Last October, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s son Wesley got married in a chapel—a chapel at Trump Vineyard in Charlottesville, Va. Then guests celebrated their nuptials at the vineyard’s opulent Grand Hall.
The Falwell family goes way back with Donald Trump, so it should come as little surprise that Falwell Jr. today announced he’s endorsing the thrice-married real estate billionaire, who he once said “lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment.”
The Washington Post reported this morning that Falwell, who heads the conservative Christian Liberty University, announced in a statement that he supports Trump’s presidential campaign.
Falwell, whose father Jerry Falwell Sr. headed the Moral Majority, said Trump is “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
That’s some of the most muted praise he’s ever given Trump. Over the past few years, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Trump have developed a close relationship—meeting up at Trump Towers, hobnobbing at Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party, and staying in regular communication about their respective empires. And Falwell has never been coy about his admiration for the mogul.
Johnnie Moore, former senior vice president of Liberty University, said Falwell and Trump have built a close bond since the real estate mogul traveled to Lynchburg, Va., in 2012 to give a convocation speech at the school.
When Falwell introduced Trump to the students who attended that convocation (and attendance is mandatory, by the way), his praise was lavish—and a little controversial.
“In 2011, after failed attempts by Senator John McCain and Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump singlehandedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate,” Falwell said at the time. The listening students burst into cheers.
After Trump finished his rambling address—wherein he encouraged students to get pre-nups and to scratch that whole turn-the-other-cheek thing—Falwell beamed.
“It’s not too late to get back in the presidential race, is it?” he said, grinning. “I don’t know!”
Moore said that in the years since then, the two men have stayed in touch, Falwell swings by Trump Towers to chat with the mogul when he’s in New York City. They’ve bonded over their shared affinity for building things. In Trump’s case, casinos and skyscrapers; in Falwell’s case, a conservative education empire that has 14,000 on-campus students and 66,000 around the world taking courses online. And while many of Trump’s business ventures have languished and sputtered—looking at you, Atlantic City—Falwell’s ventures seem #blessed. Before taking the helm at Liberty University, the school had crippling financial troubles and a mountain of debt. Now, Moore says it has $2 billion in assets and is debt-free.
Moore added that Trump and Falwell had a grand old time in 2013 at Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party in North Carolina (Sarah Palin, Rupert Murdoch, and Glenn Beck also attended the festivities.) A New York Daily News photographer snapped a photo of the pair at the event happily chatting with Evangelical heavyweight Franklin Graham.
“I almost think it would be offensive if Jerry Falwell Jr. didn’t endorse his friend Donald Trump,” said Moore.
Four years after Falwell begged him to run, Trump has made the university president’s dreams come true.
He isn’t just back in the race; he’s perched to sweep the early states and become the party’s presumptive nominee. And Falwell’s endorsement couldn’t come at a better time.
“I do absolutely think Falwell and Liberty are responsible for the rapid increase in Evangelical support for Trump and the decline in support for Cruz,” Moore said. “‘The Falwell’ and ‘Liberty’ brand remain absolutely unmatched in this country among conservative Evangelicals.”
It’s widely seen as a major blow for Ted Cruz, who announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University. And Cruz’s backers immediately shot back.
“The sad thing for Falwell, Jr. is Judas at least got 30 pieces of silver,” tweeted Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa radio host who has endorsed Cruz. “This isn’t going to help Trump at all. Only hurt Falwell.”
Others are far less bearish about it. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, has appeared at two recent Trump events in Iowa to open the gatherings in prayer. He told The Daily Beast he won’t endorse anyone in this cycle, but wouldn’t be introducing Trump to voters if he didn’t think he has the potential to be a great president.
And he said Falwell’s endorsement will be a massive boon to Trump’s Evangelical outreach.
“When you couple that with the Sarah Palin endorsement, it says you don’t have to sell your soul to the devil to vote for Donald Trump,” he said.