LYNCHBURG, Va. — After one of the most tumultuous weeks of his presidency, President Trump traveled to Liberty University on Saturday morning to deliver a subdued pep talk.
For once, it was not a campaign speech — although he did marvel at the large crowd and bragged about his success with evangelical voters. Instead, the president explained to graduates of the evangelical Christian school how to stay tough when no one agrees with you, when everyone is criticizing you, when you feel like running home to your mother.
“Nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy,” the president said. “Following your convictions means you must be willing to face criticism from those who lack the same courage to do what is right — and they know what is right — but they don’t have the courage or the guts or the stamina to take it and to do it. It’s called the road less traveled.”
The advice, at times, seemed deeply personal. The president’s judgment was questioned this past week by not only his longtime critics but also supporters in his own party who were alarmed by his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
As Trump took the stage, a few young men in the audience swapped their graduation mortarboards for red “Make America Great Again” hats. The crowd of more than 50,000, the largest the university has ever seen at a commencement, as the president noted, gave him a standing ovation and then briefly chanted: “USA! USA! USA!” Trump is the second sitting president to deliver a commencement address at Liberty; George H.W. Bush spoke in 1990.
Trump’s tone was softer, more personal than usual. He read from a script but added personal asides here and there.
“What will future Americans say we did in our brief time right here on Earth? Did we take risks? Did we dare to defy expectations? Did we challenge accepted wisdom? And take on established systems?” Trump said. He then added: “I think I did.”
He urged the graduates to not pick the career their parents want them to have, to not give into “bitterness and anger,” to hold fast to the things they believe to be true, to proudly be an “outsider” and to ignore the haters.
“No one has ever achieved anything significant without a chorus of critics standing on the sidelines explaining why it can’t be done,” the president said. “Nothing is easier — or more pathetic — than being a critic, because they’re people that can’t get the job done.”
Although the president’s approval rating fell to 36 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, he found warm support in Liberty’s football stadium.
“Whatever he chooses is probably best for the moment,” said Kristen Akers, 30, who doesn’t have an opinion on Comey’s firing and traveled to Liberty from northeastern North Carolina to see her younger sister graduate.
Her mother, Sondra Voorhees of Georgia, agreed: “He’s just very honest and to-the-point. He’s for everyone, not just one group of people.”
Up in the stands was Henry Pollard, 64, who voted for Trump and came to see his youngest son graduate. He said he’s frustrated that the media is so obsessed with Comey’s firing, which he agrees with, and the investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“For nine months, they’ve talked about it. At some point, it has to stop,” he said.
Liberty was founded in 1971 by televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. and is now led by his son, Jerry Falwell Jr. The school has more than 110,000 students, a vast majority of whom attend class online and only travel here for graduation.
Falwell endorsed Trump during the campaign and vouched for him to the evangelical community — even though he’s a thrice-married celebrity who has stumbled when discussing religion and once vulgarly bragged about grabbing women without their permission.
“He deserves our respect and admiration for enduring relentless and often dishonest attacks from the media, the establishment on the left and the right and from academia,” Falwell said.
Falwell repeatedly plugged Liberty’s football program and compared his school to University of Notre Dame, the Catholic institution in Indiana, which often books presidents for commencement. Next weekend, Vice President Pence will give the address there.
“We aspire to be for evangelical young people what Notre Dame is for Catholic young people,” Falwell said. “Well, I’m proud to say today that the president of the United States chose to deliver his first commencement address not at Notre Dame but at Liberty University.”
In addition to bringing national attention to Liberty,Trump reiterated his dedication to protecting the rights of Christians, saying that “America is better when people put their faith into action.”
“In America, we don’t worship government,” Trump declared. “We worship God.”
On Friday, Trump will leave for his first overseas trip to visit the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Many in the audience said they are fearful of radicalized Muslims and supportive of Trump’s tough talk on what he once called “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump only briefly mentioned the “barbarity” of terrorists.
“We are doing very, very well in countering it,” he said. “So you just hang in there. Things are going along very, very well. You’ll be hearing a lot about it next week from our generals.”
Trump’s speech ended with another standing ovation, and soon he was back on Air Force One. As the iconic plane flew over Liberty’s campus, thousands of his supporterslooked to the sky and watched him begin his trip back to Washington, the land of critics.
Callum Borchers contributed to this report.