Because of Paula White, evangelicals have “an unprecedented opportunity to have our voice and say heard” in the Oval Office, says one leader. But not all evangelicals are fans of the wealthy, thrice-married White, who’s long been associated with the prosperity gospel.
It was an early afternoon in late July, and Paula White was holding court before an audience of about 25 Southern Baptist ministers in an ornate diplomatic reception room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The televangelist was recounting one of her favorite stories — about when Donald Trump reached out to her in 2011 for guidance on a possible White House run. “Would you bring some people around me to pray?” she said he asked her. “I really want to hear from God.”
White recalled that she and another pastor gathered about 30 ministers from different evangelical Christian traditions at Trump Tower in Manhattan. After the prayer session, when Trump asked her what she thought, she responded: “I don’t feel it’s the right timing.”
He listened, she continued, and the two talked and prayed about the matter over the next four years. When White again gathered religious leaders at Trump Tower in September 2015, she backed the decision he’d already made to run. Videos on YouTube of that event show her standing on his right, head down, laying hands on him as she prayed.
So here she was in the summer of 2017 at the head of a long table in the Executive Office Building, a huge French-Empire structure just steps from the White House, addressing a group of religious leaders who had been invited to Washington by the president’s evangelical advisory council. With her blond hair, scarlet Oscar de la Renta sheath dress and matching patent leather stilettos, she was a bright bird among the forest of dark-suited clergymen — and, she made it clear, the one with the access to Trump. “The president says hello,” she told them. “I was with him first thing this morning.”
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- Inside the world of Buy Nothing, where dryer lint is a hot commodity
- Cheney’s consultants are given an ultimatum: Drop her, or be dropped
- Plan to honor Montana's heritage foundered when facts proved no match for fear
- A man said he hired a person with COVID-19 to lick groceries. He got 15 months in prison
Because of White, evangelicals have “an unprecedented opportunity to have our voice and say heard” in the Oval Office, Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, informed the assembled pastors. “God has placed Paula in a unique place for such a time as this.”
Not all Christians, including evangelicals, are fans of the wealthy, thrice-married White, who has long been associated with the prosperity gospel, a set of beliefs that says God will reward faith, and very generous giving, with financial blessings. Detractors point to a congressional investigation of her former church’s finances and accusations that she has taken advantage of her mostly African American parishioners through her fundraising. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has called her a “charlatan,” conservative Christian writer Erick Erickson has said she’s a “Trinity-denying heretic,” and Christian rapper Shai Linne named her a “false teacher” in one of his songs.
But since the election, White’s star has soared. She offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration (becoming the first clergywoman in history in such a role). She sat by the president at a private dinner for evangelical leaders on the eve of the National Day of Prayer. She has hovered close by during prayer sessions in the Oval Office. She was present when Trump met with advisers to discuss the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, she told me, she has turned many of her duties as a pastor of a large church in Apopka, Florida, over to associates as she jets to the White House an average of once a week. (The Trump White House does not release visitor logs, so it’s difficult to confirm how often White is there.)
White House roles
White has no title and no official position at the White House but plays several roles. After helping to put together an evangelical council for Trump during the campaign, she is now, she explains to me, the convener and de facto head of a group of about 35 evangelical pastors, activists and heads of Christian organizations who advise Trump. (The White House would not release a list of members, but other names associated with this group include Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., conservative political activist Ralph Reed and Dallas-based pastor Robert Jeffress.) She also acts as pastor to the president. And in the words of Johnnie Moore, the evangelical advisory council’s unofficial spokesman and White’s publicist, she serves as “part life coach, part pastor” for White House staff.
It isn’t easy to discern how much influence White has with the president. Michael D’Antonio, author of the 2015 biography “The Truth About Trump,” says he had never heard of White before the election. “White is deemed by many to be a deceptive poseur, who is long on self-promotion and short on substance,” he said in an email. (White, in response, said she has never encountered D’Antonio. “And clearly,” she emailed me, “he hasn’t a clue about what he’s talking about.”)
