LYNCHBURG, Va. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Donald Trump delivered the first commencement address of his presidency at Liberty University, the Christian school whose leader was among Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters.
Drawing parallels to what was widely viewed as a longshot bid by Trump for the presidency, he urged the more than 18,000 graduates to fight for what they believe in and to “challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures.” A crowd of more than double that size filled an outdoor stadium on campus to welcome just the second sitting president to address the university’s commencement.
Trump told graduates that they should “relish the opportunity to be an outsider,” saying outsiders “change the world and make a real and lasting difference.”
The president said his message to those in the audience was “never, ever give up” and “never stop fighting for what you believe in.”
“The more a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead,” he said.
Before making his remarks, Trump received an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree.
“For his unwavering determination to make America great again,” Liberty University’s President Jerry Falwell Jr. said.
Trump was an outsider who challenged the political establishment on the way to winning the White House. He told students that they should “be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched and failed power structures.” He then asked, “Does that sound familiar, by the way?”
Falwell helped Trump win an overwhelming 80 percent of the white evangelical vote.
The president’s remarks Saturday on the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus were his first extended public appearance since he fired James Comey as FBI director this week. Trump has stayed largely out of public view since Tuesday, when he removed the head of the agency that is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, along with possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
Trump lashed out at Comey on Friday, tweeting that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Trump’s chief spokesman refused to comment Friday on whether active listening devices are in the Oval Office or elsewhere in the building, a non-denial that drew comparisons to the secretly taped conversations and telephone calls that led to President Richard Nixon’s downfall in the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
Trump had earlier criticized Comey as a “showboat” and a “grandstander,” and the president’s warning prompted new accusations of interference with the FBI’s Russia investigation.
In his weekly address to the nation, Trump said he was “delighted to be participating first hand in the excitement” as students and faculty celebrate Liberty’s more than 18,000 graduates. The commander in chief typically addresses graduates of one of the U.S. military service academies and Trump is scheduled to speak at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut on Wednesday.
“To young Americans at both schools, I will be bringing a message of hope and optimism about our nation’s bright future,” Trump said.
Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president, helped Trump win an overwhelming 80 percent of the white evangelical vote.
A recent Pew Research Center survey marking Trump’s first 100 days in office, a milestone reached on April 29, found three-quarters of white evangelicals approved of his performance as president while just 39 percent of the general public held the same view.
Christian conservatives have been overjoyed by Trump’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with Trump’s choice of socially conservative Cabinet members and other officials, such as Charmaine Yoest, a prominent anti-abortion activist named to the Department of Health and Human Services.
But they had a mixed response to an executive order on religious liberty that Trump signed last week. He directed the IRS to ease up on enforcing an already rarely enforced limit on partisan political activity by churches. He also promised “regulatory relief” for those who object on religious grounds to the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act health law. Yet, the order did not address one of the most pressing demands from religious conservatives: broad exemptions from recognizing same-sex marriage.
Still, Falwell, who endorsed Trump in January 2016 just before that year’s Iowa caucuses, praised Trump’s actions on issues that concern Christian conservatives.
“I really don’t think any other president has done more for evangelicals and the faith community in four months than President Trump has,” Falwell told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Falwell became a key surrogate and validator for the thrice-married Trump during the campaign, frequently traveling with Trump on the candidate’s plane and appearing at events. Falwell often compared Trump to his later father, the conservative televangelist Jerry Falwell, and argued that while Trump wasn’t the most religious candidate in the race, he was the man the country needed.
Trump has spoken at Liberty University before. He courted Christians there in January 2016 with a speech that drew laughs from some in the audience when referred to one of the Bible’s books as “Two Corinthians” instead of the more common “Second Corinthians.” In that speech, Trump promised: “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.”
Newly elected U.S. presidents often give their first commencement addresses at the University of Notre Dame, the country’s best-known Roman Catholic school.
Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did so during their first year in office. But this year, Vice President Mike Pence will speak at Notre Dame’s graduation, becoming the first vice president to do so.
University spokesman Paul Browne declined to say whether Trump had been invited to the May 21 ceremony, saying it was against school policy to reveal who had turned down offers.
In his Saturday speech, Trump said the more that people say something can’t be done, “the more you should be absolutely determined to prove them wrong.”
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)