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Following 'racy photos' report, Falwell has some explaining to do

Following 'racy photos' report, Jerry Falwell Jr. has some explaining to do.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University speaks during a Liberty University Convocation in Lynchburg, Va., on Sept. 14, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University speaks during a Liberty University Convocation in Lynchburg, Va., on Sept. 14, 2015.

Ahead of the 2016 election cycle, the religious right movement was determined to be the dominant force in choosing the Republican Party's presidential nominee. Conservative evangelical leaders had made similar attempts in recent decades, but the religious right was determined to get it right this time.

As regular readers may recall, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins spearheaded an initiative that pulled together dozens of like-minded social conservative leaders, united in their goal of choosing the next president. In late 2015, the group -- which referred to itself as "The Group" -- met in a hotel boardroom in Northern Virginia and agreed that Ted Cruz would serve as the movement's standard bearer.

Just days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, however, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. went his own way, throwing his support behind Donald Trump.

What we didn't know at the time was some of the behind-the-scenes intrigue involving the two camps. Reuters reported late yesterday:

Months before evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr.'s game-changing presidential endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016, Falwell asked Trump fixer Michael Cohen for a personal favor, Cohen said in a recorded conversation reviewed by Reuters.Falwell, president of Liberty University, one of the world's largest Christian universities, said someone had come into possession of what Cohen described as racy "personal" photographs -- the sort that would typically be kept "between husband and wife," Cohen said in the taped conversation.

What was described was an apparent blackmail scheme in which an unnamed party obtained the photos and demanded money. Cohen reportedly flew to Florida and threatened to call the police if the threats didn't stop.

The Reuters report added that the unnamed person who had the "racy" photos destroyed them after Cohen intervened on the Falwells' behalf.

That said, Cohen reportedly told a friend, comedian Tom Arnold, that he kept one of the pictures, which he described as "terrible."

There's no shortage of questions surrounding a story like this, but some caveats are in order. For example, the Reuters report hasn't been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News. Even the Reuters report itself noted that it "reviewed" a recording conversation, instead of using the word "obtained."

I should also note, however, that Falwell hasn't yet commented on the story. [Update: see below.]

We don't know if Falwell's endorsement of Trump was related to this unpleasantness, and it's possible the Virginian would've backed Trump anyway -- even if the candidate's personal fixer didn't hold onto a "racy" Falwell photo.

But the timing isn't great for those involved. Falwell's Trump endorsement seemed, at a minimum, odd -- Trump's a thrice-married, secular former casino owner who used phrases such as "Two Corinthians" -- and it came after the candidate's fixer made a "racy" photo problem go away.

All of which leads to a question Rachel posed on the show last night: "Is an endorsement intended to influence the outcome of a federal election a thing of value? And are you allowed to arrange for such a thing of value to be contributed to a campaign by quashing naked picture blackmail efforts for televangelists with added insurance of keeping some of the naked pictures for yourself as a reminder?"

This is our life now.

* Update: A statement released this morning by an attorney for the Falwells called the account "not accurate."

"While the Falwells have a long-standing friendship with Michael Cohen, they never engaged or paid Cohen to represent them in any legal or other professional capacity, and Cohen did not ever resolve any legal matter on their behalf," the statement said, according to the Washington Post. The attorney, who declined to be named, said in a follow-up text message to the Post that "there are no compromising or embarrassing photos of Falwell, period!"

Why the name of Falwell's lawyer is not being shared is unclear.