President Trump got a badly needed boost of support from a friendly audience Saturday as he traveled to Liberty University to give a commencement speech at the Christian college.
Trump’s 33-minute speech served as a pep talk for himself at the end of arguably the worst week of his young presidency, characterized by new questions about his judgment and fitness for office sparked by his firing of FBI Director James Comey and then admitting the dismissal was prompted in part by the bureau’s investigation into links between Russian interference in the election and the Trump campaign.
The president committed weeks ago to speak at Liberty’s commencement, but the event could not have come at a better time for him. Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. was one of Trump’s earliest backers from among the religious right, even as Falwell faced significant criticism from his student body.
Trump thanked the audience at Liberty for supporting him during the election. White evangelical Christians were instrumental to his election, voting for him overwhelmingly.
“Boy, did you come out and vote, those of you who are old enough; in other words, your parents. Boy oh boy,” Trump said.
Trump made a controversial appearance at Liberty in January 2016, memorable for his awkward citation of a Bible verse (referring to “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians”). At that time, some prominent evangelicals criticized Falwell’s embrace of the twice-divorced casino magnate, but as the white conservative community has doubled down on Trump and marginalized the dissenters, nothing like that occurred this year.
The main theme of Trump’s speech related as much to his own situation — that of an embattled president — as it did to a college graduation. Repeatedly, he spoke of facing down and ignoring criticism.
“Nothing worth doing ever, ever came easy. Following your convictions means you must be willing to face criticism from those who lack the courage to do what is right. … They don’t have the courage or the guts or the stamina to take it or to do it. It’s called the road less traveled,” Trump said.
“The more a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you must be that you must keep pushing ahead,” he said.
Trump, who used a teleprompter and stayed close to his prepared text, attributed the attacks on him to his changing the status quo in Washington and uprooting “entrenched interests and failed power structures.” That message resonated with an audience that shares the worldview of many white evangelicals that government is too big and has become hostile to their interests.
“We don’t need a lecture from Washington on how to lead our lives,” Trump said. “In America we don’t worship government, we worship God.”
Trump promised his audience: “As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart.”
He cited the signing of an executive order earlier this month that was promoted as protecting religious liberty, though it did not address issues that are of the most serious concern to religious conservatives and was widely panned by advocates and experts.
Before the speech, Trump told reporters that he might submit his choice for a new FBI director to the Senate for its approval in the next week. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is among the leading candidates for the job, according to news reports, along with acting Director Andrew McCabe and others.
Trump has insisted there are no links between his presidential campaign, or himself, and Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The entire U.S. intelligence community has publicly confirmed that the Russians conducted unprecedented interference in the election, and wanted to see Trump win, though the impact on the election result is hard to know or measure.
But after Comey was unexpectedly fired on Tuesday evening of this past week, Vice President Mike Pence and other top White House officials said it was because Comey had lost confidence inside the FBI and that the agency’s Russia probe was not part of the rationale.
“Let me be clear with you: That was not what this was about,” Pence told reporters Wednesday at the Capitol, casting Trump’s decision simply as “accepting the recommendation” of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
But later in the week Trump told NBC News that Rosenstein’s recommendation was not decisive with him, and that the Russia investigation played significantly into his thinking.
“Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” he said. “It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”
Trump also acknowledged having asked Comey if the Russia probe was focused on him personally. “I actually asked him, yes. I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know am I under investigation.’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation,’” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt.
The president’s admissions have prompted debate over whether he engaged in obstruction of justice and have added fuel to discussion of the possibility of impeachment. If Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections 18 months from now, they would have the power to start the impeachment process.
Comey was invited to testify in a closed session by the Senate Intelligence Committee but has so far declined.