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Trump Delivers His First Commencement Address As President At Liberty University


President Trump chose Liberty University for his first commencement speech as president. It's a campus that was significant during his campaign, as NPR's Sarah McCammon is on the line to tell us about. Sarah was at today's ceremony, and she joins us now from Lynchburg, Va. Sarah, hey there.


KELLY: Hi. So tell us why? Why did he choose to speak at Liberty University?

MCCAMMON: So it's a - it's an influential, conservative Christian institution and a big one. More than 18,000 people graduated today - most of those online students, but a couple thousand here on campus. And President Jerry Falwell Jr. was one of the first leading white evangelicals to endorse Trump back in January 2016 when a lot of observers were still predicting that Trump would never win over evangelicals, let alone win the primary, in a Republican primary, of course, and the general election. And, you know, Mary Louise, Trump opened with a joke about that. He said to the graduates, look, here you are standing in cap and gown. And he continued.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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?


MCCAMMON: Trump is...

KELLY: It's not a bad line (laughter).

MCCAMMON: Right. Trump is president, and those students did graduate today here at Liberty. He thanked them and their families many of them for supporting him and noted that a majority of evangelicals did turn out to vote for him, despite a lot of predictions to the contrary.

KELLY: OK. So good jokes aside, did President Trump otherwise deliver the, you know - the standard, embrace-your-dreams message to this graduating class?

MCCAMMON: To a large degree, yes. It was a very familiar kind of graduation message. He told students to be yourself and take the road less traveled.


TRUMP: I've seen so many people - they're forced through lots of reasons, sometimes including family, to go down a path that they don't want to go down, to go down a path that leads them to something that they don't love, that they don't enjoy. You have to do what you love or you most likely won't be very successful at it.

MCCAMMON: And he did also seem to allude several times to the 2016 campaign. He advised students to claim the label of outsider - familiar term from the campaign - and not be afraid of criticism.

KELLY: Now, this, of course, comes toward the end of what has been safe to say a tumultuous week for the president. He fired his FBI director, he's facing questions about the timing of that firing, whether it had anything to do with the Russia investigation that Jim Comey was running.


KELLY: Let me go out on a limb and ask whether - well, let me guess - he did not raise either Russia or Jim Comey today in this speech?

MCCAMMON: Right. You know, he stayed away from anything too pointedly political for the most part and certainly not the news of the week. But, you know, in the midst of this otherwise kind of expansive and inspiring tone, he did say this.


TRUMP: Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic because they're people that can't get the job done.

MCCAMMON: So he seemed to be reminding his critics that he had proven them wrong in the past simply by becoming president even as he encouraged these students, you know, to kind of ignore critics.

KELLY: Sarah, in just a few seconds we have left, did you get a sense of whether the people listening to that today are with him? I mean, this is his base he was talking to.

MCCAMMON: Right. Overall, yes, President Jerry Falwell, Liberty president, was very positive, praised Trump as the best president in our lifetimes, he said, for Christians. A lot of people I talked to also feeling pretty good about his performance so far as president, although they did tell me several people said, you know, it's early on in Trump's presidency. We're going to wait and see what he does.

KELLY: All right. That's NPR's Sarah McCammon updating us there on President Trump's commencement address. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.