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Trump Gets Mixed Response From Conservative Liberty University


Liberty University is kind of a must-do for Republican presidential contenders. The Christian school in Virginia was where Ted Cruz kicked off his campaign. Ben Carson and Jeb Bush have both spoken there. Even Democrat Bernie Sanders went there back in September. This morning, it was Donald Trump's turn to address the conservative student body. NPR's Jessica Taylor was there, and she's now on the line from Lynchburg, Va. Hi, Jessica.


SHAPIRO: The flamboyant New York billionaire does not seem like the most obvious fit for faith-based voters. Did he change his stump speech to try to sell himself to this crowd?

TAYLOR: Trump has still been doing surprisingly well with evangelical voters. He's fighting with Ted Cruz for them, especially in Iowa and South Carolina. But this speech here, it was really sort of his usual talking points - hitting the president on Iran and talking about his immigration plan. He did, you know, try to tailor a little bit at the beginning. He did try to cite one of the verses that's an inspiration for Liberty University, but he kind of messed it up a little bit. Here, let's listen.


DONALD TRUMP: "Two Corinthians" - right? - "Two Corinthians" 3:17 - that's the whole ballgame, where the spirit of the Lord - right? - where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And here, there is Liberty College, but - Liberty University, but it is so true.


TAYLOR: There was a lot of snickering from students where I was sitting in the audience after that because the way that book is typically referred to is "Second Corinthians," not "Two Corinthians." Trump's come under fire. He's been asked earlier to name his favorite bible verse and said he wouldn't pick just one, and advisers to both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were pretty quick to note this gaff on social media.

SHAPIRO: Well, apart from snickering and his getting the name of the book wrong, how did students respond to him?

TAYLOR: I'd say he got a pretty polite reception. It isn't the typical, you know, rock star welcome that we see at his rallies that he organizes himself. The biggest reactions he got was when he promised he would defend the Second Amendment and talk about illegal immigration. But I had one student tell me that Ted Cruz, who, of course, announced his campaign back there, definitely got a much bigger response from the student body.

SHAPIRO: He got pretty warm introduction from the university president, though.

TAYLOR: He did get a glowing welcome from the university president, Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the famed televangelist Jerry Falwell who founded this university. Falwell said Trump reminded him of his father, saying he had modeled his life after Jesus Christ and said he was the only candidate in the field who couldn't be bought by special interests. Now, while he was careful to say he and the university weren't endorsing him, it was about as strong of a non-endorsement endorsement that's I've ever heard. Here's one clip.


JERRY FALWELL JR: "Matthew" 7:16 tells us that by their fruits, you shall know them. Donald Trump's life has born fruit, fruit that has provided jobs to multitudes of people in addition to the many he has helped with his generosity.

TAYLOR: Now, he usually introduces other candidates when they come speak, but several students I talked to said he usually isn't this auditory. And some were kind of - they didn't think this was sort of the right tone for him to strike, either.

SHAPIRO: Before the speech, there were some students who said they thought it was inappropriate for Trump to speak on Martin Luther King Day. Did Trump refer to Dr. King at all in his speech?

TAYLOR: He did a little bit. They showed a video before he spoke about Martin Luther King, and then, you know, he sort of praised him at the beginning but then quickly noted that this was the largest attendance ever at a convocation. Now, students are required to attend this event, and it was the first day of classes for them. So he said, you know, this was the biggest attendance they'd ever had and that he would dedicate this to Martin Luther King Jr., which he said was a great honor. And he noted this again, so it was kind of a little awkward throw there to him.

There were a few protesters standing outside. You know, the big controversy, of course, is that a lot of people feel like some of the things he said about Muslims and about immigrants is not really sort of in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., who tried to bring people together for change.

SHAPIRO: We mentioned that a lot of candidates have spoken at Liberty University this campaign cycle. How about Hillary Clinton - any chance?

TAYLOR: They have invited every single candidate running, Republican or Democrat. And of course, we saw Sanders went there. So we're, you know - she hasn't accepted yet, but you know, whenever Trump did mention Hillary Clinton, she was kind of met with boos. So it could be a - kind of a hostile crowd if she does go.

SHAPIRO: That was NPR's Jessica Taylor reporting from Lynchburg, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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