The Liberty University president who shepherded much of Trump’s evangelical support is at the center of a controversy involving blackmail, a hostel, and Tom Arnold
Evangelical Christians love President Trump. They voted for him in 2016 by a staggering margin — 80% to 16% — and a Pew Research poll released in March found that 69% of white evangelicals approve of the job Trump is doing as president. The fact that Trump is a lewd, twice-divorced former casino magnate who has bragged about grabbing women by their genitals does not seem to bother the nation’s most devout Christians. Jerry Falwell Jr. is a big reason why.
The son of prominent televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. (naturally), Falwell’s January 2016 endorsement of Trump shocked religious leaders while essentially giving evangelicals wrestling with Trump’s not-so-Christian behavior permission to vote for him. Falwell’s support for the president hasn’t wavered since. He even defended him after Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, arguing on ABC that the president had “inside information” that could have informed the equivocation. More recently, Falwell tweeted that because the Russia investigation turned out to be a “corrupt failed coup,” Trump should receive “reparations” in the form of two years being tacked onto his first term.
In other words, Falwell is deeper in the bag for Trump than just about anybody.
But there’s a curious element to Falwell’s relationship to the president that goes beyond Trump’s dearth of Christian values. In May 2018, Buzzfeed News published a story about a lawsuit involving Falwell. The lawsuit revealed a bizarre relationship between the evangelical leader, his wife, and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. It involves private planes, an exorbitant loan to start a business, a mysterious set of compromising photos, and Michael Cohen. It also may have had something to do with Falwell’s decision to endorse Trump in 2016, although this has been denied by people close to Falwell. This week, the New York Times and the Miami Herald both published extensive features on the “pool boy” saga. Here’s everything you need to know:
Falwell, 57, is the president of Lynchburg, Virginia’s Liberty University, one of the nation’s most prominent Christian colleges. More importantly, he’s President Trump’s principal liaison to evangelicals, the political involvement of which was fashioned largely by Falwell’s televangelist father, Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr., who co-founded the Moral Majority movement in the ’80s. Falwell is not a pastor himself, but he’s taken on an overlarge role in the evangelical community after building Liberty University into a national powerhouse of Christian education.
Falwell’s profile has grown since he cozied up to Trump, who, according to Falwell, offered to install Falwell in his Cabinet as secretary of education, an offer he says he turned down. He has defended Trump unconditionally since publicly registering his support in the form an endorsement in January 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses. The endorsement was surprising not only because Trump embodied everything evangelicals detest, but because Falwell allegedly had already agreed to endorse Ted Cruz, to the point that Cruz’s campaign had written up a press release to announce the news, according to the Times. When Cruz’s campaign asked Falwell to make his support official, Falwell said he was not permitted to endorse primary candidates. Shortly thereafter, he endorsed Trump. “Clearly, something changed that led him to endorse Trump, and I would like to know what that was,’’ then-Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told the Herald.
In 2012, Falwell and his wife Becki visited the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. While there, they befriended a 21-year-old pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda. Granda soon began traveling with the Falwells, both to their home of Virginia to hike and water ski, according to the Times, and to the Cheeca Lodge in the Florida Keys, according to the Herald. The latter paper published photos of the trip to the Keys, with Granda smiling next to Falwell, the two looking like father and son. Just months after the friendship commenced, the Falwells offered to help Granda, who had practically no business experience, set up a venture in Miami. After consulting with his friend Jesus Fernandez Jr. and Fernandez’s father, they agreed to open a hostel. Falwell ponied up $1.8 million.
Why did Falwell (who was nearly 50 at the time) and his wife invite a 21-year-old hotel pool boy to travel with them on multiple occasions, and then put up seven figures for him to open up a hostel in Miami Beach that Politico described as a “cesspool of vice”?
The relationship between the Fernandez family and the Falwells and Granda eventually went sour, and the Fernandezes sued, claiming they were being muscled out of a deal in which they were promised a controlling stake. The lawsuit, and many of the details of the Falwells’ relationship with Granda, were not know until Buzzfeed News reported on it in May 2018. Though it was not included in the lawsuit or Buzzfeed’s report, multiple compromising photos of the Falwells became a central element of the legal battle, according to the Times, which spoke to several people involved in the case.
Falwell has denied the existence of the photos — or at least that they’re of him — but the Herald reviewed three of them, which show Falwell’s “wife in various stages of undress.” When they were taken or by whom is not known, but, according to the Herald, two of them appear to have been taken at the Falwells’ farm in Virginia, and one at the Cheeca Lodge.
The lawsuit that gave rise to the photos has led both Fernandezes to change their names, the son to Gordon Bello and the father to Jett Bello. Why they did this is unclear. “We felt it was very important for us to find a different path,” the father told the Herald. “There were obviously major concerns. And they were based on threats.”
Later in 2012, after the Falwells befriended Granda, Trump was invited to speak at Liberty University. Michael Cohen accompanied him, and the Apprentice star and his fixer developed a relationship with Fallwell. (Granda was in attendance, as well; the Times published a photo of him holding a copy of The Art of the Deal on a private jet.) In 2015, as the potential release of the compromising photos was becoming a problem for Falwell, he enlisted the help of Cohen, a revelation reported by Reuters last month. Cohen reportedly then flew to Florida to meet with the attorney of the mystery figure who possessed the photos. The issue was resolved, and the attorney told Cohen that the photos were destroyed.
As if the story couldn’t get any stranger, Cohen’s involvement was initially revealed through a March 2019 phone conversation he had with comedian Tom Arnold, who secretly recorded it. (Click here to read Rolling Stone‘s story on Arnold’s quest to take down Trump and his relationship with Cohen.)
“There’s a bunch of photographs, personal photographs, that somehow the guy ended up getting — whether it was off of Jerry’s phone or somehow maybe it got AirDropped or whatever the hell the whole thing was,” Cohen said on the recorded call. He described the photos as “personal” and “between husband and wife,” and said that he had one of them. “It’s terrible,” Cohen said.
Cohen is notorious for his efforts to suppress potentially compromising information, and he is currently serving a three-year prison sentence in part for arranging hush money payments to keep the details of Trump’s alleged affairs with porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal under wraps during the lead-up to the 2016 election. Sorting out Falwell’s troubles with a few racy photos is well within Cohen’s skillset as Trump’s fixer, and the fact that the issue was handled during the campaign, and only months before Falwell’s surprising endorsement of Trump, raises more than a few questions about what motivated Falwell’s surprising endorsement of Trump. This is especially true considering, as Reuters reported, Cohen is the one who ultimately convinced Falwell to make the endorsement.
Three years later, Trump is a darling of evangelical voters. Earlier this month, he visited the McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia, for what hundreds of Christian leaders united to declare a “Day of Prayer” for the president. When the church’s pastor was criticized for inviting Trump onstage by some members of his congregation, he issued a statement clarifying that he “only want to lead us with God’s Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God.”
Falwell saw this as a sign of weakness, and took aim at the pastor on behalf of the president. “Grow a pair,” he tweeted.
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