The president’s speech at Liberty University was uplifting and defensive at once.
President Donald Trump avoided directly attacking the media on Saturday but took on what he called a “chorus of critics” as he appeared to defend the controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey in a commencement address at Liberty University.
“The fact is, no one has ever achieved anything significant without a chorus of critics standing on the sidelines explaining why it can’t be done,” Trump said. “Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic. Because they’re people that can’t get the job done.”
Trump’s speech, his first commencement address as president, at times seemed like a message to graduates and critics alike that the commander in chief himself likewise needed to hear.
“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 the courage or the guts or the stamina to take it and to do it,” he said.
The comments appeared to be a veiled reaction to the swift backlash he faced this week after terminating Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into potential collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Trump said the first months of his presidency have shown him “the system is broken,” calling Washington a place where “a small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think.”
The speech was at times conventional and unpredictably bizarre. He shared an uplifting message with the students, paid homage to the late founder of the university, Jerry Falwell, and shouted out Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, World War II veteran George Rogers and mothers, ahead of Sunday’s holiday. He additionally unveiled the Liberty football team’s upcoming football schedule.
“As of February of this year, the Liberty Flames are playing in the FBS, the highest level of competition in NCAA football,” Trump said to applause. “Don’t clap. That could be tough. Don’t clap. That could be tough.”
In any case, Trump additionally offered up more typical inspirational fare in a speech in which he largely stayed on script and avoided his frequent attacks on the “fake” media.
He urged graduates during his 32-minute speech to do what they love and never quit. “Nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy,” Trump said, telling the graduates that a future president or two could be among them. He told the crowd to “embrace the label” of outsider.
“The more people tell you it’s not possible, that it can’t be done, the more you should be absolutely determined to prove them wrong,” he said. “Treat the word impossible as nothing more than motivation. Relish the opportunity to be an outsider. Embrace that label…because it’s the outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.”
His remarks capped a rough week that was dominated by his abrupt firing — and subsequent threatening — of Comey and contradictory statements from the president and his top aides in the aftermath about what exactly occurred and why.
Trump declared on Twitter on Friday that it’s “not possible” for his spokespeople to communicate his message “with perfect accuracy” because he is “very active.” He suggested ending the tradition of daily White House press briefings and told Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro that, “in all fairness” to press secretary Sean Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “they don’t know me.”
Saturday allowed Trump to speak for himself. His first commencement address as president came just days after his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was booed and heckled Wednesday during her speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida, where some graduating seniors turned their backs on her in protest.
It was unclear if Trump would face similar protests inside the stadium on his return to Liberty. Some students had participated in a small protest outside the arena when Trump last spoke here in January 2016. He was mocked then for citing “Two Corinthians” during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day convocation speech.
However, the president was well received Saturday by the record crowd, including some graduates who donned the president’s trademark “Make America Great Again” hats in lieu of the traditional cap.
“It’s been a little over a year since I’ve spoken on your beautiful campus, and so much has changed. Right here, the class of 2017, dressed in cap and gown, graduating to a totally brilliant future,” Trump said. “And here I am, standing before you as president of the United States. So I’m guessing there are some people here today who thought that either one of those things — either one — would really require major help from God. Do we agree? And we got it.”
Trump himself, who was awarded an honorary degree, did not don the traditional academic regalia of commencement speakers, delivering his address in a suit and tie.
Saturday granted Trump an opportunity to engage with a largely supportive crowd of thousands, giving the president the semblance of a much-needed campaign-style rally after being holed up in the White House all week. Trump thanked the graduates for their votes — “boy did you come out and vote,” he told them — and pledged to defend their conservative values as long as he occupies the Oval Office.
“America is better when people put their faith into action,” Trump said. “As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart. We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to god and to follow his teachings. America is beginning a new chapter.”
He added, in a line that, by far, received the biggest applause: “In America, we don’t worship government. We worship God.”
The president talked before some 50,000 people in 55-degree weather under cloudy, gray skies here inside the university’s outdoor stadium, which is tucked under the scenery of the voluminous Blue Ridge Mountains.
Liberty, which bills itself as “the world’s largest Christian university,” said more than 18,000 students graduated on Saturday. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University who endorsed Trump during the GOP primary, greeted Trump upon his arrival and introduced him back at the campus.