On a Friday morning in February, televangelist Paula White-Cain spent more than two hours preaching at the King Jesus church Supernatural Ministry School in Miami. With top billing on the event website as “Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser,” White stood in front of a stage with a light show befitting a Pink Floyd cover band. With a sanctuary that holds 7,000 people, one of the nation’s largest Latino churches was packed with “apostles” and “prophets” who’d come to be “activated in God’s supernatural power” and learn to expand their ministry.
“They called me trailer trash,” White said, as an interpreter in a blue track suit jacket translated her words into Spanish. “But our God’s in the recycling business.” With her husband, the keyboardist for Journey, providing a stirring backtrack, White testified about her own rags-to-riches tale, starting with her humble roots in Tupelo, Mississippi, her father’s suicide, her out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, her years working her way up from janitor to Sunday school teacher at a Maryland church.
“God kept opening doors until eventually, 19 years ago, I get a phone call out of the blue, from this man named Donald Trump,” she said, recalling the day in 2002 when the twice-divorced New York real estate mogul reached out to her after catching her show on a local Florida TV station. “He said, ‘You’re fantastic.’ He said, ‘You have the ‘it’ factor.’ I said, ‘Sir, we call that the anointing.’” White said the Lord told her to help Trump know God. “I took on that assignment never knowing that one day that man that God told me to show him who He was would become the president of the United States of America,” she told the crowd, which cheered with enthusiasm.
As one of the only women in the male-dominated world of TV preachers, White long ago reached evangelical celebrity status, publishing nearly a dozen books, launching a successful TV show, and ministering to everyone from the late Michael Jackson to the New York Yankees. But she has now accomplished something no other televangelist has ever achieved: a job in the White House. Since the end of October, she has served as the adviser to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, which Trump created through an executive order in 2018, as part of the White House Office of Public Liaison. As such, her official duties entail consulting with the faith community on such social issues as poverty and crime prevention and making recommendations to the White House Domestic Policy Council.
But just because she’s working in the White House doesn’t mean White has quit her day jobs. To the contrary, since her appointment, White has continued to preach at her own Florida megachurch. She’s promoted a new book, Something Greater: Finding Triumph Over Trials. Her TV show “Paula Today” airs five days a week, and she makes numerous public speaking appearances, many of which involve asking people for as much money as they can possibly spare—often even more.
The melding of White’s public and private jobs is nearly seamless, as she invokes her relationship with Trump in her sermons and fundraising pitches, even as she wields her spiritual authority to defend the president. But experts say the arrangement raises significant conflict of interest questions, concerns about her compliance with tax laws banning nonprofit churches from endorsing candidates. And there’s the more fundamental question as to whether by installing her in a White House job, Trump has put the government’s stamp of approval on a religious ministry that includes faith healing and preying on vulnerable people for money.
“If she is formally working on the White House staff and continuing to raise money and do other activities for her church, she creates the appearance of using her public position for personal gain,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit government watchdog group, noting that it’s a common theme in the Trump administration, which isn’t likely to object. “If the president believes in using public office for private gain, who is he or anyone in this administration to hold people accountable for doing it? When it comes to proper conduct by executive branch officials, the Trump presidency is a lawless one.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham says that White’s non-government work is all above board. She is a part-time “special government employee,” a classification that allows her to continue her outside employment while working for the White House, Grisham says, noting that White is not taking a salary and that she’s gone through “initial ethics training.” She has also filed a confidential financial disclosure form. “She works closely with [the White House Counsel’s Office] to ensure compliance with all government ethics rules related to her outside positions,” Grisham said in an email. White did not respond to questions for this story submitted to her publicist or through her ministry website.
Robert Weissman, president of the nonprofit good-government group Public Citizen, says that White’s position is reminiscent of the arrangement that billionaire corporate raider Carl Icahn had in 2017, when Trump appointed him as a presidential adviser on regulatory reform despite huge conflicts of interest from his oil business, which he continued to run during his brief stint in the White House. (Icahn was forced to leave the post because of the conflicts.) But White’s conflicts are even murkier.
