It was an early afternoon in late July, and Paula White, 51, was holding court before an audience of about 25 Southern Baptist ministers in an ornate diplomatic reception room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The televangelist was recounting one of her favorite stories — about when Donald Trump reached out to her in 2011 for guidance on a possible White House run. “Would you bring some people around me to pray?” she said he asked her. “I really want to hear from God.” White recalled that she and another pastor gathered about 30 ministers from different evangelical Christian traditions at Trump Tower in Manhattan. After the prayer session, when Trump asked her what she thought, she responded: “I don’t feel it’s the right timing.”
He listened, she continued, and the two talked and prayed about the matter over the next four years. When White again gathered religious leaders at Trump Tower in September 2015, she backed the decision he’d already made to run. Videos on YouTube of that event show her standing on his right, head down, laying hands on him as she prayed.
Since the election, White’s stardom has soared.
- She offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration (becoming the first clergywoman in history in such a role).
- She sat by the president at a private dinner for evangelical leaders on the eve of the National Day of Prayer.
- She has hovered close by during prayer sessions in the Oval Office.
- She was present when Trump met with advisers to discuss the nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, she has turned many of her duties as a pastor of a large church in Apopka, Fla., over to associates as she jets to the White House an average of once a week. (The Trump White House does not release visitor logs, so it’s difficult to confirm how often White is there.)
“I’ve never received a dime from anything,” she says of her work on the evangelical advisory council and trips to Washington. “I don’t get paid at all. I feel it’s part of my purpose. If God has given me this opportunity, it’d be irresponsible not to fulfill it. But I don’t get a discount or special privileges.”
White has no title and no official position at the White House but plays several roles. After helping to put together an evangelical council for Trump during the campaign, she is now, she explains to me, the convener and de facto head of a group of about 35 evangelical pastors, activists and heads of Christian organizations who advise Trump. (The White House would not release a list of members, but other names associated with this group include Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., conservative political activist Ralph Reed and Dallas-based pastor Robert Jeffress.) She also acts as pastor to the president. And in the words of Johnnie Moore, the evangelical advisory council’s unofficial spokesman and White’s publicist, she serves as “part life coach, part pastor” for White House staff.
White says her position is that of a “faith adviser” and head of a council with an inner core of about three dozen evangelical leaders who communicate by conference call and occasional visits to Washington. About 10 to 15 leaders who are very engaged receive daily communications from OPL about matters important to Trump, such as religious liberty or criminal justice reform. The entire council rarely meets as a group, but 10 or so members will gather at times at the White House, depending on the issue the administration is seeking feedback about.
Other faith traditions, it appears, don’t have the same kind of access as evangelicals in Trump’s White House. Before the election, former campaign officials say, Trump had three religious advisory boards: evangelical, Catholic and one for minority faiths. Only the evangelical one has survived into the administration, though Moore says he has observed mainline Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders in meetings at the White House.
“The problem with the Trump administration is that there’s this evangelical group that has access and is being consulted, but there’s no comparable entity for other Christians and other faiths,” says Melissa Rogers, the lawyer who headed up the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama’s second term. “There are no visitor logs being released, no transparency about their activities and nothing to answer to the public for. Our Constitution says our government can’t prefer some faiths over others, so anything that seems to be a preference raises some red flags.”
It isn’t easy to discern how much influence White has with the president. Some say White has played a significant role in Trump’s life.
- Points to her tumultuous Mississippi childhood as a source of her grit.
- Became a born-again Christian the same year she graduated from high school in 1984.
- First husband was Dean Knight. They had a son together named Bradley.
- Second husband was Randy White, and they established a congregation called Without Walls International Church in 1991.
- Paula White blossomed as a prosperity gospel pastor. (Not all Christians, including evangelicals, are fans of the wealthy, thrice-married White, who has long been associated with the prosperity gospel, a set of beliefs that says God will reward faith, and very generous giving, with financial blessings.)
