Exactly three months to the day after being cleared of federal corruption charges, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell spoke publicly about his faith and overcoming adversity during a presentation at Palm Beach Atlantic University on Thursday.
The event, hosted by the LeMieux Center for Public Policy, was one of McDonnell’s first public speaking engagements in the weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned his 2014 conviction and that of his wife, Maureen. The McDonnells were accused of accepting improper gifts and loans from a Virginia businessman.
On Sept. 8, federal prosecutors decided not to prosecute again and moved to dismiss the charges.
“Now I’m in the restoration phase, and God has done amazing things to help restore us,” said McDonnell, speaking to an audience of more than 60 in the Lassiter Rotunda of the Warren Library.
Throughout the ordeal, McDonnell maintained his innocence. He said he found comfort in the Psalms of David, particularly in the verse “Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God” (Psalm 35:24).
McDonnell said he realized “I needed to be like David. I needed to trust in the Lord and I needed to be patient.”
That verse came to mind, he said, when on Sept. 9, the front-page headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch read simply, “Vindication.”
McDonnell also spent time studying the book of Job and reflecting on suffering, he said. The point isn’t about the suffering itself but rather how to suffer well, he said.
“There are some things the Scriptures say and I think your experiences in life would lead you to believe that can only be done in your heart, that can be done to build character, through suffering,” he said.
The father of five and grandfather of four admitted that the case took a toll on him and his family.
“It’s hard to be joyful going through this stuff,” he said. “I had a few points where I said, ‘Thank you for letting me go through this because I’m going to be a better person.’”
Among the lessons he learned were to look through the lens of eternity and to focus on loving God and loving your neighbor, he said.
Also, it’s important to “live this day,” he said. “I spent most of my life living tomorrow, the next campaign, the next election, the next bill … I realized today is important.”
Thirdly, don’t put too much trust in government, he said.
“The justice system in America is the best justice system in the world, but it’s not perfect. It’s made up of imperfect people, and power does things to people,” he said.
During a brief question-and-answer session after McDonnell’s talk, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux asked him whether the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice have become political institutions. McDonnell responded that he doesn’t know the motives of the prosecutors.
“The problem is these statues are so vague,” and combined with the lack of accountability of federal prosecutors, “you really have unbridled discretion,” he said. “And that violates everything we believe about the rule of law. The law has to be certain and clear.”
Asked by LeMieux whether his prosecution has had a chilling effect on the democratic process in Virginia, McDonnell said that he thought that it has, noting that certain rule changes have gone into effect in his state and many other states since then.
“If I could go back again I would certainly do some things differently,” he said. “Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s always the best judgment. I, in the busyness of my office, made some decisions I would not make again, not because it was illegal but it might create an appearance of something going on that wasn’t true, such as the false narrative that got provided to the jury.
“The thing we should never tolerate are people that are in office that are doing things that violate the oath of office, that violate the public trust and are in it for self-serving reasons. That violates all the other things we believe about public service.”