“If she were purely a businessperson like Carl Icahn, you can identify the financial conflicts of interest. If she were a person from a purely advocacy point of view, you could object to the ideology, but as an ethics matter, there would really be nothing wrong,” Weissman says. “For her, religion is a business, so you worry about how she’s trying to leverage the official White House position to advance her business interests and how her business interests might influence what she does in the White House.”
At the Supernatural Ministry School, White deftly offered the audience the secret of her success. “How did I get to the White House from the trailer?” she asked. The answer, of course, was by giving money to God by way of the church—and she’s not talking about tossing the weekly pin money in the offering plate. Securing Paula White, White House-caliber blessings would require students of the supernatural to give a “First Fruits” offering, one that is significant—the first week’s pay, say, or even the first month’s pay—to signify putting God first in everything. White claimed during the sermon that God once told her that in 2009, a particularly bad year, she needed to give her entire annual salary to God—$8 million.
She broke it all down for her congregants, making it simple: If they prioritize their paychecks for more earthly needs, like keeping the lights on, they were treating Florida Power and Light (FPL) like God himself. “Instead of writing [that check] to the house of God as I’m instructed to, then what I’m saying spiritually is, ‘FPL, I have now established a spiritual law that put you first. So, FPL, save my family, FPL, deliver my drug addicted son. FPL, kill this cancer that doctors say is in my body.’”
Over the next half hour, White built to a crescendo, shed many tears, spoke in tongues, and implored people to give. Hundreds of people streamed down the aisles to throw envelopes of money at her feet. “The First Fruits sets the pattern and establishes the destiny for what is left,” she cried. “Many of you need to bring a First Fruit offering right now!” Mostly Latino apostles and prophets from the church brought baskets to the front to collect the offerings. No one from King Jesus responded to questions from Mother Jones about where the donations went.
White is not part of any religious denomination. She’s often linked to the New Apostolic Reformation, a loose association of charismatic and Pentecostal churches that, like King Jesus, focus on the supernatural and anoint their own prophets and apostles. But White is better known as a purveyor of the prosperity gospel, a Christian theology that says faith and donations will bring health and wealth. Prosperity preachers like White are a special breed of evangelical Christians, and they are not the majority.
Many more mainstream evangelical leaders believe White’s ministry, with its explicit form of spiritual extortion, is not just distasteful but heretical. “Paula White is a charlatan and recognized as a heretic by every orthodox Christian, of whatever tribe,” tweeted the prominent evangelical preacher Russell Moore, the president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, back in 2016 during the presidential campaign. Yet her blend of intimate self-help and focus on material success as evidence of God’s blessings, struck a chord with Trump long ago.
They have a lot in common. Like the president, White is twice-divorced, with a history of marital infidelities and bankruptcy, but possessing remarkable TV savvy. They first connected in that fateful 2002 phone call, not long after White had launched her first TV show and her career was taking off. Trump called to tell White he’d been watching her show at Mar-a-Lago and that she was “fantastic.” Thus began a long relationship that included White gifting him a Bible for his 60th birthday in 2006 that was signed by the late, legendary minister Billy Graham. That same year, he appeared on her TV show to promote his latest book, Why We Want You to Be Rich. The year before, White bought a $3.5 million condo in Trump’s Park Avenue building. When Trump first considered a presidential run in 2011, he sought White’s counsel. “I don’t think it’s the right timing,” she told him.
The timing was obviously right in 2015, when Trump did decide to run for president. In Something Greater, she writes that he asked her to be a bridge to the evangelical community, a critical voting bloc that was far from being supportive of his candidacy. His perceived moral failings—the many wives, the notorious womanizing, his unapologetic vulgarity—all added up to the support of only 3 percent of evangelical leaders and “insiders” surveyed by WORLD magazine in July that year. When Trump appeared in 2015 at the big Christian Right confab in DC, the Values Voter Summit, he got booed.
