Televangelist Paula White has a few things in common with the president-elect.
The preacher made a name for herself on television — much like Donald Trump — and both have used controversial, nontraditional business practices that have been the subject of government inquires. White, like Trump, is on her third marriage, this time to Journey rocker Jonathan Cain, and both are boosted by wealth and celebrity.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that White is Trump's spiritual adviser — and has been for more than a decade. She'll take the stage with Trump to pray at Friday's inauguration.
Their fifteen-year relationship began when Trump cold-called White.
"I pick up the phone and he begins to say to me, 'I've been watching you on television,'" White recalled in an interview with NBC News that aired on Nightly News on Thursday.
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White is one of six religious leaders who will pray over Trump's swearing in on January 20th. In a wide-ranging interview with NBC Nightly News ahead of her prayer, White attested to the sometimes elusive spirituality of the president-elect, while pushing back the vocal critics who say White shouldn't be involved in the inauguration.
“I know that Donald is saved,” White told NBC News in a pre-taped interview. “He's absolutely — received Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.”
White won’t take credit for bringing Trump to Jesus, but she is the most vocal defendants of his faith — something that’s complicated by Trump not going to Church regularly and his repeated insistence that he’s never asked God for forgiveness, a fundamental part of being ‘born again’ for evangelical Christians.
“I know that he's asked for forgiveness. I know that he has sought and understands the truth of that,” White told NBC News, insisting that his repeated statements that he’s never asked for forgiveness had been taken out of context and that his public persona kept him away from public church services. “I understand on a much more personal level his walk. It's not something he feels comfortable ... He doesn't know our Christian-ese or language. ... But that doesn't mean he's not a man of faith.”
White said she saw his faith on display in 2011, when he asked her to gather pastors together to pray with him in 2011, when he was debating jumping in the 2012 presidential race.
“And we prayed over him. We sat with him for about six hours. This wasn't like-- like an hour or ten minutes; it was six hours. It was an all day meeting and we prayed for hours. And we listened, we talked, we conversed and— and the next day, I called him or he called me, one ... one or the other. And he said, 'I' -- 'I don't believe it's the timing of God,’” White recalled.
When White isn’t defending Trump, she’s defending her own ministry, which was subject to a three year Congressional inquiry lead by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley for shady fundraising principles and criticized by other Christians for what they call the "prosperity gospel" — preaching that followers who donate large sums will be made wealthy by God.
White is quick to note that Grassley's investigation into her fundraising was technically an inquiry ("We fully cooperated," she said) and resulted in no findings of wrongdoing or penalties. She disagrees with the characterization of the "prosperity gospel" and of course disagrees with critics who call her a charlatan and a heretic.
She says donations, even the hefty four figure ones, are to help the ministry and its televised operations pay bills, and the “prosperity gospel” is misunderstood to be all about money.
She’s also quick to say that in her younger years, she wasn’t always her ministry’s best messenger.
“So have I ever said that God would bless you back financially? I'm sure I have. I'm absolutely sure somewhere. But do I principally believe? Like I'm not gonna say, "I have never said that," White said with a laugh. “But do I teach fundamentally like, "Give to give. Give to get. Get to get?" No. That is not the principle or the basis of who Paula White is.”
Jane C. Timm
Jane C. Timm is a political reporter for NBC News, fact checking elections and covering voting rights.