Donald Trump’s son Eric was glowing when he sat down at a Cleveland restaurant next to Orlando pastor Paula White. “Your prayer did it, Paula,” Eric told her. The younger Trump’s teleprompter had broken the night before as he prepared to address the Republican National Convention. “I thought I was going to have to wing 15 minutes to them all,” he said. “You prayed, and the prompter went back on.”
Eric Trump is not the only member of his family who has come to rely on White, 50, a popular televangelist who believes that intercessory prayer can have an immediate impact on shaping events. After she saw Eric, she went to her room in the Trump campaign’s Cleveland hotel, where she spent the next four hours praying for Donald Trump as he prepared for his prime-time convention address. Then at the candidate’s invitation, she met the Republican nominee, his wife Melania and 10-year old son Barron for another circle of prayer in their room.
“I do remember asking God to give him his words and his mind, and to use him—that it would not be his words but God’s words, that he would just really be sensitive to the Holy Spirit,” White recalled in an interview with TIME weeks later. “I probably [interceded] against any plot or plan or weapon of the enemy to interfere with the plan or the will of God.” That evening, White rode in Trump’s car with his family to the arena.
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The spiritual life of the Republican nominee has been something of a mystery this election season. Trump describes himself as a Presbyterian, a “Sunday church person,” and he has been known to bring his childhood Bible to rallies. But his religious expressions have often been uncertain. He publicly doubted whether he deserves evangelicals’ support, claimed he has never sought forgiveness from a higher power, and muffed a Bible citation, quoting “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.”
But Trump’s relationship with White isn’t an overnight conversion; it’s born of a longer courtship. The two friends met in 2002, after he watched White deliver a televised sermon on the value of vision. A longtime fan of televangelists David Jeremiah, Jimmy Swaggart, and Billy Graham, he cold-called White to introduce himself. Later he asked if she would attend the first season finale of his reality show, The Apprentice. Before the live taping, she prayed for the cast and crew.
Over the next decade, White endured a number of public struggles, including divorce from her second husband, the collapse of their ministry, the death of her stepdaughter from cancer, and a U.S. Senate Finance Committee investigation into her ministry’s tax-exempt status, which was eventually dropped. Now she leads the 10,000-member New Destiny Christian Center, a non-denominational church in Orlando that leans pentecostal. Throughout it all, her friendship with Trump grew.
“Paula is a person of great faith and accomplishment. She has been a tremendous friend and I am grateful for her guidance and support,” Trump told TIME in a statement.
She bought an apartment in his 502 Park Avenue building, and when she hosted Bible studies in New York City, Trump occasionally attended. He publicly praised her 2007 inspirational-living book, You’re All That!, and once took her to lunch at the three-Michelin-star Jean-Georges in the Trump Tower, after which she decided to sign up for an etiquette class. When Trump considered running for President in 2011, he asked her to gather ministers. After praying together, Trump asked White what she thought of the timing. “I said, ‘I don’t think it’s the time,’” she remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t either.’”
When he decided to run four years later, White became a regular counselor, helping organize pastors to advise and pray for him. He still reaches out to her when he comes through Orlando on campaign events. “I’m probably the person that asks the questions like, Hey, wouldn’t you like to play golf right now? Or, when was the last time you had a great hamburger? Just to take a little of the edge off,” White says. “This is an intense race, and friends are friends, always.”
As for the power of her prayer at the GOP convention, White has no doubt who deserves the credit. “I think he did well that night, extremely well. I think there was a different tone that night,” White says, “and I think that is because of his heart being open to God.”
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