Others say White has played a significant role in Trump’s life. Last June, Dobson identified her as someone who had known Trump for years and “personally led him to Christ.” Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, told me by email: “She’s very influential. She has been close to Trump and the family for many years.” Trump’s son Eric sent me this statement: “Paula is a terrific woman and a wonderful friend to our entire family. We are very grateful for her support and guidance. Faith is so important and Pastor White continues to be an inspiration to all those who know her.”
White seldom grants interviews, but she recently spoke to me on several occasions and allowed me to shadow her during a visit to Washington — a visit that included meetings with fellow evangelists and White House staffers, a prayer gathering and a Journey concert. (Her husband, Jonathan Cain, is the band’s keyboardist. Since her 2014 marriage, she has segued into calling herself Paula White-Cain on social media but hangs on to Paula White as her brand for professional reasons.) We also met two months later in Nashville, Tennessee, where she spoke to journalists at a Religion News Association conference.
Some details of the friendship between Trump and White have to be taken as a matter of faith, because the White House turned down my request to interview the president. But when I emailed the claims White made in this article about Trump, an official responded that while the assertions hadn’t been fact-checked, “None of the below jumps out as being inaccurate.” When asked for a comment on White, Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, responded: “Reverend Paula White has been a friend and faith leader to the President for many years. Her support is a tremendous asset for which the President is grateful.”
Trump is not an active member of any church, has publicly said he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, and infamously bragged about sexually assaulting women. But bring up those issues with White, and she responds with the story of Jesus speaking with an adulterous Samaritan woman at a well. “He didn’t lord it over her but sat with her,” she says. “He gets down in the dirty places of life. Does that make Jesus complicit with an adulteress? No. Because you stand with people doesn’t mean you’re complicit with them.” Later she tells me, “I don’t give up on people. I don’t have a dimmer switch. It’s who I am. Until I am kicked out, I will be with you. I don’t abandon people. I just don’t.”
Growing up ‘sweet,’ ‘tenacious,’ abused
How did a onetime “messed-up Mississippi girl” become a spiritual counselor to the president? White often points to her tumultuous childhood as a source of her grit. Now 51, she was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Donald and Janelle Furr. Her father committed suicide when she was 5, and her mother scraped together a living for Paula and her half brother Mark until she remarried.
White’s mother — now 76 and named Janelle Loar — says her daughter was energetic and outgoing from the beginning. “She was born breech and she hasn’t slowed down since,” Loar told me. “She interacted with everyone she came across. She was a sweet kid, a very good student.” Another element of White’s personality showed up in childhood as well: “She was very tenacious in whatever she decided to do. In gymnastics, there was a certain flip she couldn’t do, but she wouldn’t give up. She never gives up.”
White says she was molested from age 6 to 13 by a string of caregivers, relatives and neighbors, which contributed to her becoming a promiscuous and bulimic teenager. Her mother says she was unaware of the abuse at the time. “I only found out when she opened up and wrote about it,” Loar says. “It shocked me, and it was a horrifying thing to hear.”
After her mother remarried, the family moved to Maryland, where Paula graduated from Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Maryland, in 1984. She became a born-again Christian that same year. After getting pregnant the following February, White married the father, a local musician named Dean Knight, and their son was born in November 1985.
“She was very attractive, which was the first thing that caught my eye,” recalls Knight, 52, who owns a janitorial service near Frederick, Maryland, and is the lead vocalist in a family country-rock band called the Knight Brothers. “Her hair color was different — she was a brunette — but she was always beautiful. And she was a little wild. We were a little crazy in our youth.”
