The Jerry Falwell Jr. scandal, explained

Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned as president of Liberty University Tuesday amid an unfolding sex scandal.

The scandal involves Falwell and his wife Becki’s relationship with a younger man they met at a hotel in Miami Beach: Giancarlo Granda. It’s been uncovered bit by bit in a series of reports over the past three years — most notably by Aram Roston and Brandon Ambrosino — but on Monday, Granda went on the record detailing the relationship to Roston for the first time.

Falwell confirmed the affair while disputing aspects of Granda’s story. But it proved to be the breaking point for his job at Liberty, which he was already on leave from due to controversy about a racy photo he posted on Instagram. Liberty is a Christian university founded by Falwell’s father and famous for its strict code of moral conduct for its students.

The details of the sex scandal are getting a great deal of attention. But more broadly, this is a tale of financial, institutional, and political corruption involving one of the most prominent evangelical organizations in the country — and the saga may even have helped make Donald Trump president.

Gaps in the story remain, but what we know is that in 2015, Michael Cohen — who Falwell had met a few years earlier when Trump came to speak at Liberty — tried to help the Falwells deal with a problem stemming from this situation. (Cohen later said that the problem involved someone obtaining compromising photos of Becki Falwell.)

A few months later — and a few days before the 2016 Iowa caucuses — Falwell Jr. announced that he was endorsing Donald Trump for president. This was one of Trump’s first prominent endorsements, and it was surprising and controversial among evangelicals, considering Trump’s weak ties to organized religion and his messy personal life.

There’s no hard evidence that Falwell’s endorsement of Trump was tied in any way to Cohen’s assistance to the Falwells (whether as a favor, quid pro quo, or blackmail). But it doesn’t really need to be. What is clear is that Cohen knew at least part of the story of this highly personal and private situation — a story that would be extremely damaging to Falwell’s career if it got out. And as Falwell was deciding who to endorse in 2016, he knew what Cohen knew.

Who is Jerry Falwell Jr.?

The story of the Falwells starts with Jerry Falwell Sr., a Southern Baptist pastor who founded a church in 1956 at the age of 22. Over the next two decades (the period that encompassed Jerry Jr.’s childhood), Falwell Sr. would become one of the leading televangelists in the country. He parlayed that national fame into political influence by founding the Moral Majority, a political group that mobilized conservative evangelical Christians to play a greater role in politics — and to support the Republican Party. (For a sense of just how conservative the elder Falwell was, note that he blamed the 9/11 attacks on “the abortionists, the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” saying they provoked God’s anger.)

Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks after Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers the commencement address at Arthur L. Williams Stadium on the campus of Liberty University on May 12, 2012, in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Jared Soares/Getty

As he was initially rising to fame, Falwell Sr. also founded a religious college in Lynchburg, Virginia, which in 1985 was renamed Liberty University. Famous for its strict behavior codes for students (no short skirts, no smoking or alcohol, no R-rated movies, no attending dances), Liberty became a leading destination for promising evangelical students. Jerry Jr. was an alum, and after he became a lawyer his father named him general counsel for Liberty University, at the age of 26.

Then, as Alec MacGillis recounts, the elder Falwell’s endeavors ran into trouble after other leading televangelists were embroiled in sex scandals. Disillusionment with the movement resulted in plummeting contributions and the dissolution of the once-powerful Moral Majority, and by the mid-1990s Liberty University was over $100 million in debt. “It was a nightmare,” Jerry Jr. later told Forbes.

But Jerry Jr. turned out to have more financial acumen than his father. He took the leading role in negotiating with creditors, and he also made a flurry of real estate maneuvers that helped get the university out of its hole. Credited for the turnaround, Jerry Jr. succeeded his father as head of Liberty University after the elder Falwell died in 2007.

That’s when he really struck gold — with Liberty’s online learning arm. By emulating the practices of for-profit colleges (though Liberty is a tax-exempt religious nonprofit institution), Jerry Jr. expanded Liberty to 100,000 online students and brought in vast sums of money, much of which was from the federal government’s student aid programs.

Jerry Jr. never did become a minister, and his credentials in providing religious guidance may have been questionable. But the money didn’t lie: By 2012, the once-ailing Liberty University had over a billion dollars in net assets. All this made him a pillar of the local community, of the religious right, and of Republican politics generally, as GOP presidential candidates sought to win his favor. He was on top of the world.

