President Trump, Congress honor preacher Billy Graham at Capitol

President Trump and congressional leaders praised Billy Graham as America’s pastor during a private ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as the preacher lay in honor.

Graham, an evangelical preacher who spoke to millions in his lifetime, died Feb. 21 at age 99. His casket was placed in the center of the Capitol Rotunda for the crowded morning ceremony attended by members of Congress, the Cabinet, the president and Vice President Pence. The Rotunda was opened for public viewing afterward.

Throughout the 30-minute ceremony, the president and first lady Melania Trump sat next to the Graham family. 

The president called Graham an “ambassador for Christ,” who changed America and the world. He recalled how his father, Fred Trump, was a fan and brought the family to see Graham speak at Yankee Stadium.

"It was something very special," the president said. "Americans came in droves to hear that great young preacher. Fred Trump was a big fan."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., touted Graham as a leading American religious figure. 

"He ministered to all walks, from some of the greats whose statues line this very hall — Eisenhower, King, Ford and Reagan — to everyday citizens lining up to pay their respects," Ryan said. "His message never diminished. That love was so infectious, wasn’t it? The man had such a gift for connecting with people."

Graham’s wooden casket was carried into the packed but silent Rotunda by military pallbearers just after 11 a.m. It was placed on a wood catafalque, the same one used for Abraham Lincoln and others who have been honored at the Capitol. 

Trump, McConnell and Ryan each gave brief speeches before laying a wreath next to Graham’s casket.

McConnell said Graham "touched millions of hearts" and "was a success story for the ages." His fame, he said, never overcame him.

"Billy knew better than anyone that fame and an impressive Rolodex weren’t the real standards of success," McConnell said. "His aim was simpler: sharing the good news with as many souls as he possibly could."

No member of the Graham family made a speech at the ceremony. Members of Congress, arranged in a line that snaked through the Rotunda, waited to greet the family after the ceremony.

"Having served our nation for decades," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, who represents Graham's hometown of Montreat, N.C. "I can think of no more fitting honor than for Rev. Graham to return to Washington one final time to lie in honor in the Capitol’s Rotunda."

Trump followed up his remarks with a tweet, urging "men and women like Billy Graham to spread a message of love and hope to every precious child of God."

Graham is the fourth person to lie in honor at the Capitol. The previous was civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005. U.S. Capitol Police officers Jacob Joseph and John Michael Gibson, both of whom were killed in the line of duty in 1998, also received the honor. 

Private citizens lie in honor; military and elected officials lie in state. Twenty-six people, including 11 presidents, have lain in state. Congress also honored unknown soldiers of World War I, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Outside the Capitol, hundreds waited in line to view Graham's casket. Among them was Joan Fesmire, a Pennsylvania woman who rededicated her life to Jesus Christ after hearing Graham speak at Madison Square Garden when she was 15.

"I went to many crusades and always heard him on the radio," she said. "He spoke with such love and authority, and I loved how he influenced so many presidents, and he was such a great loving leader."

Others came to show their respect even if they weren't close followers. Maryann McFadden of Arlington, Va., said she never saw Graham preach, but his honesty set him apart from others.

"It was just easy for him to speak, and he was sincere," she said.

Joy Knuth, visiting from Alaska, said she never heard a full Graham sermon but still admired him. 

"I really respect his ministry and all that he’s done for our country and how he’s been a personality around the world really standing strong for Jesus Christ," she said.

Graham's body was laid in repose at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte on Monday and Tuesday. Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton visited the library to honor Graham.

The Billy Graham Library will host the funeral Friday, and Trump will attend. Graham's five children will speak. About 2,300 invitations were sent out for the funeral.  

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