gave career advice to university graduates on Saturday and offered himself as a blueprint, lavishing praise on “outsiders” who know they are right and denouncing “pathetic” critics.
Trump left the controversies besieging him in Washington behind to fly to Lynchburg,, and present himself as a man of God to a supportive crowd at Liberty University, the biggest Christian college in America.
His half-hour commencement address did not touch on his decision to fire James Comey, the director of the FBI, but was nevertheless shot through with references to his own life philosophy.
“The fact is, no one has achieved anything significant without a chorus of critics standing on the sidelines explaining why it can’t be done,” said Trump, who wore a suit instead of the academic gown customary on such occasions. “Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic because they’re people that can’t get the job done. But the future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics. The future belongs to the people who follow their heart no matter what the critics say because they truly believe in their vision.”
Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University, said there were more than 50,000 people in the crowd, the biggest ever turnout for a commencement address at the college. Trump was only the second sitting president to speak there, following George HW Bush in 1990. Falwell presented him with an honorary doctorate of laws.
Trump, who reportedly does not read books, told the graduates: “Remember this: nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy. Following your convictions means you must be willing to face criticism from those who lack the same courage to do what is right. And they know what is right but they don’t have courage or the guts or the stamina to take it and to do it. It’s called the road less travelled.”
The billionaire businessman, TV celebrity and novice politician continued: “In my short time in Washington, I’ve seen first hand how the system is broken. A small group of failed voices, who think they know everything and understand everyone, wanted to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think. But you aren’t going to let other people tell you what you believe, especially when you know you’re right.”
There was applause from the audience, some of whom wore red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. The president added: “We don’t need a lecture from Washington on how to lead our lives. I’m standing here looking at the next generation of American leaders. There may very well be a president or two in our midst. Anybody think they’re going to be president? Raise your hand.”
He urged the graduates to never quit or give up. Later he again made reference to his own experience: “Be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures. Does that sound familiar, by the way?”
Indeed, some of the remarks gave an insight into his own willingness to dig in against opposition, as evidenced during the turmoil of the past week. “Treat the word impossible as nothing more than motivation. Relish the opportunity to be an outsider. Embrace that label: being an outsider is fine. Embrace the label because it’s outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.
“The more that a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead, you must keep pushing forward.”
There were other familiar Trump touchstones: how evangelical Christians voted for him in the election, how the “beautiful stadium” at Liberty was “packed”, digressions about upcoming sports fixtures.
Falwell was one of Trump’s earliest and most outspoken supporters, helping him win 80% of the white evangelical vote despite his colourful New York past including three marriages. A recent Pew Research Center survey marking Trump’s first 100 days in office, a milestone he hit on 29 April, found three-quarters of white evangelicals approved of his performance as president while just 39% of the general public shared this view.
However, critics of Trump questioned why a man who was caught boasting about groping women – on an Access Hollywood tape that came to light during last year’s election campaign – was being embraced by devout Christians.
Trump was careful to speak of the country’s religious heritage dating back to the pilgrim fathers. “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God,” he said.
“As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practising your faith or preaching what’s in your heart. We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and follow his teachings.”
It was not Trump’s first speech at Liberty University. In January 2016 he made a speech there promising: “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.” But he inadvertently drew laughs in January 2016 when he referred to one of the Bible’s books as “Two Corinthians” instead of the more common “Second Corinthians”.
Introducing him this time, Falwell told the audience: “President Trump ventured into politics at a time when our nation has never been more polarised. He deserves our respect and admiration for enduring relentless and often dishonest attacks from the media, the establishment on the left and the right and from academia.”
Trump was making his first extended public appearance since he dismissed Comey, whom he branded a “showboat” and “grandstander”. The FBI director was investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, including possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. Democrats condemned the move as “Nixonian” and demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor as a guarantee of independence.
Four candidates to succeed Comey were due for the first interviews with attorney general Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, at Department of Justice headquarters on Saturday.
First to arrive was Alice Fisher, a high-ranking DoJ official in the George W Bush administration, who left after about 90 minutes. Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, Michael J Garcia, an associate judge on New York’s highest court, and Republican John Cornyn of Texas, a former state attorney general, were expected in the afternoon.
Trump said on Saturday that “we can make a fast decision” on the appointment, potentially before he leaves for Saudi Arabia on Thursday. “Even that is possible,” he told reporters. “I think the process is going to go quickly. Almost all of them are very well known. They’ve been vetted over their lifetime, essentially. But very well known, highly respected, really talented people. And that’s what we want for the FBI.”
Meanwhile, in an interview on Fox News’s Justice with Judge Jeanine, Trump was asked about reports that he had asked Comey whether he had his loyalty.
The president said: “No. No, I didn’t. But I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask. I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States, is important. You know, I mean it depends on how you define loyalty, number one. Number two, I don’t know how that got there, because I didn’t ask that question.”
Trump lashed out at Comey on Friday, tweeting that the former FBI director “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
The ambiguous reference raised the spectre of a possible obstruction of justice and drew comparisons to the secretly taped conversations and phone calls that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. The president refused to comment on the tweet in his Fox News interview. “I won’t talk about that. All I want is for Comey to be honest and I hope he will be and I’m sure he will be, I hope.”
Comey declined a request to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Jim Sciutto, chief national security correspondent of CNN,: “Source w/firsthand knowledge tells me Comey turned down Senate invite to testify b/c ‘wants to lay low for a while & take some time off’.”