A 2012 trip to Miami had long-term consequences

In March 2012, the Falwells took a trip to Miami and stayed at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. There, they met Giancarlo Granda, a 21-year-old pool attendant.

Granda told Politico that, during this first encounter, Becki Falwell asked him to come back to her room and have sex with her while Jerry watched. (Falwell disputes this, claiming that it was just Becki who “had an inappropriate personal relationship with this person, something in which I was not involved.”)

The trio evidently became very close very quickly. The Falwells began flying Granda around in their private jet, including bringing him to visit Liberty. They also put up $1.8 million to buy and renovate a Miami Beach hostel which would be owned by Granda and Falwell’s son Trey.

That real estate investment soon became a problem. A friend of Granda’s named Jesus Fernandez Jr. claimed that he and his father Jesus Sr. had helped find the place, and that Jerry Falwell Jr. and Granda had promised them part ownership. They sued, and though details are still murky, talks between the parties seem to have gotten ugly behind the scenes.

Enter Michael Cohen.

Michael Cohen and the Falwells

The first known connection between Donald Trump and the Falwells was in September 2012, when Trump visited Liberty University to deliver a convocation address. Michael Cohen was in attendance. (So was Giancarlo Granda — he was photographed shaking hands with Trump.)

Trump had flirted with running for president the previous year, with Cohen taking a leading role in that proto-campaign. Trump ended up not running, but he evidently wanted to keep his options open for 2016, and that involved trying to build bridges with key evangelical leaders. (He described himself during the address as “a very proud Christian” and “real Christian.”)

As for why Falwell Jr. invited Trump despite the university’s moral codes, he praised Trump’s success in business and how he “single-handedly forced President [Barack] Obama to release his birth certificate.”

After this visit, Michael Cohen — famous as Trump’s lawyer and “fixer” — kept in touch with Falwell’s team. In 2014 and 2015, for instance, he would ask John Gauger, Liberty’s chief information officer (who sometimes acted as a “fixer” for Falwell), to try and rig online polls for Trump. Gauger later told the Wall Street Journal that Cohen handed him around $12,000 cash in a bag, though he had been promised $50,000. (Later, Cohen would enlist Gauger to create a Twitter account called @WomenforCohen that would praise him.)

Around this time, Cohen also became involved in the wrangling over the Miami hostel.

One of Cohen’s most important duties for Trump had long been to make embarrassing or potentially damaging problems go away. Sometimes that involved making threats to reporters, sometimes that involved arranging payments to women in exchange for their silence. (Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law in arranging hush payments for two women in 2016.)

The Falwells now faced such a problem: Someone involved in the Miami lawsuit had obtained sexually compromising photos. So they asked Cohen for help.

Details about what the photos showed and who had them remain murky. Granda now tells Politico that, at the time, Becki Falwell told him that “Michael is well-connected in Miami,” and that he’d “get this buried and will make those photos go away.”

Cohen would later say (in a conversation surreptitiously taped by the actor Tom Arnold) that they were “photos between husband and wife” and that “the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold.” He claimed he never ended up arranging a payoff, but that he did end up obtaining one photo of Becki Falwell — and that he held on to it. Whatever happened, the matter remained private for the time being.

The Trump endorsement

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers the convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University January 18, 2016 in Lynchburg, Virginia

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers the convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University January 18, 2016 in Lynchburg, Virginia
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

By January 2016, the leading candidates in the Republican presidential race were Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Neither was beloved by the Republican establishment. Cruz, who had launched his campaign at Liberty the previous year, believed he could win by mobilizing evangelical Christians who would never vote for a sexually crude twice-divorced New Yorker who had tenuous ties to organized religion.

Yet for some time, Rostom later reported, both Donald Trump and Michael Cohen had privately expressed confidence that Falwell would eventually endorse Trump. That’s notable because endorsing Trump was an unusual thing to do at that point — zero sitting members of Congress were backing him, and conservative activist leaders were skeptical.

Indeed, when Trump returned to Liberty to speak on January 18, his appearance was widely mocked — he cited the book of “Two Corinthians” rather than Second Corinthians. (“Two Corinthians walk into a bar,” Cruz soon joked on the campaign trail.)