White attended a Bible school at the Pentecostal-oriented National Church of God in Fort Washington, Maryland. Though she did not graduate, she was nevertheless ordained as a nondenominational minister by the church’s leader, the late Rev. T.L. Lowery. While doing inner-city ministry and working with D.C. homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, she became interested in serving those communities. She met a lot of black preachers, and, according to her son, Bradley Knight, she began to pick up their vocabulary and cadence. “The black community told her, ‘You’re a white girl who preaches black,’ ” he says.
Meanwhile, in 1987, Dean Knight recalls, “I was in a head-on collision. It ripped me apart and it really put a damper on a lot of things. It was after that that things started falling apart” in their marriage.
Paula was attending Damascus Church of God in Maryland — part of the same denomination as the National Church of God — where she met Randy White, the associate pastor, who was married with three children. The two divorced their spouses in 1989 and married each other a year later, leaving the Washington area for his new job as a youth minister in Tampa.
The Whites established their own congregation in 1991, which would later become Without Walls International Church. Over the next decade, Paula blossomed as a pastor. T.D. Jakes, a televangelist and megachurch pastor in Dallas, became a mentor, giving White name recognition among his huge, largely black fan base. And the Whites began broadcasting their message on a regional Christian television network that reached listeners across Florida — including a restless business tycoon at Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
A ministry on the rise
White thinks it was late 2001 or early 2002 when Donald Trump called. “You’re fantastic; you’ve got the ‘it’ factor,” she says he told her.
“Well, that’s God’s presence,” she responded. He repeated almost verbatim some of her sermons back to her, then confided that he often watched not only Billy Graham, but evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and songwriter Bill Gaither on Christian TV.
This guy is hungry for God, she thought. As they talked further, she learned that he had attended church as a youth and been confirmed in the Presbyterian Church — so he had some of the basics of the faith. He seemed curious about how her pragmatic, businesslike take on religion could relate to his life. “I was talking about vision being a spiritual and mental picture of your future that is forceful enough to mold your present,” she says.
Meanwhile, she had ambitions of her own. “I felt the Lord said to me to go on [national] TV,” she says. In late 2001, she signed a $1.5 million contract with Black Entertainment Television for a show called “Paula White Today.” She was a hit, tackling tough issues, such as family problems, money and loneliness, Oprah-style. “She was honest about her shortcomings,” wrote Phillip Luke Sinitiere, whose 2009 book, “Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace,” has a chapter on White. “Her message infused an emphasis on God’s transforming power with the raw and honest faith of postmodern confessional culture.”
White says it was around this point that she began to preach prosperity theology. Years later, she would disavow some aspects of that belief system and acknowledge “God’s presence and blessing in suffering as much as in times of prosperity.” But at the time, she reasoned that the prosperity gospel’s emphasis on giving was the only way an evangelist could get on television and stay there. “Ministry takes money, and you have to raise the funds,” she says.
She also diversified, getting into life coaching and motivational speaking along with women’s wellness retreats, ministry to icons such as pop star Michael Jackson and baseball great Darryl Strawberry, and a spate of self-help books (”He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Unconditional Love but Is Afraid to Feel”; “Daily Treasures: Words of Wisdom for the Power-Filled Life”).”The theme of my life is overcoming,” she says. “It is my personal mantra and what I help other people do.”
Her message attracted millions of watchers. “You know you’re on to something new and significant when the most popular woman preacher on the Black Entertainment Network is a white woman,” Ebony magazine reported in 2004, quoting one of her admirers. Her church, Without Walls, zoomed past 20,000 in attendance and attracted a mix of black, Asian and Latino attendees rarely seen in a congregation headed by a white couple.
“Paula White is an incredible trailblazer,” says Clemson University political science professor Laura Olson. “Like it or not, she is extraordinary for what she has accomplished. She’s willing to be feminine, to be the wife, to take direction from her husband in certain areas, but then she’s leading a congregation — and not just a congregation of white people but of African Americans. How many white women do that?”
