This story has been updated.
It was one of Donald Trump’s first powerful endorsements: Jerry Falwell Jr., who testified for many evangelical Christians that despite leading a life of excess, the thrice-married, trash-talking mogul was indeed a God-fearing president-in-waiting.
But Falwell’s plunge into presidential politics did not sit so well with intimates of his late father, Jerry Falwell Sr., nor with some at Liberty University, the Christian college in Virginia founded by the elder Falwell and now led by his son.
Mark DeMoss, who for many years served as chief of staff to Falwell Sr. and considered the televangelist a second father, said in an interview that it was a mistake for Falwell Jr. to endorse Trump. He said the Republican front-runner’s insult-laden campaign has been a flagrant rejection of the values Falwell Sr. espoused and Liberty promotes on its campus.
“Donald Trump is the only candidate who has dealt almost exclusively in the politics of personal insult,” DeMoss said. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. That’s what’s disturbing to so many people. It’s not Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.”
DeMoss, a public affairs executive with deep ties throughout the national evangelical community, sits on the board of Liberty University and chairs its executive committee. He said he has discussed his views about Trump personally with Falwell Jr. — “This appears to be something we’re just going to disagree on,” DeMoss said — but otherwise has kept his opinions private.
On Monday, however, with Trump poised for sweeping Super Tuesday victories, including in Virginia and in DeMoss’s home state of Georgia, DeMoss decided to break his silence in an interview with The Washington Post.
“I’ve been concerned for Liberty University for a couple of months now, and I’ve held my tongue,” DeMoss said. “I think a lot of what we’ve seen from Donald Trump will prove to be difficult to explain by evangelicals who have backed him. Watching last weekend’s escapades about the KKK, I don’t see how an evangelical backer can feel good about that.”
DeMoss was referring to Trump’s refusal in a Sunday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper to disavow the endorsement of his candidacy by David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Though Trump did denounce Duke at a news conference two days earlier.
Liberty officials have stressed that Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump personally and not on behalf of the university.
Falwell Jr. told The Post in an interview Tuesday afternoon that he found DeMoss's objections "puzzling" and "was disappointed" in him. He said that his backing of Trump was never intended to influence Liberty's students or faculty.
“Any time you support a candidate, and you’re an official at a university, you just have to accept the fact that a large percentage of the community is not going to agree with you," Falwell Jr. said. "I think our community is mature enough that they understand that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views."
DeMoss said he intended to vote in Tuesday’s primary for Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who has emerged as Trump’s toughest critic on the campaign trail. In the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, DeMoss was a senior adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and remains close to the 2012 nominee. But DeMoss has no personal relationship with Rubio and is not involved in his campaign. He supported Jeb Bush until the former Florida governor dropped out on Feb. 20.
Falwell Jr. noted that DeMoss helped bring Romney to Liberty's campus in 2012 to deliver the commencement address.
"There were many people in Liberty’s community who were opposed to that," Falwell Jr. said. "I took a lot of heat having someone from the Mormon faith speak at Liberty, but I did it because Mark lobbied hard for it."
In January, Trump visited Liberty’s campus and addressed thousands of students, where Falwell Jr. showered praise on him in a glowing introduction. Days later, Falwell Jr. formally endorsed Trump and campaigned with him across Iowa in the run-up to the caucuses. Trump regularly mentions his support from Falwell Jr. and cites Liberty at his rallies and in television interviews.
DeMoss said he took no issue with Trump speaking on campus. “I think it was a great thing that Trump was invited — although I would think a speaker who understood evangelicals wouldn’t go to Liberty University and say ‘what the hell’ three times in his message,” DeMoss said.
But he said he strongly objected to Falwell Jr.’s comparison of Trump to Falwell Sr. When he served as chief of staff, DeMoss said, he spent more time with Falwell Sr. than anyone, including his family.
“It bothered me that he said Donald Trump reminded him of his father,” DeMoss said. “Donald Trump certainly does not demonstrate Jerry Falwell Sr.’s graciousness and love for people. Jerry Falwell Sr. would never have made fun of a political opponent’s face or makeup or ears. He would not have personally insulted anybody — ever.”
Falwell Jr. said Tuesday that Trump shares some characteristics with his father. "The only way Mr. Trump was like my father was one, he made politically incorrect statements and didn't care who disagreed with him, and two, he was very generous to strangers," Falwell Jr. said.
He added that his father "was well known for personally insulting from the pulpit local politicians who were trying to oppose Liberty University's zoning."
DeMoss said he was speaking out not to score political points against Trump, but to give voice to scores of Liberty alumni, faculty and supporters who feel queasy about the school’s new connection to Trump. He read a letter he recently received from one alumnus, who mailed DeMoss his original encased diploma.
“I am a recent graduate of Liberty University,” DeMoss said, reading the letter. “I was proud that I finally achieved that goal and I was proud that the accomplishment was from Liberty University. I no longer feel that way. With that being said, I am returning my diploma to the board of trustees.”
“Man,” DeMoss said, “that’s a shame.”