The New York Times has a rather lengthy and Timesian piece out this morning on the on-going mystery of Jerry Falwell Jr, his wife and family and this “pool boy” who they befriended and then put into the divey youth hostel business in South Florida. For those who’ve read the earlier reporting by Politico, Buzzfeed and Reuters, there’s no big new bombshell or piece of evidence in the new piece. (If anyone’s read it and thinks otherwise, let me know.) What there is is bits and pieces of more confirmation and nuggets of detail throughout. It’s a classic Timesian piece, the kind fellow journalists often grind their teeth over. The Times comes in late, largely with other people’s reporting and makes the whole thing official with splash of Times holy water. And yet, as usual, they’ve used their name and resources to unearth enough new details and additional confirmations to put the whole edifice on a rather firmer footing.
We still have a close to inexplicable chain of events in which Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife befriended young Giancarlo Granda, a pool attendant they met at a luxe, high life hotel in Miami Beach. As the Times puts it: “The Falwells, according to the person close to them, were impressed with Mr. Granda’s ambition. Soon he was hiking and water skiing with them in Virginia. Within months, they were offering to help him get started in business in Florida.”
The picture above comes from Donald Trump’s 2012 visit to Liberty University. The Falwells flew Giancarlo up for the event in a private jet. The speech was arranged and shepherded forward by Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer, who was then trying to build support with key constituencies for his boss’s presidential run.
From the Times article here’s a photo of Giancarlo on the private jet heading up to Virginia. He has a copy of The Art of the Deal in his lap. Everything seems in order.
This much of the story we knew as much of a year or more ago. For completely unexplained reasons, the middle-aged Falwells, second generation patriarchs of one of the country’s top institutions of evangelical christianity and sexual traditionalism, take up with a man their son’s age and soon enough are grubstaking him the funds to get started in the divey, gay-friendly, sex and booze drenched youth hostel biz. It all points to some hidden hand or fact-driving events, without which none of it really makes sense.
That’s where Michael Cohen comes back into the picture. Tom Arnold befriended Cohen, got him on the phone earlier this year and got him to admit that he’d tried to arrange a deal to cover up intimate photos somehow tied to the Falwell family and Granda.
The Falwells’ denials tend to focus on Cohen’s never having been their lawyer – which isn’t really the key issue or necessarily relevant. His MO is swooping in to make problems go away for people Trump wants things from. There are other bizarre details that may or may not mean anything — the jilted business partners who got this whole drama into the courts changed their names — father and son — during the on-going litigation.
It’s worth excerpting the key passage on this front from the Times story in whole …
“There’s a bunch of photographs, personal photographs, that somehow the guy ended up getting — whether it was off of Jerry’s phone or somehow maybe it got AirDropped or whatever the hell the whole thing was,” Mr. Cohen told Mr. Arnold in the recording, which Mr. Arnold shared with The Times. Mr. Cohen never identified “the guy.”
“These are photos between husband and wife,” Mr. Cohen added, joking that “the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold.” He explained, “I was going to pay him, and I was going to get the negatives and do an agreement where they turn over all the technology that has the photographs or anything like that, any copies.”
But the payoff “never happened,” he said, “and the guy just either deleted them on his own or what have you.”
The person close to the Falwells said that Mr. Cohen was neither their lawyer nor their fixer, and that they had not been aware of “his alleged actions regarding photographs” until parts of the recording were released.
Mr. Cohen, who declined interview requests, told Mr. Arnold that he had been trying to protect Mrs. Falwell. “Even though she has a very nice figure,” he said on the recording, “nobody wants their private photos published.” In the process, he said, he had obtained one of the photos, of Mrs. Falwell, and still had it.
This comic drama has so many unreliable narrators it makes me feel like I’m back in a college lit class.
Arnold is hardly a disinterested journalist. He’s not even a journalist. He’s pretty openly just looking for any dirt he can find tied to Trump. For starters, Arnold surreptitiously recorded and then publicized this call. That’s a problem ethically on a few fronts. But if anything it tends to bolster the exchange’s credibility.
As for Cohen, on the one hand he is a consummate bullshitter. He denied all sorts of things that turned out to be true. He’s literally going to jail in part for lying to Congress. On the other hand, this kind of thing is exactly what Cohen was in the business of doing: leveraging money and NDAs to make evidence of the sexual transgressions of important, rich people go away.
You can certainly imagine someone like Cohen embellishing or engaging in what Trump once called “locker room banter” about Mrs. Falwell’s figure in a call with his bud Tom. But it’s hard to imagine him coming up with the whole idea of compromising photos from whole cloth in what he thought was a private conversation — especially when he literally has a years-long track record of sending stories of assignations with pornstars and playmates into oblivion on behalf of Donald Trump and his friends. And the implausibility of it being a pure fiction is furthered rather dramatically by how tightly this fits with the broader edifice of inexplicable actions. The Times adds that they spoke to three people who “said they had seen at least one photo, though their descriptions varied and could not be verified.” They also have some revealing color from one-time Cruz advisor Rick Tyler on what seems to have been the rather sudden and to-the-Cruz campaign unexpected Trump endorsement.
On balance, I’d say it’s quite unlikely that there’s not some story here that would be quite damaging to the Falwells and that there are pictures. Clearly, whatever role Falwell played in securing evangelical support during the 2016 campaign, it is now deeply embedded and ingrained far past what any personal scandal could undo. But it does also point toward the pervasive role of extortion, compromising information and strong-arming in the Trump world.