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Only a few hours after Omar Mateen’s murderous rampage at the Orlando, Fla., nightclub Pulse, a preacher took the stage of her church 14 miles up the road and led her congregation in prayer.
“This city has to have Jesus right now,” Paula White said, her voice catching with emotion.
White, who has emerged this year as one of Donald Trump’s most stalwart religious supporters, and has been called Trump’s “spiritual counselor” by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, brought forward three other pastors to pray.
Their prayers the morning of June 12, in response to the Orlando terrorist attack, emphasized the Pentecostal tradition of what’s known as “spiritual warfare,” which consists largely of praying against evil spirits.
“Every violent spirit,” Edward Boateng, the church’s associate pastor, yelled, “get out!”
White, 50, stood behind him, repeating after Boateng as he screamed the words “Get out!” four more times and then continued to yell, “Out!” The congregation followed suit, clapping rapidly at the same time in the same manner as White.
After two other pastors came forward to pray, White closed out the prayer session with her hope that the terrorist attack would spark a spiritual awakening.
“I’m asking God for revival from this,” White said. “We have to have a nationwide revival, where we repent, we fall on our face, we call out to God again, and we make this nation what it is supposed to be.”
White also said that in response to the shooting that morning, she was “demanding 50,000 souls in return, in Jesus’ name.”
Like the presidential candidate she supports, White is both rich and famous, but has endured ridicule from her chosen tribe. Trump has long been considered a laughingstock by New Yorkers, and White is viewed as a fringe character by many American evangelicals.
As Trump looks to a tough election in November, he needs prominent conservative evangelicals to smooth his way with a constituency that has given 75 to 80 percent of its votes to Republican nominees in recent decades. But both Trump and White still face determined resistance from some evangelical leaders who see each of them as frauds.
Russell Moore, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm and is one of Trump’s loudest public critics, recently called White a “charlatan” and a “heretic” — serious charges — on Twitter.
Moore told Yahoo News that White preaches a “prosperity gospel” that falsely claims that “God’s favor is seen in increasing wealth and freedom from sickness” and that emphasizes — often to lower-income, less-educated congregants — that the more money they give to the church, the more God will bless them.
“Orthodox Christians of every tribe recognize the prosperity gospel for what it is: an attempt to use the name of Jesus to prey upon vulnerable people,” Moore said.
“Trump University can only bilk someone out of financial stability in this life. That’s a problem, but the prosperity gospel can send people to hell while bilking them out of their money,” he added. “That’s much worse.”
White first became known as a Trump ally last September when she helped organize a meeting of pastors at Trump Tower in New York City. A video emerged of her leading the group of around 20 other ministers, all men, in praying for Trump.
The group surrounded Trump, who held a Bible with both hands, and placed their hands on him. At one point messianic Jewish rabbi Kirt Schneider placed his fingers on Trump’s face. Trump stood stiffly, his upper lip jutting out.
White closed that prayer session, a role reserved for leaders of leaders in Pentecostal culture.
“Father, we just secure him right now by the blood of Jesus. We thank you that no weapon formed against him would prosper, and any tongue that rises against him would be condemned, according to the word of God,” White prayed, one hand on Trump’s stomach and the other on his arm.
“I secure him, I secure his children, I secure his calling and his mantle, in Jesus’ name,” she said.
At that time, Trump led in the polls but was still not taken seriously as a contender for the GOP nomination. The first primary votes were still three months away.
Similarly, White and the other pastors who met and prayed with Trump were largely from the Pentecostal televangelist world, which is largely dismissed by American evangelicalism.
The notion that “prosperity gospel preachers” are impostors is widespread enough that a 2013 rap song called “Fal$e Teacher$” denounced White.
“Some who claim to be part of His sheep got some sharp teeth (they’re wolves),” rapped Shai Linne, who in 2015 started a church in his hometown of Philadelphia.
Linne named Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar and Kenneth Copeland, along with White, as “false teachers.”
“Treating Jesus like a lottery ticket, and you’re thinking they’re not the dangerous type, because some of their statements are right,” he rapped. “That only proves that Satan comes as an angel of light.”
White’s son, Bradley Knight, pushed back against Linne’s accusations.
“It is commonplace in our lives to be called ‘heretics,’ ‘false teachers,’ and ‘wolves,’” Knight wrote in an open letter.
“Can you find one, even one instance in which my mother has ‘denied our sovereign Lord’? You cannot because it has never happened,” White’s son continued. “Come see the fruit my mother has borne. Visit the churches we assist in Haiti after the devastating earthquake they experienced … Spend time with us as we visit the prisons and feed the hungry, just as Christ commissioned us.”
There is, however, no question that White is extremely wealthy. Her salary is not known, but she has been reported to receive a multimillion-dollar income and reportedly owns a $3.5 million apartment in Trump Tower. She has at points owned homes in San Antonio and Tampa, Fla.; and she currently pastors New Destiny Christian Center, which rents a 7,600-square-foot house in the Orlando area for her, according to a 2012 magazine article.
“To me, it’s never been about money,” White told Larry King in 2007, at a time when Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was heading up a Senate Finance Committee investigation into whether her church had mishandled funds. (The probe found no wrongdoing.) “Financially, I personally believe that you should have enough to do the assignment that you feel is part of your life.”