Invitations from Trump
White’s success drew Trump to her as well. “Are you ever up in New York?” he asked her during one of their subsequent calls. “Well, I am sometimes,” she responded, thinking of a Bible study she was leading for the New York Yankees at the time. “The Apprentice,” a reality show produced by and starring Trump, had started in early 2004, and she says he wanted her to be on the set, especially during the first season, for informal Bible studies or prayer for whoever wanted it.
A quick survey of more than a dozen “Apprentice” alumni didn’t unearth anyone who recalled her presence during the seasons they were with the show. But White says she remembers specific people who asked for her books and prayers. “I went to different episodes, different tapings, and I was at the finales for one or two of the shows,” she says. “There were people I began to meet with, and there was a lot of prayer for a lot of people.”
Including Trump. During one of their early New York encounters, “I walked in and said, ‘I don’t want your money, I don’t want your fame, I want your soul,’ ” she remembers. “He just looked at me.” The two clicked, and somewhere along the line, White apparently got her wish, though she is reluctant to offer further details. “Yes, there was an absolute moment that he received Jesus as Lord and Savior,” she says. “I have led many high-profile people to the Lord.”
White was a rarity in Trump’s life: someone who was almost as famous and well-off as he was, who didn’t need his influence or power. She invited him to appear on her show in 2006. And she bought a $3.5 million condo in Trump Tower — with money from her businesses, she says, not the church.
But her marriage and her empire were crumbling. By 2003, the Whites had begun marital counseling; their marriage was further strained by the terminal illness of one of Randy’s daughters and Paula’s son’s involvement with drugs. The Whites announced the end of their marriage in August 2007. The divorce was complicated by their extensive financial assets — a church that was bringing in $40 million a year, plus proceeds from the couple’s many business ventures. Meanwhile, the Whites’ lavish lifestyles, which included a private jet and a $2.6 million, 8,072-square-foot home, had drawn the attention of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. In November 2007, the committee announced that Without Walls and Paula White Ministries would be investigated for misuse of donations, along with five other prosperity-gospel organizations.
In 2010, the Grassley committee closed down the investigation without penalizing anyone, though it released documents that remain online. The 13-page report about the Whites, which includes a number of allegations about their apparent appropriation of church and ministry finances for personal use, said theirs was one of four ministries that did not fully cooperate with investigators. One of the problems investigators ran into, the report says, was that Without Walls had required all employees to sign lifelong confidentiality agreements. White insists her ministry cooperated until it was told private donor information would be published. However, Jill Gerber, Grassley’s communications manager, says the committee neither requested nor reviewed such information. “I think that was a canard on the Whites’ part to avoid being responsive,” Gerber says. After the divorce, Randy White stayed at Without Walls, though Paula filled in as pastor while he was out of the ministry and in rehab from 2009 to 2012. The church filed for bankruptcy in 2014.
White explains how she hung on throughout the divorce and investigation: “I built up spiritual stamina, even though so much in my life was dying,” she says. And the Trump family was there to help. “When she went through hard times, the first people to call her were Mr. and Mrs. Trump,” says Jay Strack, a Southern Baptist evangelist who became friends with White last year. “She knows the real Donald Trump, obviously.”
A second divorce, and remarriage
Bradley Knight, almost 32, is White’s only biological child and an associate pastor at New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, the church his mother took over in 2012 after its founder, the Rev. Zachery Tims, died of a drug overdose. He can quote feminist theory, has a tattoo on his back from his anarchist days (it reads “Neither master nor slave”) and is working on a second bachelor’s degree at the University of Central Florida, where he is studying philosophy and women’s studies. Even though he enjoys conservative thinkers, he’s a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. (White’s mother also doesn’t share her politics. “We don’t always agree,” Loar says. “I am a Democrat, she’s a Republican, but we love each other.”) An atheist for much of his young adult life, he was a theater major walking through the University of Tampa cafeteria in August 2007 when he saw news of his mother’s divorce on CNN. “I always feel bad for kids of high-profile people,” he says now. “There’s so much that people don’t know. I felt it was wrong to take something sacred and make it everyone’s public business.”
