It was an early afternoon in late July, and Paula White was holding court before an audience of about 25 Southern Baptist ministers in an ornate diplomatic reception room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The televangelist was recounting one of her favorite stories — about when Donald Trump reached out to her in 2011 for guidance on a possible White House run.
“Would you bring some people around me to pray?” she said he asked her. “I really want to hear from God.” White recalled that she and another pastor gathered about 30 ministers from different evangelical Christian traditions at Trump Tower in Manhattan. After the prayer session, when Trump asked her what she thought, she responded: “I don’t feel it’s the right timing.”
He listened, she continued, and the two talked and prayed about the matter over the next four years. When White again gathered religious leaders at Trump Tower in September 2015, she backed the decision he’d already made to run. Videos on YouTube of that event show her standing on his right, head down, laying hands on him as she prayed.
So here she was in the summer of 2017 at the head of a long table in the Executive Office Building, a huge French-Empire structure just steps from the White House, addressing a group of religious leaders who had been invited to Washington by the president’s evangelical advisory council. With her blond hair, scarlet Oscar de la Renta sheath dress and matching patent leather stilettos, she was a bright bird among the forest of dark-suited clergymen — and, she made it clear, the one with the access to Trump. “The president says hello,” she told them. “I was with him first thing this morning.”
Because of White, evangelicals have “an unprecedented opportunity to have our voice and say heard” in the Oval Office, Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, informed the assembled pastors. “God has placed Paula in a unique place for such a time as this.”
Not all Christians, including evangelicals, are fans of the wealthy, thrice-married White, who has long been associated with the prosperity gospel, a set of beliefs that says God will reward faith, and very generous giving, with financial blessings. Detractors point to a congressional investigation of her former church’s finances and accusations that she has taken advantage of her mostly African American parishioners through her fundraising. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has called her a “charlatan,” conservative Christian writer Erick Erickson has said she’s a “Trinity-denying heretic,” and Christian rapper Shai Linne named her a “false teacher” in one of his songs.
But since the election, White’s star has soared. She offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration (becoming the first clergywoman in history in such a role). She sat by the president at a private dinner for evangelical leaders on the eve of the National Day of Prayer. She has hovered close by during prayer sessions in the Oval Office. She was present when Trump met with advisers to discuss the nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, she told me, she has turned many of her duties as a pastor of a large church in Apopka, Fla., over to associates as she jets to the White House an average of once a week. (The Trump White House does not release visitor logs, so it’s difficult to confirm how often White is there.)
White has no title and no official position at the White House but plays several roles. After helping to put together an evangelical council for Trump during the campaign, she is now, she explains to me, the convener and de facto head of a group of about 35 evangelical pastors, activists and heads of Christian organizations who advise Trump. (The White House would not release a list of members, but other names associated with this group include Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., conservative political activist Ralph Reed and Dallas-based pastor Robert Jeffress.) She also acts as pastor to the president. And in the words of Johnnie Moore, the evangelical advisory council’s unofficial spokesman and White’s publicist, she serves as “part life coach, part pastor” for White House staff.
It isn’t easy to discern how much influence White has with the president. Michael D’Antonio, author of the 2015 biography “The Truth About Trump,” says he had never heard of White before the election. “White is deemed by many to be a deceptive poseur, who is long on self-promotion and short on substance,” he said in an email. (White, in response, said she has never encountered D’Antonio. “And clearly,” she emailed me, “he hasn’t a clue about what he’s talking about.”)
Others say White has played a significant role in Trump’s life. Last June, Dobson identified her as someone who had known Trump for years and “personally led him to Christ.” Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, told me by email: “She’s very influential. She has been close to Trump and the family for many years.” Trump’s son Eric sent me this statement: “Paula is a terrific woman and a wonderful friend to our entire family. We are very grateful for her support and guidance. Faith is so important and Pastor White continues to be an inspiration to all those who know her.”
White seldom grants interviews, but she recently spoke to me on several occasions and allowed me to shadow her during a visit to Washington — a visit that included meetings with fellow evangelists and White House staffers, a prayer gathering and a Journey concert. (Her husband, Jonathan Cain, is the band’s keyboardist. Since her 2014 marriage, she has segued into calling herself Paula White-Cain on social media but hangs on to Paula White as her brand for professional reasons.) We also met two months later in Nashville, where she spoke to journalists at a Religion News Association conference.
Some details of the friendship between Trump and White have to be taken as a matter of faith, because the White House turned down my request to interview the president. But when I emailed the claims White made in this article about Trump, an official responded that while the assertions hadn’t been fact-checked, “None of the below jumps out as being inaccurate.” When asked for a comment on White, Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, responded: “Reverend Paula White has been a friend and faith leader to the President for many years. Her support is a tremendous asset for which the President is grateful.”
Trump is not an active member of any church, has publicly said he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, and infamously bragged about sexually assaulting women. But bring up those issues with White, and she responds with the story of Jesus speaking with an adulterous Samaritan woman at a well. “He didn’t lord it over her but sat with her,” she says. “He gets down in the dirty places of life. Does that make Jesus complicit with an adulteress? No. Because you stand with people doesn’t mean you’re complicit with them.” Later she tells me, “I don’t give up on people. I don’t have a dimmer switch. It’s who I am. Until I am kicked out, I will be with you. I don’t abandon people. I just don’t.”
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SOURCE: Julia Duin
The Washington Post