(NEW YORK) — Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday night hosted a screening of the film Sound of Freedom at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, one day after the revelation that special counsel Jack Smith has informed Trump he is a target of the federal investigation into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Trump has regularly kept up his campaign schedule despite mounting legal problems, including two indictments to which he has pleaded not guilty. He has also denied wrongdoing related to the 2020 election.
Wednesday’s event has a specific purpose, according to his campaign: to burnish both his record on human trafficking and his credentials with evangelical Christians, who are a key bloc in states like Iowa that are early in the GOP primary race.
Sound of Freedom is a faith-based film, and evangelicals are one of its main audiences. An adviser to Trump told ABC News that the screening was going to include a large faith-based element.
The movie is loosely based on Tim Ballard, who founded the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad. The fictional story, starring actor Jim Caviezel as Ballard, follows his mission through the Colombian jungle to save a girl from child traffickers.
Between late 2019 and 2020, Ballard served on an anti-trafficking White House advisory council while Trump was president.
His and Operation Underground Railroad’s work has been closely scrutinized in an investigation published by Vice News that reported Ballard and the organization had at times seemingly exaggerated some of elements of their work.
Operation Underground Railroad said in 2020, in response: “We are proud to help play a part in giving better lives to children around the world” and contended that Vice was engaged in “an effort to find any, even minor, discrepancy, and to twist anything found into a negative portrayal of an honorable organization.” (Ballard has since left the group.)
Sound of Freedom emerged as a surprising box office success this summer, driven by conservative and religious audiences, according to analysts. Distributed by an independent company, it has built a nearly $100 million following — and counting — and has been buoyed by positive reviews and word of mouth.
But the film has some critics, too, who argue the film inaccurately depicts the reality of child sex trafficking.
Caviezel, the film’s star, has stirred controversy of his own.
He has repeatedly referenced some baseless claims embraced by the QAnon conspiracy, which sees Trump as a savior figure.
While promoting Sound of Freedom on Steve Bannon’s podcast, Caviezel warned without evidence that children are trafficked for their blood — a claim he has made before — and, in the past, he has invoked “the storm,” which QAnon followers think will be a kind of climatic battle against evil. (Efforts to reach Caviezel for comment were unsuccessful.)
Of QAnon, Trump himself said in 2020, “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much — which I appreciate.”
But on social media in the years since, he has shared posts that proudly link him to the conspiracy including one that warns “the storm is coming.”
QAnon believers have reportedly cheered Sound of Freedom, though those behind the film have flatly rejected any connection to conspiracies or politics.
“I can’t explain it and neither can they. … They just like to throw the word out, ‘QAnon,’” Ballard, the anti-trafficking advocate, said on Fox News. “They make zero connection to the actual story.”
The CEO of Angel Studios, which is distributing Sound of Freedom, has likewise pushed back on this claim, saying: “Everyone who’s seen this film knows that it has nothing to do with politics or conspiracy, and that it’s just a great, true story, well-told.”
Operation Underground Railroad’s website states that they don’t “condone conspiracy theories and [are] not affiliated with any conspiracy groups in any way, shape or form. Accurate information about child exploitation and human trafficking is imperative to effectively confront these issues.”
At the Wednesday screening, Trump was set to be joined by Ballard, Caviezel and the movie’s producer Eduardo Verástegui, who previously served on Trump’s Advisory Commission on Hispanic Prosperity.
Trump’s campaign used the movie screening announcement to tout his presidential record on combating human trafficking, saying he signed nine pieces of bipartisan legislation and doubled the amount of Department of Justice funding to combat human trafficking.
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