RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Jerry Falwell Jr. announced his resignation Tuesday as the head of Liberty University after a provocative photo and revelations of his wife’s extramarital affair roiled the evangelical school founded by his father.
Falwell’s exit marks a precipitous fall from power for one of the country’s most visible conservative Christian leaders and ardent supporters of President Donald Trump. He confirmed his decision to resign in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.
According to the school, he initially offered to resign Monday, hours after a news outlet published an interview with a man who said that he had a yearslong sexual relationship with Becki Falwell and that Jerry Falwell participated in some of the liaisons as a voyeur. Falwell, who denied any participation, later reversed course on his resignation and began telling news outlets he had no intention of leaving. Then he changed direction again.
“That’s the only reason I resigned: because I don’t want something my wife did to harm the school I’ve spent my whole life building,” he said in a phone interview. “I never broke a single rule that applies to staff members at Liberty, which I was. So I want everybody to know that.”
The university confirmed in a statement that its board had accepted Falwell’s resignation as president, chancellor and board member. All were effective immediately, the statement said.
Becki Falwell also spoke with the AP on Tuesday, saying she and her husband are “more in love than ever” — a sentiment echoed by an audibly tearful Jerry Falwell.
“We have the strongest relationship, and Jerry is the most forgiving person I’ve ever met,” she said. “It’s a shame that Christians can’t give us the same forgiveness that Christ gave us.”
Falwell had already been on leave since earlier this month after alumni and others recoiled at a photo he posted on social media. The image showed him with his pants unzipped, stomach exposed and arm high around the waist of his wife’s pregnant assistant. He also held a glass of dark liquid that he described in a caption as “black water.” Falwell has said the photo was taken at a costume party during a family vacation.
The board “put me on leave for showing my belly in a picture and my contract doesn’t allow that,” he said Tuesday. He later added, “I’m 58 years old, and I think there’s something else in the cards for me. And so the board was gracious in accepting my resignation … and it’s time to move on.”
The latest controversy began to unfold late Sunday, when The Washington Examiner published a lengthy statement from Falwell disclosing that his wife had an extramarital affair. The statement, later shared with the AP, said the man involved had been threatening to reveal the relationship “to deliberately embarrass my wife, family, and Liberty University unless we agreed to pay him substantial monies.”
Falwell said he was seeking mental health counseling after dealing with fallout from the affair, which he said he had no role in. He said he has no “alcohol problem,” addressing questions raised by the social media photo depicting apparent alcohol in his glass.
“Over the course of the last few months … we have decided the only way to stop this predatory behavior is to go public,” the statement said.
But on Monday, Reuters published Giancarlo Granda’s account of the relationship, one that has become known as the “pool boy” story. Granda and the Falwells met while he worked as a pool attendant in Miami. Falwell did not address Granda’s version of events during Tuesday’s interview, but has previously said they were false.
Granda’s professional and personal relationship with the Falwells later sparked legal jostling that involved Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. Falwell described Cohen as a good friend who tried to help him resolve a dispute with Granda. He added that his eventual endorsement of Trump in 2016 — a key win for then-candidate Trump during his outreach to the evangelical community — had nothing to do with Cohen.
Rather, Falwell said, his endorsement stemmed from a prediction by Mark DeMoss, a former Liberty board member, that Trump would win the 2016 election. DeMoss “hates Trump as much as he hates me,” Falwell said, which prompted him to back the president.
Granda did not return a phone call from AP on Tuesday. DeMoss declined comment.
Falwell, who declined comment on whether he anticipates pursuing legal action against Granda, began his leave Aug. 7 amid intense criticism of the vacation photo.
Critics of the image said it was evidence of hypocritical behavior from the leader of a university where students must follow a strict code of conduct. The photo prompted new pushback against Falwell from school alumni and supporters that intensified after the reports about Granda.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. had aspired to make Liberty University an academic and athletic leader for evangelicals in the vein of the University of Notre Dame. The younger Falwell’s success in shoring up the school’s finances after he took over in 2007 following his father’s death bolstered his standing among the school’s board members.
But as his propensity toward divisive public behavior grew — and particularly following his endorsement of Trump in 2016 — a number of alumni and faculty became dissatisfied with the university’s direction under Falwell.
Several of Falwell’s more incendiary recent public statements were connected to his political conservatism. This summer, 35 Black Liberty University alumni publicly rebuked Falwell after he responded to a coronavirus mask mandate by Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, with a tweet invoking the blackface scandal that nearly forced Northam from office.
Four years after his endorsement, Falwell is taking a lower profile in Trump’s reelection bid. But he declared unwavering support for Trump, whom he described as “the most pro-evangelical Christian president we’ve ever had — not in his lifestyle, but in his actions, and that is what matters.”
This fall, Falwell predicted, Trump “will win and he will win big.”
Schor reported from New York.
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