White describes how she helped improve his standing by creating an evangelical advisory council for the campaign, made up mostly of other televangelists like her, including Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, and Robert Jeffress, the controversial Dallas megachurch pastor who in 2012, told evangelicals not to vote for Mitt Romney because, as a Mormon, Romney wasn’t a real Christian. White says she even schooled Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner—an Orthodox Jew whom she describes as “quite brilliant”—on the “evangelical landscape.”
Later, when Trump appeared headed toward the GOP nomination, White helped organize a meeting for him with more mainstream evangelical leaders who still had many reservations about his moral character, not to mention concerns about the televangelists he had assembled who were not their natural compatriots. Most of them fell into line, and after Trump became the GOP nominee, White was on hand to give the prime-time benediction on the opening night of the Republican National Convention. After he was elected with the support of more than 80 percent of white evangelical voters, White gave the invocation at his inauguration, becoming the first clergywoman to do so, though not the first televangelist.
Since Trump’s election, White has helped ensure a steady stream of fringe evangelicals and prosperity preachers into the White House. But it’s not clear what exactly she’s been doing to fulfill her governmental duties since her October appointment to the faith initiative. In early December, she convened about 50 evangelicals at the White House for a special briefing that included appearances from Ivanka Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump himself, upon whom they laid hands and prayed in the Oval Office in the hopes of delivering him from impeachment. But if she’s influencing the Domestic Policy Council on prisoner reentry or humanitarian aid, as required by Trump’s executive order creating her position, the evidence of her work is hard to see. What is much easier to see is how her ministry has benefitted from her White House perch.
Pete Evans is the lead investigator with the nonprofit Trinity Foundation, a Christian watchdog group that keeps tabs on televangelists and their spending habits and advocates for people who’ve been duped by them into giving over their last dime. “There’s no question that her position with the White House enhances her position and her profile across the country with regard to the increasing her viewership,” he says, “increasing her income that comes into her organization.”
Much of White’s empire falls under the umbrella of the Paula White Ministries, the name she uses on her website and in fundraising appeals. But legally, Paula White Ministries is just another name for her home church, the City of Destiny Church in Apokpa, Florida, for which she is listed on corporate documents as president. Federal law bars churches from endorsing political candidates. Doing so can result in their losing their tax-exempt status. Yet White’s promotion of Trump now infuses many aspects of her ostensibly nonprofit ministry, which doesn’t seem to have slowed since her official White House appointment.
Last May, White said she would be stepping down as senior pastor at City of Destiny and handing the reins over to her son, Bradley Knight. But White still preaches there regularly—she’s on deck for a “power night” at the church on February 16, with her rock star husband Jonathan Cain. In April, she’ll be hosting a free, three-day conference there called “Unleashed,” that promises attendees an opportunity to hear from her and other evangelical preachers, some of whom are also in Trump’s inner circle.
The Paula White Ministries website is replete with videos of the televangelist with Trump, or of her on TV shows talking about her relationship with Trump, and cheerleading his policies. She even issued a statement supporting his signing of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada. After Trump became the first president to personally address the anti-abortion March for Life in January, White wrote on her website, “May the grace of God continue to shine on President Trump for his courageous stance for the dignity of all life.” While preaching at a church in California, she said that her access to Trump had allowed her to anoint the White House as “holy ground.” Last summer, another Trump-supporting televangelist, Franklin Graham, called for a special national day of prayer on June 2 to pray for President Trump, which White promoted on her website. She solicited prayer commitments from her fans and promised to personally “take your name to the White House and let our President know you are praying for him and his family.”
Just out of curiosity, I recently made a prayer request through her website, asking her to pray for a family member. I got an email in return promising that White and her prayer intercessors would “deploy the Blood of Jesus on your behalf for your peace.” White also thanked me for “agreeing to pray for President Trump and his family on June 2nd.” Apparently, the form letter hasn’t been updated since last summer. Less than an hour later, I got another email from White asking me to send her a “favor seed” of $50 or more so that she could “Activate supernatural favor” on my behalf. “Favor will make you a household name overnight,” she writes knowingly.
