Trump to Lib­erty Univer­sity grads: Be an ‘out­sider’

Pres­i­dent de­liv­ers deeply per­sonal ad­vice dur­ing com­mence­ment speech

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JENNA JOHN­SON jenna.john­son@wash­post.com Cal­lum Borchers con­trib­uted to this re­port.

lynch­burg, va. — Af­ter one of the most tu­mul­tuous weeks of his pres­i­dency, Pres­i­dent Trump trav­eled to Lib­erty Univer­sity on Satur­day morn­ing to de­liver a sub­dued pep talk.

For once, it was not a cam­paign speech — although he did mar­vel at the large crowd and bragged about his suc­cess with evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers. In­stead, the pres­i­dent ex­plained to grad­u­ates of the evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian school how to stay tough when no one agrees with you, when ev­ery­one is crit­i­ciz­ing you, when you feel like run­ning home to your mother.

“Noth­ing worth do­ing ever, ever, ever came easy,” the pres­i­dent said. “Fol­low­ing your con­vic­tions means you must be will­ing to face crit­i­cism from those who lack the same courage to do what is right — and they know what is right — but they don’t have the courage or the guts or the stamina to take it and to do it. It’s called the road less trav­eled.”

The ad­vice, at times, seemed deeply per­sonal. The pres­i­dent’s judg­ment was ques­tioned this past week by not only his long­time crit­ics but also sup­port­ers in his own party who were alarmed by his fir­ing of FBI Direc­tor James B. Comey.

As Trump took the stage, a few young men in the au­di­ence swapped their grad­u­a­tion mor­tar­boards for red “Make Amer­ica Great Again” hats. The crowd of more than 50,000, the largest the univer­sity has ever seen at a com­mence­ment, as the pres­i­dent noted, gave him a stand­ing ova­tion and then briefly chanted: “USA! USA! USA!” Trump is the se­cond sit­ting pres­i­dent to de­liver a com­mence­ment ad­dress at Lib­erty; Ge­orge H.W. Bush spoke in 1990.

Trump’s tone was softer, more per­sonal than usual. He read from a script but added per­sonal asides here and there.

“What will fu­ture Amer­i­cans say we did in our brief time right here on Earth? Did we take risks? Did we dare to defy ex­pec­ta­tions? Did we chal­lenge ac­cepted wis­dom? And take on es­tab­lished sys­tems?” Trump said. He then added: “I think I did.”

He urged the grad­u­ates to not pick the ca­reer their par­ents want them to have, to not give into “bit­ter­ness and anger,” to hold fast to the things they be­lieve to be true, to proudly be an “out­sider” and to ig­nore the haters.

“No one has ever achieved any­thing sig­nif­i­cant with­out a cho­rus of crit­ics stand­ing on the side­lines ex­plain­ing why it can’t be done,” the pres­i­dent said. “Noth­ing is eas­ier — or more pa­thetic — than be­ing a critic, be­cause they’re peo­ple that can’t get the job done.”

Although the pres­i­dent’s ap­proval rat­ing fell to 36 per­cent in a Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity poll re­leased Wed­nes­day, he found warm sup­port in Lib­erty’s foot­ball sta­dium.

“What­ever he chooses is prob­a­bly best for the mo­ment,” said Kris­ten Ak­ers, 30, who doesn’t have an opin­ion on Comey’s fir­ing and trav­eled to Lib­erty from north­east­ern North Carolina to see her younger sis­ter grad­u­ate.

Her mother, Son­dra Voorhees of Ge­or­gia, agreed: “He’s just very hon­est and to-the-point. He’s for ev­ery­one, not just one group of peo­ple.”

Up in the stands was Henry Pollard, 64, who voted for Trump and came to see his youngest son grad­u­ate. He said he’s frus­trated that the me­dia is so ob­sessed with Comey’s fir­ing, which he agrees with, and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into ties be­tween Trump’s cam­paign and Rus­sia.

“For nine months, they’ve talked about it. At some point, it has to stop,” he said.

Lib­erty was founded in 1971 by tel­e­van­ge­list Jerry Fal­well Sr. and is now led by his son, Jerry Fal­well Jr. The school has more than 110,000 stu­dents, a vast ma­jor­ity of whom at­tend class on­line and only travel here for grad­u­a­tion.

Fal­well en­dorsed Trump dur­ing the cam­paign and vouched for him to the evan­gel­i­cal com­mu­nity — even though he’s a thrice-mar­ried celebrity who has stum­bled when dis­cussing religion and once vul­garly bragged about grab­bing women with­out their per­mis­sion.

“He de­serves our re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion for en­dur­ing re­lent­less and of­ten dis­hon­est at­tacks from the me­dia, the es­tab­lish­ment on the left and the right and from academia,” Fal­well said.

Fal­well re­peat­edly plugged Lib­erty’s foot­ball pro­gram and com­pared his school to Univer­sity of Notre Dame, the Catholic in­sti­tu­tion in In­di­ana, which of­ten books pres­i­dents for com­mence­ment. Next weekend, Vice Pres­i­dent Pence will give the ad­dress there.

“We aspire to be for evan­gel­i­cal young peo­ple what Notre Dame is for Catholic young peo­ple,” Fal­well said. “Well, I’m proud to say to­day that the pres­i­dent of the United States chose to de­liver his first com­mence­ment ad­dress not at Notre Dame but at Lib­erty Univer­sity.”

Trump re­it­er­ated his ded­i­ca­tion to pro­tect­ing the rights of Chris­tians, say­ing that “Amer­ica is bet­ter when peo­ple put their faith into ac­tion.”

“In Amer­ica, we don’t wor­ship gov­ern­ment,” Trump de­clared. “We wor­ship God.”

On Fri­day, Trump will leave for his first over­seas trip to visit the home­lands and holy sites of the Jewish, Chris­tian and Mus­lim faiths. Many in the au­di­ence said they are fear­ful of rad­i­cal­ized Mus­lims and sup­port­ive of Trump’s tough talk on what he once called “rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism.” Trump only briefly men­tioned the “bar­bar­ity” of ter­ror­ists.

“We are do­ing very, very well in coun­ter­ing it,” he said. “So you just hang in there. Things are go­ing along very, very well. You’ll be hear­ing a lot about it next week from our gen­er­als.”

Trump’s speech ended with another stand­ing ova­tion, and soon he was back on Air Force One. As the iconic plane flew over Lib­erty’s cam­pus, thou­sands looked to the sky and watched him be­gin his trip back to Wash­ing­ton, the land of crit­ics.

“Fol­low­ing your con­vic­tions means you must be will­ing to face crit­i­cism from those who lack the same courage to do what is right.” Pres­i­dent Trump

BREN­DAN SMIALOWSKI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Pres­i­dent Trump found warm sup­port at Lib­erty Univer­sity where he gave the com­mence­ment speech to the class of 2017. The pres­i­dent urged grad­u­ates of the evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian school to not give into “bit­ter­ness and anger” and to ig­nore the haters.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Trump, cen­ter, is pre­sented an hon­orary de­gree by Ron­ald E. Hawkins, right, provost and chief aca­demic of­fi­cer. Speak­ing from the lectern is Lib­erty Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Jerry Fal­well.

ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

A grad­u­ate sports a Trump cam­paign sticker on his cap.

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