- In 2007, the Whites divorced and the Senate Finance Committee announced that Without Walls and Paula White Ministries would be investigated for misuse of donations, along with five other prosperity-gospel organizations. They were examining the Whites’ lavish lifestyles, which included a private jet and a $2.6 million, 8,072-square-foot home.
- In 2010, the committee closed the investigation without penalizing anyone.
- The church filed for bankruptcy in 2014, the same year that White married her current and third husband, Jonathan Cain. He’s the keyboardist for the band Journey. (She has segued into calling herself Paula White-Cain on social media but hangs on to Paula White as her brand for professional reasons.)
In late 2001, she signed a $1.5 million contract with Black Entertainment Television for a show called “Paula White Today.” She was a hit, tackling tough issues, such as family problems, money and loneliness, Oprah-style. “She was honest about her shortcomings,” wrote Phillip Luke Sinitiere, whose 2009 book, “Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace,” has a chapter on White. “Her message infused an emphasis on God’s transforming power with the raw and honest faith of postmodern confessional culture.”
White says it was around this point that she began to preach prosperity theology. Years later, she would disavow some aspects of that belief system and acknowledge “God’s presence and blessing in suffering as much as in times of prosperity.” But at the time, she reasoned that the prosperity gospel’s emphasis on giving was the only way an evangelist could get on television and stay there. “Ministry takes money, and you have to raise the funds,” she says
Her message attracted millions of watchers. “You know you’re on to something new and significant when the most popular woman preacher on the Black Entertainment Network is a white woman,” Ebony magazine reported in 2004, quoting one of her admirers.
One such watcher was Donald Trump. In late 2001 or early 2002, Trump called and said she had the ‘it’ factor. He repeated almost verbatim some of her sermons back to her.
This guy is hungry for God, she thought. As they talked further, she learned that he had attended church as a youth and been confirmed in the Presbyterian Church — so he had some of the basics of the faith. He seemed curious about how her pragmatic, businesslike take on religion could relate to his life.
Then, in 2004, an opportunity came. Trump asked White if she was ever up in New York. “The Apprentice,” a reality show produced by and starring Trump, had started, and she says he wanted her to be on the set, especially during the first season, for informal Bible studies or prayer for whoever wanted it. So she went and prayed for a lot of people. Including Trump.
During one of their early New York encounters, “I walked in and said, ‘I don’t want your money, I don’t want your fame, I want your soul,’ ” she remembers. “He just looked at me.” The two clicked, and somewhere along the line, White apparently got her wish, though she is reluctant to offer further details.
White was a rarity in Trump’s life: someone who was almost as famous and well-off as he was, who didn’t need his influence or power. She invited him to appear on her show in 2006. And she bought a $3.5 million condo in Trump Tower — with money from her businesses, she says, not the church.
White’s son, Bradley Knight, almost 32, is her only biological child. He’s an associate pastor at New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Fla., the church his mother took over in 2012 after its founder, the Rev. Zachery Tims, died of a drug overdose. He can quote feminist theory, has a tattoo on his back from his anarchist days (it reads “Neither master nor slave”) and is working on a second bachelor’s degree at the University of Central Florida, where he is studying philosophy and women’s studies. Even though he enjoys conservative thinkers, he’s a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election.
Knight often fills in for his mom but says her political involvements have created some havoc at New Destiny. “Her relationship with the black community got really frayed because of President Trump,” he says. “She got messages from black leaders, saying, ‘You betrayed us.’ ” New Destiny lost 200 to 300 people because of Trump, he says, adding that giving dropped $10,000 a week. As White has become more visible, she has also been panned for her use of black idiomatic speech, and was mocked for doing so by Seth Meyers on his NBC late-night show in August.
White’s mother also doesn’t share her politics. “We don’t always agree,” Janelle Loar says. “I am a Democrat, she’s a Republican, but we love each other.”
The opportunity isn’t without its drawbacks.
“She gets attacked every single day on social media, email, phone calls,” Moore says. “This has cost her. And it’s never enough. She has nothing to gain from this. But she feels a call and responsibility to minister to this family.”