It’s unclear how much evangelical leaders have spent at the hotel in total in the past four years, but they are a reliable clientele for the hotel, which has been struggling financially and was running about half empty even before the coronavirus pandemic began. Asked how they came to stay there, they offered a variety of answers, ranging from convenience to social comfort.
Jerry Falwell Jr., former president of Liberty University, said he stayed there for a gala for the opening of the Museum of the Bible in 2017 and has eaten in the lobby’s restaurant several times because he is fond of seafood as well as the establishment’s owner. “It’s like supporting a friend,” said Falwell, who was one of Trump’s earliest supporters. When he was president of Liberty, the university would pay for his travel, he said. “It’s not like they’re giving us better rates. We pay full price.”
Robert Jeffress, who is pastor of First Baptist Church, a prominent Southern Baptist Church in Dallas, said he has stayed at the hotel about a dozen times since it opened and gets a discount because he is a regular customer. He said his choice of hotel, which his church pays for, has nothing to do with his support for the president and comes down to one factor: Its proximity to the White House. “It’s ridiculous to think that the president could be swayed … by where guests stay,” he said.
J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, stayed in the hotel for one night in August 2018 when he was in town for a White House dinner for religious leaders, a trip that was paid for by his North Carolina church The Summit. Greear’s spokesman Todd Unzicker said Greear had booked an Airbnb but decided to switch to the Trump hotel because he could meet with other pastors staying there, and because he thought it had a good space to record a video for his ministry. “It’s like the convention hotel,” Unzicker said. “It’s convenient.”
Tennessee megachurch pastor Steve Gaines, who was serving as president of the SBC at the time when his wife stayed there for two nights in May 2018, said they received a discounted rate around the National Day of Prayer. “I just saw it as a hotel,” he said. “I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last week. I don’t have to have a fancy hotel. My dad was a railroader, my mom was janitor. I’m cool anywhere. If there was a Clinton hotel, I wouldn’t have cared.” Gaines said that his church Bellevue Baptist Church paid for the hotel.
Bill Dallas, who runs a nonprofit called United for Purpose, said that he picks between four or five hotels in the city simply based on the price for what he’s getting. “We take pride in scoring a great hotel room at a discounted price,” said Dallas, who organized a high-profile gathering of nearly 1,000 evangelical leaders with Trump before his election in 2016. “It’s not like people get a break because it’s a Christian organization. It’s about the quality and pricing.”
Dallas, whose nonprofit pays for his travel, said they got much better deals about 18 months ago when it was a five-star hotel instead of six. “I need a soft bed, and I need natural light in the morning,” he said. “So, the name Trump for me, has zero bearing on in it.”
According internal hotel records obtained by The Post, the hotel has also attracted the family of Hagee, a controversial pastor of a nondenominational megachurch pastor in San Antonio. In 2008, then-presidential candidate John McCain rejected Hagee’s endorsement after a recording was published where Hagee suggested the Nazis were fulfilling God’s will by hastening the Jews to return to Israel. A decade later, in May 2018, Hagee was chosen to deliver a benediction at a ceremony for Trump’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. A spokesman for Hagee declined to comment, citing security concerns.
According to records from 2017, Dobson stayed in the hotel. A spokesman for Dobson declined to comment.
Graham held a banquet at the hotel in 2017 for a conference on Christian persecution and reserved rooms for some guests. According to a New York Times report about Trump’s tax returns, Graham’s ministry — the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — paid at least $397,602 to the Washington hotel, where the group held at least one event during its four-day World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. A spokesman for Graham said that the evangelist also stayed at the hotel after his father, Billy Graham, died and was honored at the Capitol Rotunda in 2018.
Pastors who stay in luxury hotels might get a variety of reactions from parishioners who often pay their salaries and cover their travel expense, said Rusty Leonard, who founded a group called Stewardship Partners and has been a financial watchdog of many evangelical ministries. “A pastor’s need to stay in a five-star hotel probably isn’t the highest need in the world,” Leonard said. For many churches, which do not have to file 990s like other tax-exempt organizations, Leonard says there can be less oversight over finances.
But followers of prosperity gospel, which teaches that God will bless followers with health and wealth, might want Florida megachurch pastor Paula White, a friend of Trump’s who stays in the hotel, to stay in a nice place. “Prosperity theology has to be demonstrated by the preacher and people soak it up. They aspire to live the same kind of life,” Leonard said. “If you stay at the Hampton Inn, they might say, ‘What’s gotten into her?’”
Michael Wear, who handled religious outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, said that during the Obama administration, the more progressive religious leaders who visited the White House for Easter and Christmas functions often stayed at the Hay-Adams or the Jefferson, which would have comparable rates.
“Some people could make the critique that they should be staying at a Holiday Inn. I don’t think that,” he said. “I do think it’s interesting that you’d find pastors in Trump International Hotel for the same reason that lobbyists do: to catch a glimpse of power and access.”
While some might question the extravagance, others will see it as part of a bigger strategy toward power and influence in Washington, said John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania. “You want to have a story to tell your congregation to show how important you are, to show you have the ear of power,” he said. “It sends a message that these are people who are part of the power elite in the country. They are shaping the president’s agenda in some ways.”
Some evangelical leaders likened being there to feeling part of the club. Falwell referred to it as ‘an oasis” for conservatives. He mentioned seeing former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani there once. White, who oversees Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative at the White House; author and radio host Eric Metaxas; and Gary Bauer, a Trump appointed commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, have also been spotted there. (They declined to comment on their visits to the hotel.)
Another evangelical leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it could jeopardize his job, said the hotel has become so closely associated with conservatives that he no longer goes there because he strives to be seen as bipartisan, but he understands the desire to be around like-minded brethren: “Frankly, a lot of evangelicals have felt very much under assault ideologically. There’s an element of feeling physically safe and liking being around people you recognize.”
David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.