It was a rare interview for White, who has plenty of forums where she can speak publicly on her own terms. For around 15 years, she’s hosted various iterations of a TV talk show that’s been aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network — the one where people are often shown sitting in gold-encrusted, high-backed chairs — but also on BET and Spike TV. Her website boasts that her shows reach “a potential viewing audience of 2.3 billion people worldwide.” At one point, she was even a “life coach” on “The Tyra Banks Show.”
One of White’s few recent interviews was with the Christian Broadcasting Network, on the sidelines of Trump’s meeting with hundreds of Christian pastors and their spouses in New York City.
“Do you ever wonder what God is up to in all this, with Donald Trump, making him the Republican nominee for president of the United States?” asked CBN’s David Brody.
“His plans are not our plans,” White said, smiling. “Here [Trump] is, the nominee. That has to be providence. That has to be the hand of God.”
After the interview, Brody told viewers, “Forget politics for a moment. [White]’s an integral player in Trump’s faith walk.”
But Brody’s credulity about Trump’s faith is at odds with many evangelicals who avoid questioning whether Trump is sincere — that would be anathema to a faith tradition that believes authentic faith is determined ultimately only by God — but find his personal life, his temperament, and many of his policy positions to be at odds with Christian beliefs.
“I think the Christian community, when they come out for Trump, it weakens our position because — What do you really stand for?,” Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, told Yahoo News. “This guy’s belligerent. He’s denigrating. He’s everything we’re not. But people are so desperate to change things.”
White and Trump — who have known each other for more than a decade — share another experience that makes them targets for skeptics in the evangelical community: They have each been married multiple times. Both are on their third marriage, in fact, and have been the subjects of infidelity reports.
In 2010, the tabloid National Enquirer, which is owned by Trump pal David Pecker and has served as an outlet for some of Trump’s most outlandish conspiracy theories and personal smears against political opponents, published photos of White holding hands with fellow televangelist Benny Hinn (then married) in Rome and alleged the two were having a torrid affair. Both denied it.
Three years earlier, White divorced her second husband, Randy White, after 18 years of marriage. The two were married in Maryland and moved to Tampa in 1990 to start the Without Walls International Church, which by 2006 boasted 23,500 attendees and upwards of $40 million in donations.
White was raised in Mississippi and then in the semi-rural Maryland region about 40 miles north of Washington, D.C. Her personal origins story includes a single mother who became an alcoholic after her father committed suicide, leaving the young Paula at the mercy of men and caregivers, who she says physically and sexually abused her.
During her marriage to White, Paula formed her own organization, Paula White Ministries, and began to outshine her husband. Years after the two divorced, she met Jonathan Cain on a flight, and the two were married in 2015. Cain is the keyboardist for arena rock band Journey and wrote one of the band’s most famous songs, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
(Journey’s fame was resurrected in 2007 when HBO’s “The Sopranos” used “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the final scene of its series finale. The band is now scheduled to play at the Republican convention next month in Cleveland.)
Trump and White crossed paths 14 years ago, she told Brody, when the developer called her out of the blue and told her how much he liked her sermons, which he’d seen on TV. According to White, Trump said her sermons “really ministered” to him.
In 2007, Trump endorsed White’s book, calling her “a beautiful person, inside and out.” And in 2008, Trump appeared on White’s TV show, where she asked him to share the secrets to his financial success.
Last fall, White appeared in the video where she and others prayed for Trump. And in March, she introduced Trump at a rally in Orlando and intimated even then that Trump’s candidacy carried a divine imprimatur.
“I believe that God will raise up a man for such a time as this,” she said. The phrase “such a time as this” is from the biblical book of Esther and carries extra meaning and impact for people in church culture.
White has not only attached sacred importance to Trump’s candidacy, but she has also vouched for his character and his Christian credentials.
At the Orlando rally, she defended Trump and said that despite his public reputation, he was “a man who had more integrity than most people that I have encountered,” calling him “a compassionate man, a man who is very strong to his core.”
And in her recent interview with CBN, White attempted to explain Trump’s statements a year ago that he had never asked God for forgiveness, a comment in which he also referred to the sacrament of Communion as “my little wine … and my little cracker.”
“I don’t bring God into that picture,” Trump said then when asked the question about asking for forgiveness.
White told CBN that Trump “doesn’t know our Christian-ese, and perhaps our language that we know in the Christian world.”
“So if someone’s willing to slam him when he says, ‘Of course, I don’t take Communion without asking forgiveness,’ I understand what he’s saying because I’ve had those private times of prayer with him, conversations with him,” she said.
“Someone might take a sound bite and say, ‘Oh, see he’s not saved,’ or, ‘He doesn’t love God,’” she continued. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
But in recent days, James Dobson, the past president of Focus on the Family, said publicly that he had heard that White had only recently “personally led [Trump] to Christ.”
That would run counter to Trump’s claim of a lifelong faith, and days after Dobson made comments to the meeting of Christian leaders in New York, he backed off his assertion to some degree, saying, “Do I know that for sure? No. Do I know the details of that alleged conversion? I can’t say that I do.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to inquiries as to whether the presumptive Republican nominee for president is a recent convert to Christianity. White also did not respond to interview requests.
Regardless of whether Trump is actually a born-again Christian, for older members of the religious right, his claims to be one of them might be enough, simply because they cannot bear the thought of Hillary Clinton as president.
“We have only two choices, Hillary or Donald. Hillary scares me to death,” Dobson said. “And if Christians stay home because he isn’t a better candidate, Hillary will run the world for perhaps eight years. The very thought of that haunts my nights and days.”