The woman who led the candidate to Christ has many of the same problems connecting with evangelicals as he has.
There were the IRS investigation and the business troubles, the divorces and the rumored affairs splashed across the tabloids. And always, there were the biased media that lay in wait, desperate to seize on any hint of internal dysfunction or family drama.
Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser paced the stage in black stilettos, railing against the unfairness of it all.
It was a spring evening in 2011, and pastor Paula White — the woman credited with leading Trump on a faith journey to Jesus Christ — was speaking at a pastors conference about her own experiences. But at times throughout her two-hour sermon, she could easily have been talking about Trump’s.
For the evangelical leaders she now aims to convert to the GOP nominee’s team, that’s exactly the problem.
Like Trump, who for years was best known as a TV star and real estate mogul, White, a televangelist, is new to GOP evangelical activism. She has more experience leading Bible study with the New York Yankees or meeting the Obamas through Oprah Winfrey than hosting pro-life gatherings in Iowa.
And Trump and White share personal track records — divorce, bankruptcy, embracing views outside of the Republican and evangelical mainstreams — that raise hackles among the influential Christian leaders Trump needs on his team as he seeks to consolidate the Republican base.
“I don’t know who she is, I don’t have any contact with her, I’ve never met her, never talked to her; the most prominent her name has been is, she’s tied to Trump,” said David Lane, an influential evangelical leader with whom many of the Republican presidential candidates cultivated a relationship. Adding that her brand of faith does not represent the mainstream among more traditional Christians, he said, “She can’t move evangelicals.”
Yet White, a 50-year-old grandmother who, like Trump, is on her third marriage, this one to rocker Jonathan Cain of Journey fame, has emerged as one of the candidate’s main conduits to the evangelical community. It’s a vote-rich constituency that continues to harbor skepticism about his commitment to its policy views and personal beliefs — and White is fighting a sometimes uphill battle to change that.
“I can absolutely tell you that Mr. Trump has a relationship with God. He is a Christian, he accepts Jesus as his Lord and savior,” White said in a rare interview with POLITICO, reflecting on a relationship with the New York tycoon that has now spanned more than 14 years.
The two first connected when Trump, who was watching Christian television, saw her onscreen and called her, saying she was “fantastic.”
On her next trip to New York, the Florida-based White met with him, marking the start of a close, cross-country friendship.
“Over the years, that [relationship] grew stronger and stronger,” she said of her ties to Trump. “I was in New York for many years. He has a very open-door policy. If I was in town, [he’d say], ‘Hey Paula, come by, hang out with friends, family.’ He’d allow me to sit in his office, be a part of his life, his world.”
White tells stories of walking up Fifth Avenue in New York with Trump and watching the real estate mogul cross the street to shake hands with construction workers. And there was the time he was showing her a new golf course in California and got out of the golf cart to thank a Latino man who was taking care of his sand traps. White, who still owns a unit at a Trump property in New York, said his employees at his buildings were loyal to him.
To her, this serves as evidence that the cussing, controversial Trump is ultimately a man of God.
And now, as Trump works to unify and energize the Republican base around his candidacy, White is aiming to line up endorsements, ready to offer stories of Trump’s kindnesses behind the scenes. She was central to establishing Trump’s evangelical advisory board, which includes several pillars of the traditionally powerful religious right, such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr. And some members of the board, like pastor Mark Burns, a vocal Trump surrogate, have developed a fierce loyalty to White.
“Pastor Paula had a hand and is having a hand in his faith walk,” said Burns of White’s relationship with Trump, calling her “the authority to say if he has a real authentic relationship with God.”
She has opened up at rallies for Trump and last fall helped organize a gathering, mostly of fellow televangelists, at Trump Tower, where she offered Trump a prayer and a hug.
Now, she is in the process of assembling a bigger group of supportive leaders from across the country, according to her spokesman, Johnnie Moore, himself a Christian author and member of Trump’s advisory committee who is currently representing White.
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