Let's be clear from the jump that there is a lot that we don't know about the strange relationship between Evangelical scold Jerry Falwell Jr., his wife Becki and a Miami "pool boy" named Giancarlo Granda. But as scandals go, this one was made in heaven.
We do know that the scandal possibly involves blackmail -- Michael Cohen doing the dirty deed on behalf of presidential candidate Donald Trump -- and almost certainly involves sex, which makes it especially worthy because of how Falwell Jr, like Falwell Sr. before him, has weaponized sex under the guise of religion, in the process playing a starring role in the deeply toxic impact of Evangelical hypocrisy on American politics.
The scandal also has the inevitable lawsuit, but more about that later.
What we do know is that the relationship between the Falwells and Granda is strange on its face and deeply incompatible with their holier-than-thou public image and that of the institution they run, a right-wing Evangelical diploma factory known as Liberty University. Jerry and Becki, it seems, didn't merely hang out with Granda at their farm and a resort where nude photos apparently were taken of the Missus. The Falwells also put up $1.8 million in loans to bankroll a business for Granda for no explicable reason. Not explicable because the Alton Hostel is known to be a most un-Evangelical, gay-friendly booze and sex-fueled place of lodging.
So what? you say. Just a couple Christianist scolds succumbing to their earthly cravings with a young stud while telling the rest of us what we can and cannot do in the bedroom.
But where things get really interesting is the possibility that candidate Trump, who craved Falwell Jr.'s endorsement as a counter to his own decidedly un-Christian image, learned of the carnal secrets of the Falwells and Granda and dispatched Cohen to blackmail . . . er, broker a deal with Falwell Jr. to keep the possibly stolen nude photos and the Granda relationship secret in return for Falwell's endorsement of Trump.
Falwell Jr. did just that on the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, a stunner insofar that Ted Cruz and several other Republican candidates had Evangelical cred while Trump was not merely a lecherous non-believer, but a thrice married adulterer with a well-documented history of sexual misconduct.
Anyhow, Falwell Jr.'s inexplicable endorsement was a huge boost to Trump's candidacy and cemented the (still) counterintuitive love feast between Evangelicals and Trump. Falwell Jr. subsequently barnstormed with Trump, vouched for the candidate's "Christian virtues," and recently tweeted that because Robert Mueller's Russia scandal investigation turned out to be a "corrupt failed coup," Trump should receive "reparations" in the form of two years being tacked onto his first term.
Cohen, of course, had a lucrative sideline to being Trump's longtime personal lawyer in covering up the boss's sex-related secrets and weaponizing (there's the word again) them against others. He is serving a three-year sentence at a federal prison camp for lying to Congress and campaign finance law violations, notably arranging hush-money payments to the boss's squeezes to keep their affairs secret lest they sully Trump's improbable candidacy.
That Cohen secured the Falwell endorsement is no secret. Likewise that he cut a deal with Elliot Broidy to keep secret the Republican mega-fundraiser's affair with Shera Béchard, a Playboy centerfold whom he got pregnant and paid for an abortion. (The story got out anyway).
In 2012, Granda was 21 and working as a pool attendant at the luxurious Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. The Falwells, about 50 at the time, stayed at the resort where they "befriended" Granda, according to court records from that inevitable lawsuit, and Granda grew "very close" to the Falwell family. Granda, along with the Falwells' son Trey, bought the hostel on Alton Road in Miami Beach, described by prim Politico as a "cesspool of vice," and has been managing it ever since. The Falwells also reportedly flew Granda hither and yon in a private jet and introduced him to Trump.
Cometh the inevitable lawsuit: Jesus Fernandez Jr. and Fernandez’s father later sued Granda and the Falwells in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming they were originally promised a cut in the Alton Hostel deal but were ultimately shut out. Their claim has been dismissed, while Fernandez Jr. has since changed his name to Gordon Bello and the father to Jett Bello because, as the father explained to the Miami Herald, "We felt it was very important for us to find a different path."
The scandal threatened to fade away until Reuters investigative reporter Aram Roston reported that Trump-hating Tom Arnold (yes, that Tom Arnold) had talked to Cohen by telephone on March 25 for a Trump-related show that he was filming and surreptitiously recorded the call.
Roston has produced an impressively long line of investigative blockbusters that have stood up to scrutiny, my favorite being his The Nation magazine exposé on how a web of Pentagon contractors in Afghanistan routinely pay millions of dollars in protection money to the Taliban. His most recent coup was to obtain an audio recording of the Arnold-Cohen call.
Cohen flips the story line in the call and says that it was Falwell Jr. who contacted him and not the other way around.
Cohen told Arnold that someone in Florida had obtained "personal" photos that would typically be kept "between husband and wife" and was trying to use the pictures to extort Falwell Jr. In 2015, Cohen said, the Falwells hired him to make the photos disappear, he flew to Florida to meet with a lawyer who represented the mystery person in possession of the photos and could make that happen.
Falwell Jr. has denied the existence of the photos, but inconveniently for him the Miami Herald viewed three of them, which it says show Falwell Jr.'s "wife in various stages of undress." When they were taken or by whom is not known, but, according to the Herald, two of them appear to have been taken at the Falwells' farm in Virginia, and one at the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada in the Florida Keys.. The photos reportedly were destroyed.
End of story? Not likely, so stay tuned.