This week, a six-month-old Buzzfeed News scoop about the business dealings of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. has gained fresh attention on social media channels. But now real information is being tweeted alongside speculative rumor-mongering, and some people are tweeting unconfirmed assumptions as fact.
The story, as reported in May, says Falwell Jr., his wife and his son entered into a business relationship with a young pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda that resulted in a messy lawsuit. The business, a Miami hostel that offered cheap, dorm-style housing for tourists, got started with help from a down payment from Falwell Jr., who is not listed as one of its partners, though his wife and son are, along with Granda. But they are all being named as defendants in a lawsuit brought by a father and son duo who say they helped come up with the idea of the business and were promised a part of it before being cut out. Falwell Jr., his family and Granda all deny any wrongdoing.
It’s a strange story that opens up a lot of questions, but its sudden explosion on Twitter is a bit tougher to parse, given there haven’t been any major new revelations in the six months since it was first reported by Buzzfeed News.
However, one seemingly unrelated tangent does give the story some fresh intrigue. According to the same Buzzfeed News article, President Donald Trump’s infamous fixer Michael Cohen was the man who secured Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of the Trump presidency. Falwell Jr. was the first major evangelical leader to endorse Trump, clinching the voting demographic who have been Trump’s most loyal supporters throughout his presidency.
Last week, Cohen plead guilty to tax charges, campaign-finance violations and lying to Congress, and is likely headed to jail for at least 42 months. Cohen’s sentence is a major break in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and his plea confirms that Cohen has a history of squashing stories that would be unflattering to his former boss.
Though the scoops were reported in the same piece, Buzzfeed did not explicitly link Cohen’s work to secure Falwell Jr.’s endorsement to the Miami hostel lawsuit. But with Cohen confirming that much of his work for Trump was not legal, some social media gumshoes seemed willing to make that leap all on their own. “Perhaps,” the reasoning went, “the reason Falwell Jr. has stuck with Trump despite the President’s unscrupulous conduct has been that Cohen was blackmailing him.”
At this point, however, any such hypotheses are purely the realm of wild speculation. A source at Liberty University confirmed to Buzzfeed that Falwell Jr. and Cohen have a friendship that dates back to at least 2012 (the source did not believe they had “any business relationship”) and at this point, nothing in the lawsuit alleges anything more than two men who believe they got a raw deal on a business venture. Some of Twitter’s more salacious allegations are not being reported or even implied anywhere.
The closest thing to a connection between the Michael Cohen endorsement story and the hostel lawsuit exists in the form of a photograph. Apparently, Trump met Granda — the former pool boy turned Falwell business partner — in 2012 during a visit to Liberty. Why Granda was visiting Liberty at the time and why he was introduced to Trump are unknown. While Granda and Trump were apparently photographed together, Liberty did not respond to Buzzfeed’s request for comment or even grant permission to publish the photo.
A little odd perhaps, but certainly not enough to justify the leaps in logic being made by some people online.