In a bombshell article today, The New York Times uncovered new details about what may have been the real motivation for Jerry Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president in 2016 — a crucial backing that helped bring evangelical voters to the Trump camp and helped him win the presidency.
Sourcing information from a Florida lawsuit filed against the Falwells, from Southern District of New York’s investigation into former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, and from the efforts of actor and comic Tom Arnold, the newspaper paints a portrait of a web of sexual, financial, and legal entanglements between the Trump campaign, Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, and Giancarlo Granda, a pool attendant of Mexican and Cuban heritage.
The story begins early in the 2016 campaign when Falwell Jr. — the president of the fundamentalist Christian Liberty University, a position he inherited from his televangelist father — was expected to endorse Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) candidacy.
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It came as a shock, however, when he instead threw his support behind Donald Trump — a man whose morals and behavior would be logically be thought to be anathema to the conservative Christian circles that Falwell influences.
The New York Times uncovered new details of the back story behind the fundamentalist’s endorsement of Trump and helped deliver a crucial voting block.
“That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.”
After having met Giancarlo Granda while they were staying at the Fontainebleau, Falwell Jr. and his wife Becki struck up a friendship with the then-21-year-old man who was bringing them towels and drinks while they lounged by the pool.
Before long, the ambitious Mr. Granda was accompanying the Falwells on hiking and water skiing excursions to Virginia. Shortly thereafter, the Falwells were impressed enough with the pool attendant to offer to help set him up in a real estate deal in Florida with one of Granda’s childhood friends, Jesus Fernandez Jr.
The property that the Falwells helped Granda and his partner purchase in 2013 was The Miami Hostel, described by The Times as “one of South Beach’s best budget party hostels” and as “sometimes listed as gay-friendly.”
If that doesn’t sound like it’s in line with the fundamentalist Christian ethos taught at Liberty University, then the sign initially reported to be on the hostel’s front gate makes it even clearer — “No Soliciting, Fundraising, Politics, Salesmen, Religion” it read, according to a 2017 Politico article by Brandon Ambrosino, a Liberty graduate.
The article describes the complicated financial arrangements between the Falwells, Granda, and Fernandez and the disputes that led to the threat of a lawsuit by Fernandez and his father. The financial disagreement also brought to light the existence of “compromising photos” of the Fallwells — described by Reuters as racy “personal” photographs, the sort that would typically be kept “between husband and wife” — that could be used as leverage against them in the now active lawsuit.
This is where Michael Cohen and Tom Arnold enter the picture. As someone well-experienced in negotiating the coverups of the embarrassing sexual peccadillos that Donald Trump engaged in with Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, Cohen offered his services as a fixer for the Falwells.
Arnold’s involvement came when he surreptitiously taped his conversation with Michael Cohen and shared it with The New York Times.
“’There’s a bunch of photographs, personal photographs, that somehow the guy ended up getting — whether it was off of Jerry’s phone or somehow maybe it got AirDropped or whatever the hell the whole thing was,’ Mr. Cohen told Mr. Arnold in the recording,” presumably referring to Granda or Fernandez.
“’These are photos between husband and wife,’ Mr. Cohen added, joking that ‘the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold.’ He explained, ‘I was going to pay him, and I was going to get the negatives and do an agreement where they turn over all the technology that has the photographs or anything like that, any copies.’”
“But the payoff ‘never happened,’ he said, ‘and the guy just either deleted them on his own or what have you.’”
Whether Falwell’s endorsement of Trump was a result of the personal assistance offered by Cohen as their potentially incriminating photos were in danger of being leaked is something that will be difficult to prove without an admission by Falwell who for his part has said that “no compromising or embarrassing photos,” and that “We never engaged or paid Cohen to represent us in any legal or other professional capacity.”
Given the circumstantial evidence presented by The New York Times article, however, it looks likely that the election of Donald Trump may have been enabled by a Falwell endorsement that was made out of fear that his evangelical bona-fides would be destroyed by evidence of behavior that his Christian right followers would find highly objectionable.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.