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A new documentary follows an affair that felled evangelist Jerry Falwell Jr.'s career

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A chance meeting in Miami evolved into a messy affair with a cover-up that went so far, it shook the evangelical movement and may have influenced the 2016 presidential election. It started when 20-year-old Giancarlo Granda met then-President of Liberty University Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becki. Now, some of what happened next is disputed by the Falwells, but the twists and turns of this story and its aftermath are explored in the new Hulu documentary "God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down A Dynasty." It's directed by Billy Corben, who joins us now. Welcome.

BILLY CORBEN: Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: What happened after Giancarlo had this initial meeting with Becki Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr.?

CORBEN: Well, Giancarlo spent a year as a pool attendant at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, a legendary hotel. And he was doing very well, putting himself through college. He had grown up in a working class Cuban American neighborhood. And he met this woman who was snapping pictures of him at the pool and made this proposition, as he said.

RASCOE: The proposition was to go back to her hotel room, and her husband would be there, right?

CORBEN: Yes. And her husband would watch. That was what Giancarlo said, that that was his thing. Let me tell you what we say. We say that Los Angeles is where you go when you want to be somebody. New York is where you go when you are somebody. And Miami is where you go when you want to be somebody else. And if you take...

RASCOE: OK, OK.

CORBEN: The Falwells went down there, and they lived their best lives, I assure you.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, I guess the scandal of this is that Jerry Falwell Jr. and Becki Falwell - they're not just your average Christian couple. They were hugely influential, pushing purity, anti-abortion, you know, no sex outside of a marriage and then also engaging in this lifestyle.

CORBEN: What was funny is that at first, this 20-year-old kid, Giancarlo, had no idea who they were. It was his sister who recognized the name of Jerry Falwell and said, holy cow. But he came to know how powerful and influential they were. He visited them in New York, in the Bahamas, on campus at Liberty University. He attended a convocation. And in 2012, Donald Trump was the guest who came down with his fixer, Michael Cohen, his attorney, his right hand at the time. These convocation events at Liberty with this compulsory attendance - many of the students and faculty started to complain that the Falwells were abusing that that privilege politically and spiritually, because they were inviting people who were political allies, not only of them, but of Donald Trump.

RASCOE: And so obviously former President Donald Trump - he is a part of this story. Can you talk about how tangled this narrative gets?

CORBEN: Absolutely. I mean, you may recall, as I'm sure your listeners will, that Jerry Falwell Jr. was the very first evangelical leader to endorse Donald Trump in the Republican primary of 2016 - Donald Trump, a man who would not fit the traditional profile of an evangelical candidate. And so Michael Cohen, who maintained a relationship with the Falwells since they met in 2012 at that convocation - well, there was a bit of a dispute in 2014 involving the Falwells, Giancarlo Granda and some folks down perhaps on the seedier side of Miami real estate. Some guys claimed they were owed some money, and they were making some threats that they were going to go public with the true nature of the relationship between Granda and the Falwells. And so the Falwells called the best person they could think of to take care of this, and Michael Cohen intervened and made some phone calls and this dispute and those photos magically disappear. And then it was maybe about six to nine months later that Michael Cohen describes it in his own book that he called in that favor on behalf of the boss, as he refers to him, and made that ask of Jerry Falwell Jr. to endorse Trump. And he did.

RASCOE: So the Falwells deny parts of Giancarlo's story. Like, they say that Becki had an affair with Giancarlo, but they deny that Jerry was in the room for when the affairs would happen. Is that correct?

CORBEN: That's correct. And they also deny that the affair went on for seven years. They claimed that it lasted two.

RASCOE: And when it comes to Michael Cohen, they deny that as well.

CORBEN: Yes, they deny that there was any quid pro quo. Michael Cohen now also says that it wasn't that kind of arrangement per se, but it is just - he tells a slightly different story now than he did before and that he did in his own book. But, yes, they deny that there was an exchange there.

RASCOE: And the thing about, you know - just going a little bit further because people may not know about Liberty University. They have this thing called the Liberty way, which is where students - they're not allowed to drink. They're not allowed to be out partying, dancing. So he was over an organization that required this pure, holy lifestyle. And he was down in Miami, according to the documentary, partying it up.

CORBEN: This documentary does not set out to kink-shame the Falwells. Spend your money, go party, have consensual safe sex - that's great. The issue is the hypocrisy. They are punishing people and they are threatening their financial security because there are fines for violating the Liberty way. They are threatening their academic future. They ruined people's lives for holding them to a standard that the Falwells themselves never lived up to.

RASCOE: We see Giancarlo Granda in this documentary - he struggles and breaks down. Where does his story go from here?

CORBEN: Yeah, it's interesting because Giancarlo didn't consider himself a victim - thought of himself as a consenting adult, but got in over his head with some very powerful people. I mean, you know, the Falwells could disappear into their own Google results. You know, this could wind up - have wound up being a blip on the radar screen of their lives. For Giancarlo, as a young person, this was extraordinarily disruptive.

RASCOE: So I guess ultimately, what is it that you hope that people will walk away from this documentary having learned?

CORBEN: Well, far be it from me to quote the Bible. You know, I hope that people think, beware of the moralists who attempt to impose their will onto others. This is not a documentary about Christians and Christianity. This is about people who exploit Christians and Christianity for power and profit.

RASCOE: Billy Corben is director of the new documentary "God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down A Dynasty," out on Hulu November 1. Thank you so much.

CORBEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.