President Donald told graduates of Liberty University – the nation’s largest Christian college, whose leader was among Trump’s earliest supporters — to “embrace” the label of an outsider, another apparent criticism of the Washington establishment.
“Relish the opportunity to be an outsider,” Trump told a crowd of about 50,000 in the Lynchburg, Virginia, school’s stadium. “Being an outsider is fine. Embrace the label because it’s the outsiders who change the world.”
The speech was Trump’s first commencement address and his first extended public appearance since his Tuesday firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating Russia’s role in last year’s U.S. presidential election and possible connections between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
“We don’t need a lecture’
Continuing his populist, anti-establishment narrative, the president said he has seen “first-hand how the system is broken” in Washington, and he urged the more than 18,000 graduates to resist “a small group of failed voices who think they know everything.”
“We don’t need a lecture from Washington on how to lead our lives,” said Trump.
Before the address, Trump and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. stood for the U.S. national anthem. Falwell, the son of the late televangelist and conservative activist Jerry Falwell, Sr., as widely seen as having helped Trump win 80 percent of the white evangelical vote.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that three-quarters of white evangelicals approved of Trump’s performance during his first 100 days in office, compared to 39 percent of the general public.
Before the friendly crowd, Trump expressed his appreciation for evangelicals. “Boy, did you come out and vote,” he said.
The president received some of the loudest applause when he assured the crowd that he would continue to protect their religious freedom.
Trump pledges protection for conservatives
“As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart,” he said.
Christian conservatives have been pleased with Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and his choice of socially conservative cabinet members, such as Health and Human Services Secretary Charmaine Yoest, a prominent anti-abortion activist.
Some Christian conservatives have given mixed reviews, though, to Trump’s executive order that directs the Internal Revenue Service to relax a rarely enforced limit on partisan political church activity. The order did not address broad exemptions from recognizing same-sex marriage, one of the most pressing issues for religious conservatives.
Watch VOA’s Carolyn Presutti reporting earlier in the day:
Trump has spoken at Liberty University before. While campaigning there in January 2016, he drew laughs from audience members when he referred to one of the Bible’s books as “Two Corinthians” rather than the more common “Second Corinthians.” He promised during that speech, “We’re going to protect Christianity… I don’t have to be politically correct.”
Trump is the second sitting president to deliver a commencement speech at the university. George H.W. Bush was the first to do so in 1990.