Another crisis exploded when White and evangelist Benny Hinn were photographed holding hands on a street in Rome in July 2010. The National Enquirer ran a double-page spread of the two of them, along with a photo of a hotel room in which they allegedly stayed. Both Hinn and White said they were just friends (although Hinn later admitted it was “inappropriate” to be spending time with a woman he was not married to). White says she disputed the piece with the Enquirer and reached a confidential settlement. (A lawyer for the Enquirer says he knew of no such arrangement.)
“When The National Enquirer did that piece,” says Moore, White’s publicist, “Trump asked why she didn’t call him because he has a relationship with them. With the apartment [she bought in Trump Tower], he was willing to give her a discount. From the beginning of their friendship, she decided that she would never ask him for a favor, and she hasn’t. That has contributed to the trust between them.”
It was about this time that White was on a flight to San Antonio that was also carrying the band Journey. “Paula walks on board with all sorts of stuff in her arms, and she dropped a big giant book in the aisle,” says Cain, 67. “I noticed she had expensive high heels on. I asked her, ‘What do you do for a living?’ She looked at me and said, ‘I am a public speaker.’ ‘What sort?’ I asked. ‘I’m a pastor,’ she said. ‘No, you’re not,’ I said.” Cain, who says he was a “displaced Catholic” at the time, says White prayed over him. “I see a book coming out of you and a studio,” she said. “I see God calling you back.”
Despite the 16-year age difference, the pair began to date. They were married during a December 2014 trip to Ghana, in a quiet ceremony officiated by one of White’s Pentecostal mentors. This was followed by a public wedding at an Orlando hotel in April 2015. It was a third marriage for both. Trump did not attend but sent a $1,000 contribution to White’s New Destiny Christian Center as a wedding gift.
Work of the advisory council
Both the role of White and the role of the evangelical advisory council in the Trump administration are opaque, to say the least. The White House Office of Public Liaison (OPL), which is charged with outreach to interest groups, did not respond to my requests for details about how often White is there, who is on the council or whom she meets with. Moore told me that there is no official list of council members and that, while OPL issues invitations to religious leaders who visit, White and other members of the council supply the names.
The administration’s lack of specifics about the council has drawn criticism. “With this council, it is murky as to who is on it and what role they have,” says Robert Jones, author and CEO of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. “It looks more like another campaign arm than a representative group.”
White says her position is that of a “faith adviser” and head of a council with an inner core of about three dozen evangelical leaders who communicate by conference call and occasional visits to Washington. About 10 to 15 leaders who are very engaged receive daily communications from OPL about matters important to Trump, such as religious liberty or criminal justice reform. The entire council rarely meets as a group, but 10 or so members will gather at times at the White House, depending on the issue the administration is seeking feedback about. White adds, however, that many other religious leaders have visited the White House for “listening sessions” and have input with the administration, including Indian American leaders who celebrated the Hindu holiday of Diwali last month with the president.
When White arrives at the White House, she says she typically heads for OPL, where she receives a schedule of events that require a faith presence. She puts together guest lists, shuttles between the offices of Vice President Mike Pence (though she has a much more distant relationship with Pence than with Trump), Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka — and connects them with the Christian movers and shakers she knows from three decades of ministry. These include many of the Pentecostal televangelists — with vast followings — whom she met through Christian TV.
‘We get huge access’
“I’m a bridge builder, and I can get information to different places,” she says. “I make sure there are people of faith at the Mexican heritage event with the first lady and president. I bring private faith-based organizations together with the government,” such as churches helping with relief supplies for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. In addition, White says, “I put people in front of” the president. “He’s a good listener, and that’s important. He is a fierce leader. He’s not a quitter. He digests information and makes informed decisions and has the courage and strength to make good leadership decisions.”
