal. Under President Obama, the Justice Department had considered adopting the commission’s position, which would have helped the plaintiff in the New York case, who said he was fired from his job because he revealed he was gay, according to former officials briefed on the matter.
The Justice Department also recently filed court papers in a discrimination case before the Supreme Court, siding with a baker who refused to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.
But the department’s advocacy has not been limited to the courtroom. It also has issued new initiatives and eliminated others.
In February, continuing an effort that began in the Obama years, the new administration formally relaxed a policy on firearms sales to people suspected of wrongdoing. Federal law prohibits fugitives from possessing guns, though the definition of “fugitives” is a matter of debate within the government.
The F.B.I., which runs the background-check system for firearm sales, has long applied that prohibition to anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant, adopting a broad definition. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces gun laws, has argued that federal law already defines a fugitive more narrowly, as someone “who has fled from any state to avoid prosecution.” Late last year, during the Obama administration, the Justice Department effectively resolved the debate in favor of the A.T.F.
The final version of the new policy, outlined in an F.B.I. memo in the early weeks of the Trump administration, went further. It prohibits people from buying guns if they flee the state to avoid law enforcement, but only if they are “subject to a current or imminent criminal prosecution or testimonial obligation.”
Changes have also occurred at the Justice Department office that handles juvenile programs. In May, the office sought applications from nonprofit organizations and state and local governments to apply for a long-running grant program that funds mentoring for child victims of sex trafficking. But there was a difference in this year’s application: There were no references to sexual orientation or gender identity of the victims in the program descriptions.
A year earlier, under the Obama administration, the program was described as focusing “on the needs of girls and boys, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (L.G.B.T.Q.) youth who are at risk or are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic sex trafficking.”
There were seven references to L.G.B.T.Q. in the document last year. There were none in the new version, though the Justice Department did not specifically exclude these youths from the mentoring.
Similar changes were made to grant applications for youth homelessness programs through the Health and Human Services Department, which said that the revisions complied with federal law.
In an April letter, it attributed the removal of the question to an effort to minimize paperwork given a small response in the past. In June, the question was reinstated.
Top Leaders Tilting Right
Standing in the Rose Garden in May, Mr. Trump announced an executive order that struck at the heart of his social conservative agenda.
The order, focused on protecting religious liberties, took aim at Obama-era regulations intended to protect gay people from discrimination and ensure that women have access to birth control.
Flanked by Vice President Pence and Paula White, a Christian televangelist who has been his spiritual adviser, the president called a group of Catholic nuns to the stage. The group, Little Sisters of the Poor, had been in a longtime legal fight with the Justice Department over the birth-control regulations.
“Congratulations,” Mr. Trump said, after two smiling nuns shook his hand. “They sort of just won a lawsuit.”
Mr. Trump’s order had no immediate effect on policy, and it did not resolve the lawsuit. But it did start a flurry of activity across the government — the administrative state that the Trump administration typically views with skepticism — prompting agencies to draft new policies that interpret the executive order and chip away at the Obama-era mandates.
Specifically, the executive order directed Attorney General Sessions to issue guidelines for interpreting religious liberty protections in law. The order also instructed federal agencies to vigorously protect religious liberties and consider issuing new rules to address conscience-based objections to health care mandates.
Since then, the Health, Labor and Treasury Departments have been engaged in rule-making to reconsider the birth-control regulation, according to briefs filed by the administration in pending court cases.
The round of rule-making, social conservative groups say, signals the willingness of like-minded officials in the Trump cabinet and across the federal bureaucracy to take up their causes.
Anti-abortion groups, for example, pointed to multiple allies in the administration.
Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services, opposed abortion and free birth control as a Georgia congressman. Teresa Manning, who heads the department’s Title X program, which provides family planning funding for poor people and those without health insurance, was formerly a lobbyist with the National Right to Life Committee and analyst for the conservative Family Research Council. Charmaine Yoest, the assistant secretary of health and human services in charge of public affairs, was once the head of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group.
Other high-profile abortion foes in the administration include Ben Carson at the Housing and Urban Development Department; Rick Perry at the Energy Department; Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations; Ms. Conway, the adviser to Mr. Trump; and Vice President Pence.
Ms. Conway and Mr. Pence addressed the annual March for Life rally in Washington in January. Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, said it was the first time a sitting vice president had spoken to the rally.
Arguably, none of the Trump cabinet members has been as influential as Mr. Sessions. A key architect of the president’s socially conservative agenda, Mr. Sessions is playing a leading role in shaping Mr. Trump’s executive order on religious liberties.
