Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has blamed a “conspiracy” of GOP establishment leaders for the leak on Friday of a 2005 videotape of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s lewd comments about sexual assault. And James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and now host of the show Family Talk, stood by his Trump endorsement on Monday.
Falwell, who is president of the nation’s largest Christian university, provided one of Trump’s first key endorsements from an evangelical leader. Trump’s candidacy, however, has divided evangelicals, who have no formal leadership. Some evangelical leaders continued to back Trump after the video leak, while a prominent theologian pulled back his support Sunday and other leaders continued to condemn the nominee.
Through a spokesperson, Dobson, who declined to do any media interviews, sent a statement on Monday pitting Trump up against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“The comments Mr. Trump made 11 years ago were deplorable and I condemn them entirely,” he said. “I also find Hillary Clinton’s support of partial birth abortion criminal and her opinion of evangelicals to be bigoted. There really is only one difference between the two. Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not.”
In comments made to WABC Radio in New York City, Falwell said he thinks the leak was part of a conspiracy by GOP establishment leaders.
“I think this whole videotape thing was planned, I think it was timed, I think it might have even been a conspiracy among the establishment Republicans who’ve known about it for weeks and who tried to time it to do the maximum damage to Donald Trump,” Falwell told reporter Rita Cosby on her podcast after Sunday night’s debate.
Falwell denounced the comments made on the tape.
“There was nothing defensible,” Falwell told Cosby. “It was completely out of order, it’s not something I’m going to defend . . . it was reprehensible. We’re all sinners, every one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t.
“We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot,” he said. “I’ve got a wife and a daughter, and nobody wants to hear their women talked about in that manner.”
Falwell added: “It was just a horrible thing. He apologized. He was contrite about it.”
He said Trump did well by focusing on the issues during the debate.
“With $20 trillion in debt, we’re right on the edge of the abyss and if we don’t make some big changes, we’re going right down the hole,” Falwell told Cosby. “I don’t think the American people want this country to go down the toilet because Donald Trump made some dumb comments on a videotape 11 years ago.”
Falwell declined to name names, but he said he has independent information that Republican establishment members who reluctantly endorsed Trump released the tape to “slither out of the endorsements and I think it backfired on them.”
“I think a lot of the establishment Republicans have been conspiring together for the last six weeks or more, and I think it’s all a plan,” he said, citing “sources I believe are reliable. It’s nothing I can prove. It wasn’t a coincidence it came out right before Trump was supposed to appear with [House Speaker] Paul Ryan at a rally and it conveniently gave Paul Ryan a way to disinvite Trump. I can’t prove any of it, it’s my opinion.”
The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold obtained the video and broke the story on Friday, but he declined to say where the video came from. Messages sent to members of the Republican National Committee were not immediately returned on Monday.
Falwell told Cosby that six weeks ago, he heard “from people who know what’s going on” that “something big was coming down.” He was told, he said, that something would happen in October that would probably result in Trump not being the nominee. “I’m just throwing it out there as a possibility,” Falwell said of whether GOP establishment figures were behind the leak. “I don’t know for sure.”
After the video was leaked Friday, Trump said in a statement, “I apologize if anyone was offended.”
He said later in a video on Facebook, “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
During the debate, as Trump faced questions about the video, he focused his answer on former president Bill Clinton’s past.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse,” Trump said. “Mine are words, and his was action. His was what he’s done to women. There’s never been anybody in the history politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women. So you can say it any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women.”
Falwell’s comments to WABC about Trump’s performance were glowing. He compared Trump to Clinton’s “crimes” and said, “I couldn’t have been more proud of him.”
Falwell said he was “blown away” by Trump’s performance.” “No Republican could’ve done better,” he said.
Falwell cited the Supreme Court as one of the issues people really care about.
“Years from now, when the Supreme Court is stacked with liberals who don’t honor the Constitution, I don’t think anybody is going to be sitting around thinking about whether Donald Trump said this or that on the videotape in 2005. I think they’re going to be sitting around saying, ‘Gosh, I wish we had different Supreme Court justices.”
Trump’s campaign has driven wedges in evangelicalism. A group of evangelicals released a letter Thursday condemning the candidate, saying his campaign “affirms racist elements in white culture.” Some observers cite support for Trump’s candidacy as the end of the Religious Right, religious leaders of previous decades such as Falwell’s father, who focused on “family values” and led conservative religious voters to vote mostly with the Republican Party.
The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted Sept. 19-22 ahead of the video leak, showed that 52 percent of evangelicals of any race favored Trump, compared with 40 percent who supported Clinton. Among white evangelicals, 71 percent supported Trump while 22 percent supported Clinton.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Rita Cosby’s name. This story has been updated to reflect comments from James Dobson.