The day after she met with the Southern Baptist ministers in Washington, she met with a group of evangelical prayer ministry leaders, including Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham. Many members of this group wish to see federal and appeals courts filled with sympathetic judges, and White had notes in her purse of 130 such vacancies around the country. Trump “has been quite diligent to fulfill his promises to have originalist, constitutionalist judges,” she told me. “The president knows the judiciary is important to his strongest base.”
She and the visitors are often joined by legal and public policy specialists, she says. “We get huge access to government officials,” she explained after the meeting with Southern Baptist leaders. “Today we dealt with immigration. We bring solutions and come up with strategies.” She cited the nomination of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to be the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom — a State Department position — as one of the areas where evangelicals have made their influence felt. “That appointment got pushed up because [council members and others] brought it up at one of those sessions,” she noted.
White also says the council stepped in on the issue of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and persuaded the president to delay its end for six months. “We came in [to the Oval Office] and shared our heart, and he wanted to know the faith leaders’ feelings on DACA,” she says. “There were real questions asked, like did we know people who were ‘dreamers.’ We were honest and transparent with him. … Are we in there and being heard? Yes.” When I ask White about the priorities of the advisory council, she responds: “What matters to the evangelical community is Supreme Court justices, economy, religious liberty, Israel, lower courts, human trafficking and abortion.”
Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a frequent writer and commenter on religion and the presidency, says evangelicals have “achieved a number of victories — some small, some quite significant.” He cites Trump’s executive orders to block foreign aid groups from mentioning abortion and to ease restrictions on religious organizations endorsing or opposing political candidates; the Justice Department’s new guidance on protecting religious liberty (which states “no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with federal law”); the rollback of requirements that employers provide coverage for contraception; and some Cabinet appointments. “It’s important,” Rozell says, “to those folks to have a seat at the table and it be meaningful in some way and it not be just a show.”
Other faith traditions, it appears, don’t have the same kind of access as evangelicals in Trump’s White House. Before the election, former campaign officials say, Trump had three religious advisory boards: evangelical, Catholic and one for minority faiths. Only the evangelical one has survived into the administration, though Moore says he has observed mainline Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders in meetings at the White House.
Jones recounts that George W. Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to help faith-based groups of all kinds compete for federal funds for nonsectarian charitable or social work, such as services for the hungry and homeless. The Obama administration kept the same structure in place, but renamed it the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The evangelical advisory council’s unofficial status allows it to be less transparent than those previous faith-based efforts. According to Melissa Rogers, the lawyer who headed up the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama’s second term, the faith-based advisory boards under Obama and Bush were subject to the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act. That act, notes the website of the U.S. General Services Administration, was designed to “ensure that advice by the various advisory committees formed over the years is objective and accessible to the public.”
“The problem with the Trump administration is that there’s this evangelical group that has access and is being consulted, but there’s no comparable entity for other Christians and other faiths,” says Rogers. “There are no visitor logs being released, no transparency about their activities and nothing to answer to the public for. Our Constitution says our government can’t prefer some faiths over others, so anything that seems to be a preference raises some red flags.”
White says the administration has a new office in the works that will be known as a “faith initiative,” and will involve more religions and act like an official government body. Nothing had been announced at press time.
On tour with husband
After her White House meetings in July, White went to relax in a beige-walled suite — complete with a flower arrangement of white orchids — on the eighth floor of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Dressed in an electric blue L’Agence suit and black patent leather Christian Louboutin stilettos, she snuggled on a couch with Cain, who takes credit for her stylish, colorful clothes. “I told her, ‘You have to look like a rock-star wife,’ ” he says.
The two accompany each other everywhere, including the band’s eastern Asia tour this past February, plus four months of domestic shows this year. “Paula comes on the road with me,” Cain says. “She doesn’t want separation. Separation will kill a marriage.” In this case, White was able to schedule her Washington meetings around a Journey concert at the MGM National Harbor on the banks of the Potomac. (The timing resulted in a kerfuffle when three of the band members got a White House tour and a photo op with Trump. After guitarist Neal Schon, who was not invited, learned of the excursion, he blasted Cain on Twitter for allowing politics to infiltrate the group and suggested Cain had “changed radically” since his marriage to White. When I asked Cain for a response, he smiled and said, “It’s a free country.”)