During a speech in July, Mr. Sessions strongly hinted at a decision to the liking of social conservatives.
“Under this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed,” he said during the closed-door speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom, an advocacy group, according to a transcript.
Greg Baylor, a senior lawyer with the group, which has been among those privately advising the Justice Department, called Mr. Sessions’ remarks “very encouraging.”
In addition to Mr. Sessions, a number of lesser-known officials on his staff are shaping the new direction, according to former officials briefed on the matter.
Among them is Rachel Brand, the department’s third highest ranking official behind Mr. Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Ms. Brand has deep conservative credentials. Once active in the Federalist Society, she worked for the George W. Bush campaign on the 2000 presidential vote recount in Florida, and then in his Justice Department, where she guided the Supreme Court nominees John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. through the Senate confirmation process.
Ms. Brand, a political appointee, has also served on the agency’s deregulation team, which was ordered by President Trump in February to identify regulations to eliminate.
Another official, Hashim Mooppan, has been involved in cases in which the Justice Department has taken a conservative pivot. Mr. Mooppan, a deputy assistant attorney general overseeing appeals cases, joined the department after Mr. Trump became president.
Since then, Mr. Mooppan helped defend President Trump’s travel ban and was among the Justice Department officials who signed the brief in July that intervened in the sex discrimination case in New York. Before joining the Justice Department, he had clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia, and in private practice he worked on a major challenge to the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court.
With so many like-minded officials in influential government roles — and a newfound willingness by the administration to listen to their concerns —social conservatives say they see an unparalleled era of cooperation under President Trump.
Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said this was a welcome change after his group had been involved in court battles over Obama administration policies. “I don’t anticipate having to use litigation as a tool under this administration,” he said.
The ‘New Normal’
Richard Land, president of the conservative Christian Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina, has worked with Republican administrations dating from Ronald Reagan. Never has he felt his advice and input were more welcome in the White House since Mr. Trump became president.
Mr. Land described “regular, ongoing and continuing dialogue” with the Trump administration, in emails, phone calls and meetings. In May, on the eve of a National Day of Prayer, Mr. Land and other religious leaders were invited for dinner at the White House, which included a tour of the Truman Balcony, and he later recalled a conversation he had with a fellow evangelical leader who attended.
“You know Richard,” the fellow attendee said, “I have been coming here for three decades, and I no longer feel like the redheaded stepchild at the family reunion or the company picnic. I feel like a respected colleague and guest.”
Since taking office, President Trump and his top staff have gone to great lengths to cultivate the ties that he built with social conservatives during his campaign. He delivered a commencement speech at the conservative Liberty University and addressed the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference, saying, “We will always support our evangelical community.”
Some of the groups have a particular rapport with Ms. Conway, whose client list in her private consulting business included dozens of conservative groups, including the Susan B. Anthony List and the National Right to Life Committee. The White House granted Ms. Conway a waiver to continue communicating with the groups as a White House employee.
The religious and conservative leaders say the access across the administration is bearing fruit.
They sought — and the State Department granted — a ban on American government aid to health organizations worldwide that perform or actively promote abortions, expanding a policy that began under President Reagan. Mr. Land, in written responses to questions from The Times, said the expansion of restrictions “exceeded our recommendations and expectations.”
In mid-July, the administration invited religious leaders to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a day of meetings. Over six hours, there were briefings from White House staff members who also took questions, and notable appearances from high-ranking officials, including the vice president.
During the session, attendees advocated the appointment of an “ambassador at large” to promote religious freedom in foreign policy, according to Mr. Moore, the Trump religious adviser, who attended the meeting. Within weeks, Mr. Trump appointed Sam Brownback, the conservative Republican governor of Kansas, to the position.
At the same meeting, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative religious lobbying group, broached the topic of banning transgender people from the military, Mr. Moore recalled, also adding that some participants disagreed with that stance. Some Republican members of Congress had been pushing for a similar prohibition, pointing to the medical costs of supporting transgender people. Again, within days of the meeting, Mr. Trump took action, announcing his transgender military ban.
The July meeting included the religious leaders being invited to the Oval Office, where they laid hands on Mr. Trump and prayed.
A month later, when the president was criticized over his response to the violence in Charlottesville, some religious leaders, like Mr. Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, stood by him.
“A leader presented with the challenges that President Trump is facing needs counsel and prayer from Bible-believing servants now more than ever,” he said in a statement issued on Aug 24. “Now is not the time to quit or retreat, but just the opposite — to lean in closer.”