LYNCHBURG, Virginia — President Donald Trump delivered an uplifting message to the Liberty University graduating class here Saturday — but also used the commencement speech to take on a "chorus of critics" and to seemingly defend his abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey.
“Nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy. 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,” Trump said. “It’s called the road less traveled.”
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 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.”
The speech at Liberty University capped a rough week for Trump, 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.
But 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.
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.
The president spoke before some 55,000 people in 55-degree weather under cloudy, gray skies here inside the university’s 19,000-seat 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 graduating Saturday (16,000-plus did their program online while more than 2,000 physically attended school here).
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who endorsed Trump during the GOP primary, greeted Trump upon his arrival and introduced him back at the campus.