On Saturday morning, evangelical leader Franklin Graham said Americans should give President Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on the alleged affair with former porn star Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. Graham said Trump had always been honest with him, so he had no reason to doubt the president on these issues.
“Well, I found the president to be truthful with me and when he says he’s going to do something, he does it. And that’s what I appreciate about him. Now did he have an affair with this woman? I have no clue. But I believe at 70 years of age, the president is a much different person today than he was four years ago, five years ago, ten years ago or whatever. And we just have to give the man the benefit of the doubt,” Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse, told MSNBC’s Alex Witt.
“He said he didn’t do it. So okay, let’s say he didn’t do it. But we just have to think of our country,” Graham added.
Earlier, the evangelical leader noted that Trump has not “admitted to having an affair with this person. And so, this is just a news story, I don’t know if it’s accurate.”
Unfortunately for Graham, there are reasons to suspect this is more than a “news story.” Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 one month before the 2016 presidential election as part of a nondisclosure agreement.
Both Daniels and Trump have denied the allegations that the businessman had an affair with the former porn star in 2006. In a 2011 interview with In Touch magazine, however, Daniels recalled her relationship with the future president, complete with at least one sex act. In Touch released a full transcript of that interview on Friday. As Politico reported, the interview leaves very little doubt that Trump did indeed cheat on his wife Melania with Daniels on at least one occasion.
Some mocked Graham for giving Trump the benefit of the doubt after condemning former president Bill Clinton’s notorious affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“Franklin Graham says that the difference between evangelicals’ statements about Bill Clinton’s behavior and Donald Trump’s is Trump has denied the behavior, and so Graham says he doesn’t know whether to believe it because ‘it’s just a news story.’e He says Trump is a truthful man,” John Kelly, data and investigations editor at USA TODAY, tweeted.
Franklin Graham says that the difference between evangelicals’ statements about Bill Clinton’s behavior and Donald Trump’s is Trump has denied the behavior, and so Graham says he doesn’t know whether to believe it because “it’s just a news story.” He says Trump is a truthful man.
— John Kelly (@jkelly3rd) January 20, 2018
To be fair, Graham did not mention Clinton in the interview. He did focus on sin, however. “The problem that this world has is called sin. And sin is disobedience to God and his standards,” he said. After mentioning that God sent Jesus Christ to “forgive our sins and heal our heart,” he declared, “Our country has a sin problem. I believe if these politicians in Washington would recognize the moral failure of so many of their policies, that maybe we could fix it.”
Graham’s discussion of sin and his segue to the gospel are par for the course for an evangelical, and he deserves praise for working them in. However, when discussing sin and political leaders, he should have anticipated the questions about Trump and Daniels.
Donald Trump is known for sexual escapades, and the Daniels allegations make a great deal of sense given his past. His first marriage ended in divorce due to his own infidelity, and he bragged about sleeping with other mens’ wives in his books. The infamous Access Hollywood remarks also reinforced this point, and led Graham to insist that “both candidates are flawed.” Perhaps Michael Wolff’s claim that Trump said sleeping with his friends’ wives makes life “worth living” is false, but it played on a true theme.
Trump’s infidelity is particularly worrying due to his numerous public comments about not “needing” to ask God for forgiveness. This unrepentance could be part of Trump’s public persona, and he could have changed in the meantime.
Graham acknowledged that Trump is a “flawed man,” and that the president is not alone. “I’m a flawed person. And I would hate for people to see all the baggage I have in my life. But the fact is that god has forgiven me and I’ve asked for his forgiveness, and I think the president has, too,” the evangelical leader said.
Whether or not Trump is repentant, the affair seems likely, and the timing of the Daniels nondisclosure agreement (and Trump’s hefty payment presumably for her silence) is damning.
Graham may have been right to try to pivot from this particular alleged Trump sin to more salient political issues — he discussed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the economy, and the near-complete defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East. Graham also condemned the “dysfunction of hate” against Trump, and insisted that all Christians pray for their leaders (as he did for Obama, even as the Obama administration targeted his organization, and now does for Trump).
Even so, Graham’s insistence on Trump’s truthfulness on this issue may have been a mistake, and it might lend credence to those who accuse Graham of hypocrisy. MSNBC’s Alex Witt asked the evangelical leader whether he would have the same standard for a Democratic president. This interview did not answer that question.