Falwell lavishly praised Trump during this Liberty appearance (“Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught”), but he did not endorse him right away. Per the New York Times, Falwell told a Cruz adviser that Liberty’s board wouldn’t permit him to endorse anyone. He told one of his own associates, meanwhile, that he was coming “under heavy pressure” (in the Times’s words) to endorse Trump.

Rostom later reported that Cohen “helped arrange” the endorsement — and Falwell agreed. He made the endorsement official on January 26, less than a week before the Iowa caucuses. Other evangelical leaders condemned Falwell, with one saying his father “would be rolling over in his grave” if he knew Jerry Jr. had endorsed “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States.”

So one obvious question is whether Falwell’s endorsement of Trump was connected to or driven by Cohen’s assistance with those compromising photos.

But in a way, that question misses the point. As Josh Marshall pointed out on Twitter, Cohen knew about “secrets that can destroy Falwell’s whole world.” Even if the topic never explicitly came up in relation to the endorsement, that’s something Falwell couldn’t possibly have forgotten when he was making up his mind.

How it all fell apart for Falwell

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. participates in a town hall meeting on the opioid crisis as part of first lady Melania Trump’s “Be Best” initiative at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on March 5, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. participates in a town hall meeting on the opioid crisis as part of first lady Melania Trump’s “Be Best” initiative at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on March 5, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty

For a while, it looked like it all worked out. Trump won the Republican nomination and the presidency. Liberty continued to rake in the cash. President Trump put Falwell in charge of an education policy task force. Falwell continued to fiercely defend Trump in public, including after Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 Charlottesville protests.

That same month, a report by Brandon Ambrosino for Politico Magazine revealed, for the first time, the Falwells’ ties to the Miami Beach hostel. Days later, Jesus Fernandez Sr. and Jr., whose previous suit had gone nowhere, filed a new lawsuit arguing that Falwell and Granda had cheated them out of ownership in the hostel.

Aram Roston, then working for BuzzFeed News, was the first to report on that lawsuit in May 2018, in a story that also revealed Granda’s background as a young pool attendant, the outlines of Cohen’s connection to Falwell, and his role in delivering the endorsement for the first time. The story did not say there was a sexual angle, but rampant speculation about that topic began immediately.

Over the next two years, one damaging story after another came out about the Falwells (most of which were written or co-written by Roston or Ambrosino). Some of these stories advanced the Granda story further, but others were mostly unrelated and made broader claims of corruption and mismanagement of the university on Falwell’s part.

  • Roston, now at Reuters, reported that Tom Arnold had secretly taped Cohen describing his assistance to the Falwells related to the compromising photos
  • Ambrosino reported on how Falwell frequently awarded Liberty loans and contracts to his friends and son, and quoted a source complaining he was running the university like a “dictatorship”
  • Roston and Joshua Schneyer revealed that Falwell had given another young man, his and his wife’s personal trainer, ownership of Liberty University’s sports facility
  • Ambrosino revealed that Falwell and Becki had been photographed at a nightclub in Miami (Falwell claimed the pictures were “photo-shopped”; they weren’t)
  • Meanwhile, once the Covid-19 pandemic began, Falwell controversially tried to reopen Liberty University back in late March

But the beginning of the end for Falwell’s Liberty tenure turned out to be an Instagram post. Earlier this month, Falwell posted a photo of himself with his pants unzipped, his belly and underwear visible, and his arm around the waist of his wife’s assistant. Their attire seemed to be a reference to Trailer Park Boys, a mockumentary about Canadian trailer park residents, though they were aboard a yacht owned by a Nascar mogul.

Falwell apologized and said he’d take an indefinite leave of absence from the Liberty presidency, adding that he would “try to be a good boy from here on out.” That was a little over two weeks ago.

Then, on Sunday, Falwell suddenly confirmed to a friendly columnist at the Washington Examiner that his wife did in fact have a “personal relationship” with Granda, though he maintained he didn’t know about it and it caused him great pain when he found out. He also suggested Granda was trying to extort him.

This sudden admission was likely an attempt to preempt the new story that Aram Roston had in the works. It was posted Monday, and contained the first on-the-record claim from Granda that he had a lengthy relationship with the Falwells, and the first details of what that relationship entailed. By Monday night, there were conflicting reports on whether Falwell had in fact resigned, but on Tuesday, Falwell confirmed that he was out.

He told journalist Richard Chumney that his exit was a “relief,” and added that “the quote that keeps going through my mind this morning is Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last.”’

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