Even as she’s running a nonprofit religious ministry and working a government job, White is once again front and center at many of Trump’s campaign rallies. On January 3, she introduced Trump at the Evangelicals for Trump coalition campaign rally at King Jesus, the same Miami mega church that hosted the Supernatural Ministry School. She told the same story about Trump, too, only this time, instead of rock-concert lighting, the backdrop consisted of American flags, and she stood behind a podium emblazoned with the official presidential seal. C-Span identified her on TV as the “White House spiritual adviser.” People in the audience cheered, “Four more years!”
“When religion and politics get mixed that’s a huge red flag for us,” says Evans. “It’s one of the prohibitions for nonprofits. They’re not supposed to get involved in politics or they risk losing their nonprofit status.” Questions about the nonprofit status of White’s ministries have come up long before she became a regular fixture at the White House. In 2007, White became one of six televangelists investigated by the Senate Finance Committee for potential abuses of their church nonprofit status. Unlike ordinary nonprofits, churches are not required to disclose any of their financial information to the public or the IRS, making their finances extremely opaque and vulnerable to abuses.
Among other things, a Senate report found that White’s personal ministry and the church she ran with her now ex-husband used tax-exempt ministry funds to pay nearly $900,000 one year for the Whites’ waterfront mansion. It paid over a million dollars in salaries to family members and kept the Whites in the air with a private jet. White and her church refused to cooperate with the investigation and in 2011, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), issued a report outlining the committee’s findings but took no other action. White’s church declared bankruptcy in 2014 after defaulting on $29 million in loans from an evangelical credit union. In 2011, amid controversy, she became senior pastor at the predominantly black City of Destiny—then known as New Destiny Christian Center—after its former pastor died of a drug overdose.
One of the problems with having White working in the White House, Evans notes, is that the agency charged with policing nonprofit churches like hers is the IRS, which Trump oversees as president. And one of Trump’s many promises to evangelicals in exchange for their campaign support is that he would help abolish the Johnson Amendment, the 1950s-era tax code provision that prohibits churches from endorsing political candidates. In 2017, he issued an executive order attempting to scale back its enforcement by the IRS. “When your boss is head of all government agencies, including the IRS, you’re really not risking anything” by cheerleading for the president’s reelection campaign, Evans says. “It really is a huge conflict of interest in my opinion.”
As she moved toward the ecstatic conclusion of her sermon at the Miami Supernatural School, White told the crowd, “I told you about the trailer to the White House because I’m not here by coincidence.” She urged people to pay up so she could begin the laying of hands. “You can’t just bring a gratitude offering. It has to be a First Fruits offering! If it is one week’s salary, if it’s a month. If it’s a day, it’s got to be the whole of something. Quickly! Bring it up—do you need an envelope?” she said, directing people to give the First Fruits to the apostles holding baskets. Others, whose gratitude offering was more meagre, should toss theirs on the floor. “God’s about to do something!” White announced.
Before Trump held his January campaign rally at King Jesus, the church leader and Trump supporter, Pastor Guillermo Maldonado, had to issue a special announcement reassuring his congregation that no undocumented immigrants would be deported if they came to the rally—an indication of the church’s demographics. As the bilingual sermon rose to a climax, White gave a performance that gives a whole new meaning to Ronald Reagan’s nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
When every last dime seemed to have been wrung from the audience, White invited all the “barren” women in the room who desired children to come to the front, “because fruitfulness is getting ready to hit this house. God’s about to open your natural womb. God’s gonna open barren places.” She told a story about helping a woman in Hawaii with no uterus and no fallopian tubes give birth. Then she moved to each hopeful woman—some of whom were infertile, others who struggled with repeated miscarriages—and held their hands or touched her belly, telling one that she’d no longer miscarry. One woman fell on the floor. Others cried in expectation of fruitfulness. White wept and spoke in tongues. “Holy, holy, holy, hallelujah,” she cried, and then held a basket of money up high. “It is blessed!”
When it was over, White held a book signing for her newest book release, Something Greater, which is all about her relationship with God. But Something Greater, of course, is really all about her relationship with Trump. His name is mentioned 177 times in 288 pages. Jesus merits just 82.