As FBI controversy rages, Trump doubles down on outsider message before a friendly crowd

Seeking respite from the tumult he set off in Washington after firing his FBI director, an embattled President Trump on Saturday spoke before a friendly crowd of tens of thousands at Liberty University, where he lashed out at what he charges are “pathetic” critics and an establishment class trying to undermine him.

The president returned to his outsider message in his address to the evangelical Christian university’s graduating class. He spoke defiantly about challenging the Washington order as he grapples with a political crisis that keeps swelling amid shifting White House explanations for the FBI shake-up.

“I’ve seen firsthand how the system is broken,” Trump said, and how a “small group of failed voices” attempts to dictate “how to live and how to think.”

“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. But the future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics.”

But Trump himself has given his critics a lot of fodder over the last several days. He admitted that FBI Director James Comey’s firing was motivated in part by the agency’s probe of Russia connections to Trump’s own inner circle. He fired off a threatening tweet seeming to warn Comey that he may have taped private conversations between the two of them. Trump’s efforts at damage control only intensified concerns on both sides of the aisle that he is aiming to undermine the independence of the nation’s top law enforcement agency.

On Saturday, his response to the backlash was a speech in which he praised courage of conviction and warned how those who lack it don’t have “the guts or the stamina” to do what’s right. “Being an outsider is fine. Embrace the label,” Trump said. “Because it’s the outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.”

The speech was Trump’s first public appearance outside the White House since Comey’s firing on Tuesday. On Saturday, officials from the Department of Justice were set to interview several candidates to replace Comey, who served less than half of the 10-year term he began after being nominated by President Obama and overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate in 2013.

Trump told reporters he could make a "fast decision" on a new director before he leaves for his first foreign trip on Friday. Most of the potential nominees are "well known," the president said on Air Force One as he prepared to travel from Washington for the commencement speech.

“They've been vetted over their lifetime essentially,” he said. “But very well-known, highly respected, really talented people. And that's what we want for the FBI."

Trump basked in the warm reception he received from an announced crowd of more than 50,000 at the university’s football stadium, nestled in hills leading to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The university’s president, Jerry Falwell, was an early and potent backer of Trump during his 2016 campaign. He provided critical validation for the twice-divorced New York billionaire among a potentially skeptical but critically important demographic in the Republican primary: evangelical voters.

Introducing the president, Falwell, the son of the famous Baptist pastor and televangelist of the same name, hailed Trump and his family for risking his business empire and reputation “all for the country they love.” He ticked off early accomplishments of note to evangelicals, including the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and a recent executive order directing the Treasury Department not to enforce the so-called Johnson Amendment that bars religious institutions from engaging in political activity.

Trump is the second sitting president to deliver a commencement address at Liberty University, following George H.W. Bush in 1990. He was presented with an honorary doctorate of laws.

“As long as I am president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith, or preaching what’s in your heart,” Trump said, making a reference to his religious liberty executive order.

It was the first of two commencement addresses Trump will deliver this year. On Wednesday he will address graduating cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

The address, the White House said, was meant to project “encouragement” and “optimism” to graduates. But, much as President Obama did in 2016 when he addressed an equally friendly crowd at Howard University, a historically black school in Washington, Trump used his speech to sketch his own political vision.

But another Trump nemesis was back at the podium at Howard on Saturday while the president was out of Washington. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) aimed her address to the Howard graduates squarely at Trump, telling them they face a far different nation than when they began their studies four years earlier, where “we worry that a late-night tweet could start a war,” “when we no longer believe the words of some of our leaders,” and “where the very integrity of our justice system has been called into question.”

Invoking the university’s motto, Harris urged the students to “speak truth, and serve.”

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.

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