Falwell was one of the first major evangelical leaders to back the president, endorsing him in 2016

By Sean Neumann
August 25, 2020 09:34 PM
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President Donald Trump (left) and Jerry Falwell Jr. in 2017
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

A whirlwind 48 hours led evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. to resign from his role as president and chancellor of Liberty University — the noted Christian school his pastor father founded 50 years ago — after a business partner and former confidant made allegations about his sex life.

But Falwell told The Washington Post that it was his political ties that had drawn attention rather than, as the Post noted, behavior such as an eyebrow-raising social media post earlier this summer that had put him increasingly at odds with the Liberty community.

It was after that Instagram photo several weeks ago, showing Falwell with his pants undone and his arm around his wife's assistant, that he initially went on an indefinite leave of absence.

Falwell saw it differently.

"There’s no question that I’m being targeted because it’s an election year,” he told the Post. "And I was very successful in bringing the evangelicals to Trump in 2016.”

Falwell has been a prominent supporter of Donald Trump, initially becoming one of the first major evangelical leaders to back Trump in the 2016 Republican primary and continuing to defend him throughout his presidency.

The erstwhile Liberty leader told the conservative website Breitbart earlier this year that he still supported Trump and believed other evangelicals did, too — despite Trump's less-than-scrupulous personal life, including multiple divorces and a penchant for coarse language and insults.

"Most Evangelicals thought I was a little nuts for supporting him," Falwell, 58, tweeted in July. "By now, he has proven beyond any doubt that he's worthy of the support of the entire Evangelical community!"

Here's what you need to know about Falwell's ties to Trump — and how a former Trump ally played a role in the sex scandal involving a former pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda that led to Falwell's ouster.

The Falwells with President Donald Trump (center)
Jerry Falwell Jr/Instagram

How Trump & Falwell Got Close

The Times reported that Trump and Falwell's relationship dates to September 2012, when the former gave a speech at Liberty's convocation.

Trump was joined on that trip by his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, according to the Times. There, he also met Granda, who was becoming closer with the Falwells after meeting them at a Florida hotel earlier in 2012 when he worked as a pool attendant.

Trump Lawyer and the Falwell Scandal

Cohen and the Falwells would later become entangled in another personal matter.

In March, in a call with actor and frequent Trump critic Tom Arnold, Cohen was recorded saying he helped the Falwells try to stop the release of "a bunch of photographs, personal photographs," Reuters reported.

"These are photos between husband and wife," Cohen, 54, said on the call with Arnold, adding as a punchline "the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold."

Details of what the photos contain have never been independently corroborated. While Cohen did not identify the "guy" who had them, he talked of a "pool boy," according to the Times.

The images were destroyed once Cohen became involved, the Times and Reuters reported.

Earlier this week, Granda gave an interview with Reuters claiming a years-long sexual relationship with Falwell's wife, Becki, and said that sometimes Falwell watched them be intimate. Falwell strenuously denied this and said Becki had an affair, but the couple overcame it and that Granda went on to threaten and attempt to extort them — which Granda denied in turn.

Instead, Granda told Reuters and other outlets he wanted a buyout from the Miami-area hostel in which he and the Falwell family had been partners.

In texts he gave to Reuters from June, Granda wrote to Falwell: "Since you’re okay with ruining my life, I am going to take the kamikaze route. It really is a shame because I wanted to reach a peaceful resolution and just move on with our lives but if conflict is what you want, then so be it."

Falwell's 2016 Trump Endorsement

Falwell was set to endorse Sen. Ted Cruz for president in the 2016 Republican primary, according to The New York Times, as the Texas congressman hoped to get a jump on Trump with support from the evangelical community. Falwell had even let Cruz launch his campaign from the Liberty basketball arena and required students to attend, according to the Post.

But Falwell, who built his own name in part on greatly expanding his father's school, made a last-second decision to back Trump — helping to boost the future president's image within the evangelical community even as the move was controversial with some, given Trump's tabloid-heavy history.

(More recently, Trump's June photo op outside a Washington, D.C., church after using federal agents to disperse a group of peaceful protesters was also met with sharp disapproval from some Christian leaders.)

President Donald Trump (left) and Jerry Falwell Jr. in 2017
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Why Falwell Endorsed Trump

At the time of Falwell's endorsement, he said in a statement that he thinks of Trump as "a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

Trump responded: "Not only is he a high-quality person, with a wonderful family, whom I have great respect for — I also consider him a very good friend and his support means so much to me," according to the Post.

Falwell's endorsement came a week after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, another prominent religious conservative, threw her support behind Trump.

Speaking with Politico this week, Granda offered his take.

The then-Liberty president "admired Trump’s strongman public persona,” he said.

“Also, there was a noticeable personality change after Trump was elected," Granda said. "He was drunk on power and felt like he could get away with anything.”

Falwell's Ties to Trump During His Presidency

Falwell has remained a staunch supporter of Trump, saying in late 2016 that he and the president had discussed him becoming Education Secretary. (Trump appointed Betsy DeVos.)

Falwell also appeared at a 2018 watch party for the midterm elections along with the president, according to Politico. His wife has been an adviser for Women for Trump, according to Reuters.

Trump hasn't tweeted about Falwell since 2017. After Falwell's presidential endorsement the year before, Trump said he was "one of the most respected religious leaders in our nation."