US Politics

Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr is tangled in a sex scandal. Here's why it matters for Donald Trump

President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr left watches. Source: AP

Jerry Falwell Jr runs one of America's largest Christian universities and is credited with helping Mr Trump clinch the Republican party's presidential nomination back in 2016.

An influential religious leader and key backer of US President Donald Trump has become tangled in a politically-charged personal scandal. 

Jerry Falwell Jr runs one of America's largest Christian universities and is credited with helping Mr Trump clinch the Republican party's presidential nomination back in 2016. 

A business partner of Mr Falwell's on Tuesday came forward to say he had been involved in an ongoing and intimate sexual relationship with Mr Falwell's wife, Becki. 

Giancarlo Granda says he was just 20 when, in March 2012, he met the couple while working as a pool attendant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel.

Starting that month and continuing into 2018, Mr Granda told Reuters that the relationship involved him having sex with Ms Falwell while Mr Falwell watched.

Donald Trump on stage with Jerry Falwell, Jr., right, president of Liberty University.
Donald Trump on stage with Jerry Falwell, Jr., right, president of Liberty University.
AP

Why are the Falwells so influential?

The Falwells are considered one of the most influential power couples in evangelical politics in the US.  

Mr Falwell, 58, has served as the president of Liberty College in Virginia since 2007, when he took over from his late father Jerry Falwell Senior, a televangelist and conservative activist. 

His surprise 2016 endorsement of Mr Trump helped the twice-divorced New Yorker win the Republican nomination for president.

Evangelical Christian voters make up around 25 per cent of voters in America and they have been a bedrock of support for Mr Trump. 

Becki Falwell, 53, is a prominent political figure in her own right. She served on the advisory board of the group Women for Trump, which advocates for the president’s re-election.

 Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks before a convocation.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks before a convocation.
AP

She also spoke as part of a panel with her husband and Donald Trump Jr at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the signature annual gathering of US conservatives.

Mr Falwell and others refer to her as “the first lady of Liberty University”.

Today, the university boasts an online and on-campus enrolment that exceeds 100,000 students.

It holds those who attend to an exacting honour code.

“Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University,” the code reads.

What are the allegations?

Mr Granda showed Reuters emails, text messages and other evidence that he says demonstrate the sexual nature of his relationship with the Falwells, who have been married since 1987.

“Becki and I developed an intimate relationship and Jerry enjoyed watching from the corner of the room,” Mr Granda said in an interview.

Mr Granda, now 29, described the liaisons as frequent – “multiple times per year” – and said the encounters took place at hotels in Miami and New York, and at the Falwells’ home in Virginia.

His friendship with the Falwells eventually soured, Mr Granda told Reuters, in part because he wanted to dissolve his ties with the couple and fell into a business dispute with them.

Becki Falwell did not respond to emails or phone and text messages from Reuters.

After Reuters presented its initial reporting early last week to the Falwells, a lawyer for Jerry Falwell, Michael Bowe, said the evangelical leader “categorically denies everything you indicated you intend to publish about him".

On Sunday night, however, as Reuters was preparing to publish this article, Jerry Falwell issued a statement to the Washington Examiner in which he said that his wife had an affair with Mr Granda and that Mr Granda had been trying to extort money from the couple over the matter.

Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., right, and his wife, Becky during after a town hall at a convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Jerry Falwell Jr and his wife Becki address the crowd during an event at Liberty University.
AP

Mr Granda denies any such intent, saying he was seeking to negotiate a buyout from a business arrangement he says he had with the couple.

Mr Falwell’s statement said nothing about Mr Granda’s account alleging that the evangelical leader had his own role in the affair, and Mr Falwell didn’t address questions from Reuters about it.

In the statement quoted by the Examiner, Mr Falwell said that “Becki had an inappropriate personal relationship with this person, something in which I was not involved”.

Mr Granda said that while he entered into the sexual relationship with the Falwells willingly, today he feels the couple preyed upon him.

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“Whether it was immaturity, naïveté, instability, or a combination thereof, it was this ‘mindset’ that the Falwells likely detected in deciding that I was the ideal target for their sexual escapades,” Mr Granda said.

In a statement released Friday, before news of the relationship with Mr Granda became public, Liberty University said its “decision whether or not to retain Falwell as president has not yet been made”.

Its board of trustees, the statement read, “requested prayer and patience as they seek the Lord’s will and also seek additional information for assessment”.

The fallout and other incidents

Several hours after the Reuters article appeared, the Washington Post and other U.S. media reported that Mr Falwell had stepped down as head of Liberty University.

But later Monday, Mr Falwell disputed those accounts. “I have not resigned,” he told Politico. “I will be on indefinite leave”.

Liberty and Mr Falwell did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on his status.

Mr Falwell, 58, had taken an indefinite leave of absence earlier this month from Liberty.

That step, announced in a terse statement from the school’s board of trustees, came days after Mr Falwell posted, then deleted, an Instagram photo of himself with his pants unzipped, standing with his arm around a young woman whose pants were also partly undone.

Mr Falwell later told a local radio station that the picture was meant as a good-natured joke.

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