The exuberant, pugnacious, crockery-smashing billionaire president Americans elected in November 2016 is a much different man behind closed doors.
Take it from the woman dubbed President Trump’s “personal pastor.”
The Donald Trump that Florida evangelical minister Paula White sees is a good listener, a man who takes his faith seriously while not always being fluent in “Christianese” and, unlike so many of his predecessors, a politician who has kept his promises to faith voters and evangelical Christian groups after he won the presidency with the help of their votes.
“A lot of evangelicals have grown accustomed to feeling used by the political process,” Ms. White said in an interview at The Washington Times this week before heading to yet another White House meeting. “Every politician appeals to us, every one wants to hear us out during the campaign, but then things change once they get into office.”
Mr. Trump, she said, is “just different.”
“He genuinely listened to us, and he genuinely cared,” she said, recalling hours of closed-door spiritual sessions at Trump Tower that Mr. Trump held with a broad array of faith leaders as he weighed campaigns for the presidency in 2012 and 2016. “He wasn’t asking for an endorsement or a contribution. He was looking to hear the heartbeat of the faith community.”
Evangelical voters have proved an unlikely rock of the Trump coalition: More than 80 percent say they support the president. Ms. White said that support has been fully repaid by the administration’s record with the appointments of two Supreme Court justices and a slew of conservative lower-court judges as well as new Justice Department guidelines on religious expression, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the president’s executive order easing enforcement of rules restricting political speech from the pulpit.
“He has always been concerned that the voice of people of faith be heard,” she said. “He campaigned on it, and then he acted on it.”
The 52-year-old televangelist, a sometimes polarizing figure in conservative Christian circles who is senior pastor of the New Destiny Christian Center megachurch in Apopka, Florida, is one of several religious figures who meet regularly with Mr. Trump and White House aides. She became the first clergywoman to offer a prayer at a presidential inauguration and sits close by the president at gatherings of faith leaders at the White House.
Ms. White repeatedly insists in an interview that Mr. Trump’s spiritual growth in the 18 years she has known him “comes from a much deeper place” than the so-called “prosperity theology” — the belief that spiritual and financial success are part of God’s plan for believing Christians — that detractors accuse him of following.
“He holds his faith close to his chest and is not as open about it as some people,” she said.
“When he first talked of running for president, he was a career businessman who was new to campaigning and didn’t know how to speak what I call ‘Christianese,’” she recalled. “But I actually liked that about him, then and now — he wasn’t a polished politician or preacher. When he spoke of his faith, he was speaking from the heart.”
Ms. White even hinted that Mr. Trump may have been the victim of a biblical-political dirty trick in one notorious incident from the 2016 campaign trail at Liberty University. The candidate referred to a favorite scriptural passage from Paul’s “Two Corinthians,” though the widely accepted term is “Second Corinthians.” A supporter of “another candidate” suggested the passage — and the wrong wording — to Mr. Trump as he prepared to take the stage, hoping to embarrass a rival.
Mr. Trump “never mentioned it, he never retaliated, he never threw that person under the bus. He just kept going,” Ms. White recalled.
The pastor remains deeply engaged politically, defending Mr. Trump’s immigration border policies, his economic and deregulatory agenda, and his campaign to rehabilitate “Merry Christmas” as a holiday salutation. Noting that many evangelical political priorities remain unfinished, she said, “That’s why we need to win the midterms. Hopefully, we’ll have at least six more years, but first we have to have a Congress that is more supportive.”
Ms. White acknowledged the dangers faith leaders can face tying themselves too closely to those with political and financial power. Toward the end of his life, the Rev. Billy Graham expressed misgivings about his close associations with presidents over the decades. He told Christianity Today in 2011, “I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
Ms. White expressed great admiration for the late North Carolina preacher and for the work his family continues to carry out, but she noted that she met Mr. Trump in New York more than a decade before he ever thought of a political career — he cold-called her to praise her television preaching, she said — and she plans to be a friend and spiritual adviser long after he leaves the White House.
“I try to walk in the lane God wants for me, working on immigration, prison reform, strengthening the family through my ministry,” she said. “I have been in the room with other famous people, with the Obamas, the Bushes, Mitt Romney, but those were meetings, not relationships. Long after Donald Trump is no longer President Trump, I know there will still be a relationship there.”