Before the concert that evening, White greeted an endless stream of guests and friends during a preperformance gathering where Cain was raising money for High Hopes, a Nashville-based charitable organization for children with special needs. Heading backstage to wait for the concert (when the band was playing she would head into the audience to take pictures), she turned to her iPhone, which she’s on constantly. Although other pastors fill in for her while she’s on the road, White says she tries to keep in touch. “Anytime something happens to one of my members, a death or tragedy, I call and pray over them,” she says. “What’s five minutes of my time to pray over people?”
Knight often fills in for his mom but says her political involvements have created some havoc at New Destiny. “Her relationship with the black community got really frayed because of President Trump,” he says. “She got messages from black leaders, saying, ‘You betrayed us.’ ” New Destiny lost 200 to 300 people because of Trump, he says, adding that giving dropped $10,000 a week. As White has become more visible, she has also been panned for her use of black idiomatic speech, and was mocked for doing so by Seth Meyers on his NBC late-night show in August.
Despite her detractors, however, White remains very much a presence in African American churches. The day after the Journey concert, she was a guest speaker at a women’s conference at the majority-black Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, pastored by Bishop Harry Jackson, a fellow member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council. She seemed very much at home as she told them, “Little did I know 16 years ago when I met Mr. Trump that he’d be president. God whispered in my heart, ‘Show him who I am.’ I wanted to pray and show him the Word of God. Little did I know I’d earn that place of trust where 16 years later I can bring in great men like your pastor, great women” to Trump. She received sustained applause.
Frequent target of media
White is frequently castigated in the media for not condemning many of Trump’s actions, but her son believes critics are looking at it the wrong way. “It’s not about him being a good man,” Knight says; it’s about her trying to steer Trump in the right direction. “People think she feels he is a model Christian. She believes that he is fulfilling an assignment from God that is important to the church and important to America.”
White insists that lecturing Trump is not her job. “I don’t preach to anyone on behavior modification,” she says. “There are things I can speak, but that’s not anyone’s business what I say. Why would I as a pastor expose that relationship? Everyone needs a safe place in life, and pastors can be people’s safe place. That’s why I have this relationship, because I don’t talk about it.”
She says she spends an hour a day in prayer and Bible study to maintain the necessary spiritual resources. She tries to fast one day a week and does a longer fast once a month. “If I am not fresh with God, I might as well hang it up. You can’t be a spiritual adviser and not pray,” she says. She also explains that she pays her own way. “I’ve never received a dime from anything,” she says of her work on the evangelical advisory council and trips to Washington. “I don’t get paid at all. I feel it’s part of my purpose. If God has given me this opportunity, it’d be irresponsible not to fulfill it. But I don’t get a discount or special privileges.”
“She leads [Trump’s] heart to the Lord, and that’s all Trump wants,” Cain says. “He actually recognizes her anointing and checks in with her. Every time she’s in Washington, he has to see her.” He recalls that when White was asked to pray for Trump during the Republican National Convention, “she was on her knees by the bed for hours. She prayed for him to have the strength and clarity to speak to the American public. I saw later how a calm came over him. He receives it like a child. He channels her.”
The opportunity isn’t without its drawbacks. “She gets attacked every single day on social media, email, phone calls,” Moore says. “This has cost her. And it’s never enough. She has nothing to gain from this. But she feels a call and responsibility to minister to this family.”
When I ask White about these hidden costs, she sounds philosophical. “You can’t influence anything for the kingdom of God without tremendous resistance,” she says. “I never sought this out. I’m the girl next door who loved God, who is amazed by this every day.”