Liberty University, an evangelical institution in Virginia with a long history of activism supporting Donald Trump, has reiterated its support for its employee John Gauger, who allegedly struck business deals with the president’s embattled former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Gauger, the university’s chief information officer and vice president of analytics, is also the owner of the tech company RedFinch Solutions. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen hired RedFinch in 2015 to rig online polls in Trump’s favor.
In a post on Twitter, Cohen acknowledged the poll rigging and said he ordered it “at the direction of and for the sole benefit of” Trump.
The Journal also reported that Cohen asked Gauger during the 2016 presidential campaign to create a @WomenForCohen Twitter account that praised Cohen as a “sex symbol” and tried to boost the attorney’s public image.
Liberty University appears unruffled by allegations about Gauger. In a statement released to CNN and other outlets on Thursday, the university painted him as just another employee who pursues “business, consulting, and other side work.”
“John Gauger is one example among many outstanding LU employees who have made great contributions in their official roles and also enjoyed success as independent entrepreneurs, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and generate more revenue for their families while allowing the University to retain them on our team,” the university said.
Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell Sr., a fundamentalist preacher who led the Moral Majority movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Under his son Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty has become one of the largest Christian universities in the country.
Falwell Jr. was among the first evangelical leaders to endorse Trump, in January 2016. Since then, Falwell has often stepped in to defend Trump’s controversial statements and actions. Falwell’s support has helped boost the president’s credentials among evangelical Christians.
The Journal reports that the relationship between Trump, Cohen and Liberty University dates back to at least 2012, when Falwell invited Trump to speak at a school convocation, a thrice-weekly mandatory general assembly of students and staff. Cohen reportedly accompanied Trump during that trip.
Soon after the event, Gauger was introduced to Cohen, the Journal reports. The introduction reportedly led to a business relationship between Gauger and Cohen that lasted for years.
Gauger did not immediately respond to a request for more information about who facilitated that introduction, and a Liberty University representative declined to comment.
Falwell has tried to make it clear that his support for Trump is a personal decision that doesn’t reflect the views of the university as a whole.
Still, Gauger’s involvement with Cohen is yet another example of the many ties linking Liberty University staffers, students and alumni with Trump.
The president has made a number of high-profile visits to Liberty University over the years. It was there in 2016 that he made a now-famous reference to “Two Corinthians,” flubbing a book of the Bible (usually called Second Corinthians) and eliciting snickers from some Liberty students.
In May 2017, Trump chose to give his first commencement speech as president at Liberty University ― breaking from a tradition by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, all of whom gave their first commencement addresses in office at the University of Notre Dame.
Trump has received two honorary degrees from Liberty University ― one in business in 2012 and another in law in 2017.
Liberty University’s students and staff have also shown support for the president.
In September, students leaped into action to defend Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was battling allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman while he was in high school. On the day he and his accuser were scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, about 300 Liberty University students traveled to Washington on four buses to show their support for Kavanaugh.
The trip was reportedly sponsored by the university and the conservative nonprofit Concerned Women for America, whose president and CEO, Penny Nance, is a Liberty alumna and trustee.
At a convocation before the trip, Falwell reportedly told students that the effort was an attempt to counteract protesters from Yale University who were critical of Kavanaugh’s nomination. He announced that students who made the trip would be excused from classes, according to Lynchburg’s News and Advance.
Liberty University students were also involved in a film, “The Trump Prophecy,” which promotes the belief that Trump was chosen by God to lead the United States and restore its Judeo-Christian heritage ― a theory that is quite popular in some white evangelical circles. More than 50 Liberty University students and staffers worked on the movie as part of a spring semester film project last year, according to The Christian Post.
The idea for the project reportedly grew out of a partnership between Stephan Schultze, the head of Liberty’s cinema program and the film’s director, and Rick Eldridge, a Christian film producer. Schultze told The Christian Post that the film was not meant to be an endorsement of Trump. However, the project was apparently vetted and approved by the school’s administration.
Some Liberty University students and alumni have protested the school’s association with Trump, with dozens of graduates even saying they planned to return their diplomas over the issue.
The university has also drawn flak for appearing to censor speech on campus that is critical of Falwell or his support for Trump.
A leading member of the university’s executive committee who criticized Falwell’s endorsement of Trump in 2016 was reportedly later asked to step down from the committee. That year, a student editor at the Liberty Champion, the school newspaper claimed Falwell pulled an op-ed that criticized Trump’s lewd comments about sexual assault on a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape.
Falwell later said that the op-ed would have been “redundant,” since another one supporting candidate Hillary Clinton was also being published by the school newspaper.
Last April, another student journalist claimed Falwell shut down her efforts to report on a Lynchburg event organized by progressive evangelicals who were critical of his ties with Trump.
Frustrated former editors at the Liberty Champion launched their own news website in October, entirely independent of the university.
Sarah Jackson, the independent paper’s opinion editor, told the News and Advance in November that her paper gives students the chance to write without restrictions.
“We want to tackle controversial topics because those are the things that students are interested in and those are the things that matter to them,” she said. “We want students to be aware of and engage with these topics because critical thinking is something that every person needs and it’s something that I think Liberty would benefit from if we had more of it.”
Falwell has rejected the notion that he has censored the campus newspaper.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Falwell suggested that there was nothing Trump could do that would endanger evangelicals’ support.
“I know that he only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically ‘conservative,’ but it’s going to be what’s best for this country,” Falwell said. “And I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.”