Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Virginia’s Liberty University, says that it was White House senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon who offered him a role with the Trump administration as the head of a not-yet created task force on higher education.
President Trump and Falwell have known each other for years. Falwell was an early supporter of Trump’s campaign last year, saying that he was the “best qualified” candidate and giving the Republican some credibility in the evangelical community. In 2012, Trump was invited to deliver a convocation speech at Liberty, and Falwell introduced the real estate mogul by saying in part: “Mr. Trump singlehandedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate.”
Falwell said in a recent interview that Bannon gave him permission in January to tell the public about the role as head of a higher education task force even though the White House has not in fact talked to him about its mission. Falwell said that he was the one interested in investigating regulations on institutions of higher education but that the ultimate charge of any panel is not clear. He also said he recently spoke to Trump but not about the task force, despite reports that they had discussed it.
Some Senate Democrats released a letter Thursday that they sent to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for details about the task force. They said they were concerned about the makeup of any panel that is created to look at higher education laws and regulations: “We are concerned about conflicts of interests that may be created by taxpayer-subsidized entities writing the rules for their own access to federal dollars.”
Asked for comment over a few weeks, the White House said it did not have information about the task force. It also did not respond to questions about what Falwell said were talks by the Trump team, shortly after the presidential election, to split up the job of U.S. education secretary into two: one for K-12 and the other for higher education.
Falwell said he was offered the job of higher education secretary in November but declined. Trump did not split up the department, which DeVos is now running.
Falwell has been president of Liberty, which calls itself the largest Christian university in the world, since his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder and pastor, died in 2007. The senior Falwell founded it as a Baptist college and turned it into a university. In 2016, Forbes ranked Liberty on its “America’s Top Colleges” list at 651 out of 660.
Falwell said that he and his wife, Becki, met with Trump; Bannon; Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter; and Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, on Nov. 17 at Trump Tower, to discuss what role he could play in the administration.
Falwell said that during that discussion, he told Trump he could stay away from Liberty for only one or two years, something he had previously told Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and presidential senior adviser. Falwell said Trump told him that anyone running the Education Department would have to commit to four to six years. Falwell said he told Trump he could not take that much time away from Liberty. Trump then asked Becki Falwell what she thought and she agreed with her husband, Falwell said.
Bannon then told him, Falwell said, that Trump really wanted him to serve at the Education Department, and Falwell said he would like to serve in another capacity to help the administration. The idea of a higher education task force was mentioned, Falwell said, by Bannon, who at that time asked him not to talk about it publicly.
Falwell said that reporters had been asking him what role he would play in the administration, so he called Bannon recently and asked if he could publicize the idea of him leading a task force. Bannon told him that he could, he said.
The Associated Press reported recently that Falwell said that the task force would be “to get the government off the backs of higher education.” But Falwell reiterated in the interview that the administration has not discussed with him the specific aims of a task force.
“It’s all very preliminary,” Falwell said. “It’s all something that the administration will formally announce when they are ready.”