The Briefing

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New York Times

A Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency Is Lifted, by Peter Baker

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Monday, March 25, 2019

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Transcript

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It's Monday, March 25, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

With the findings of the Mueller report now released, what should Americans look for as we examine the special counsel’s report and the political responses to it?

One of the most hotly anticipated and historic developments of recent American legal and political history took place over the weekend. When news broke on Friday afternoon, the special counsel Robert Mueller, had delivered the report of his investigation to the attorney general of the United States. The expectation was that within a reasonable amount of time, the attorney general would report to Congress on the major findings of the special counsel. And of course there then came a flurry of controversy over whether, or not, or if and when the entire report of the special counsel might be released not only to the entirety of the membership of Congress, but to the American people. But make no mistake, this was a huge development and the announcement on Friday was followed almost 48 hours later by the release of the statement with those major findings from the attorney general, addressed to the respective chairpersons of the Senate and House committees and the ranking members of the same committees.

Eventually the entire Congress will receive at least the attorney general's report. The immediate findings were extremely clear when it comes, especially to charges or suspicions, allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign or the Trump administration and figures in Russia connected to the 2016 presidential election. Chaos reigned during much of that election running right up until the final days, the FBI was involved and so were many others. There was tremendous controversy when James Comey then the director of the FBI released information about a renewed investigation into the Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Just a few days later, the election was held and Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency. Almost immediately there were charges, allegations of the involvement of Russia in the 2016 election. Accusations that turned out to have a firm basis, in fact, and then allegations that members of the president's campaign or his administration or both were involved in direct relationships amounting to collusion with those Russian officials.

The report by the special counsel as summarized by the attorney general on Sunday made very clear that the special counsel found absolutely no collusion between the president or members of his administration or members of his campaign and Russian officials. There are unanswered questions and a great deal of political controversy and that is probably the biggest worldview significance of what took place just over the last several days. When you are looking at this picture, it is inherently political. It can't be anything other than political. It's more than political. We're talking about the Department of Justice, we're talking about a criminal investigation, we're talking about a criminal investigation. This successfully brought criminal charges against several figures. We're talking about the responsibility of Congress to give oversight. We're talking about the separation of powers.

All of that is extremely important, but the political dynamic here is something that we simply have to watch and that explains why if you were to listen to different media sources over the last three or four days, you could come to a completely different understanding of what was in the report, what wasn't in the report, what was declared by the report, what might be insinuated by the report and where the entire process is going in the near term and the far term. As you're looking at the report itself, one of the things we have to keep in mind is that this kind of report is not generally a report that exonerates anyone. That might be the kind of lay language that is used when the reality is that the prosecutor found no legal basis, no sufficient evidence to bring charges. That's the most important issue. Courts, by the way, rarely if ever find anyone innocent. Instead, they find them not guilty. It is beyond the authority of courts to find someone innocent, that is not the legal burden. The legal burden is to determine whether, or not there is sufficient evidence for guilt.

When it comes to this investigation, the main purpose was to discover whether, or not there would be sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against anyone. Now, it turned out that there was but not related to the direct accusations of involvement, criminal involvement, collusion with Russian officials by the Trump campaign or the Trump administration. According to the attorney general’s summary, the special counsel's report did not bring a finding directly related to the question of obstruction of justice. That of course is a serious crime. It was one of the most important allegations against former president Richard Nixon. The attorney general said that after looking at the evidence, he found no basis for bringing any accusation of obstruction of justice against the administration, particularly against the president of the United States. Almost immediately, democratic figures indicated that they were going to continue their investigations and they were going to press for the full release of the Mueller report to the American people.

Interestingly, the attorney general of the United States indicated that he shares the same goal, but here's where we also have to look beyond the fog to understand that when you're looking at the legal basis for a special counsels appointment and the investigation, the law clearly states that there are issues that cannot be released to the general public. Now if you think about it, this would make immediate sense. There are witnesses who are involved. There are claims that are investigated, there are innocent people whose names will appear in this report, but against whom there is absolutely no charge. Real harm can come to people mentioned in the report and furthermore there are national security issues that are assuredly involved in the investigation process as of course we're dealing here with a foreign power. And in the case of Russia, a malign foreign power.

But there were a couple of reports, especially worthy of our attention. One was by Peter Baker at the New York Times. The New York Times is one of those papers that has given so much attention to the investigation, but Baker wrote, "For president Trump, it may have been the best day of his tenure so far. The darkest, most ominous cloud hanging over his presidency was all but lifted on Sunday with the release of the special counsel's conclusions, which undercut the threat of impeachment and provided him with a powerful boost for the final 22 months of his term." That's a very important lead paragraph, especially since it appeared in the New York Times when you take most of the liberal media, they did not want to have to report the story this way, but for two reasons and it bares interest to look at both of those reasons. First of all, the media across the spectrum thrive on big stories and the big story of course would have been some kind of criminal charge or accusation against a sitting president of the United States.

That would be the kind of media story that would make careers and would sell newspapers and would be click bait for months and indeed years, perhaps decades to come. The fact that this report brought no criminal accusations in its final days and brought no direct accusations against the president of the United States. The fact that it declared rather conclusively the absence of any evidence of collusion between the Trump administration or campaign in Russia, meant that the story was going to be far less than many would have expected or hoped. But we're going to look in just a moment at a second reason, and that's a moral reason. The fact that there are many people who have a vested interest in president Trump being accused or being found guilty or being removed from office based upon such allegations. That might at first appear to be an extremely partisan analysis. But it is important to say that this is the way the political process works, but Christians watching it need to understand exactly what is happening.

Political parties in the white hot conflict of political battle do whatever is in their own best interest or is perceived to be in their own best interest. Thus, when you had Republicans speaking to the report and you had Democrats speaking to the report, you had political combat going on in the form of sound bites and arguments. That's not to say there are not real issues of concern. That was particularly true in the 1990s with the investigation with a special prosecutor concerning then president Bill Clinton. And of course that led to the impeachment of President Clinton by the House of Representatives though the Senate at the time did not convict him or remove him from office. That was a political dynamic, there's no question about it. Republicans had a great deal to gain by the humiliation of President Clinton, who after all humiliated himself in that moral debacle.

But you fast forward to the present and it is clear that Democrats see an incredible advantage, a priceless political advantage if there had been criminal charges against the president of the United States, and if the report had brought further fodder to be used as fuel to call for the impeachment of a sitting president, in this case a Republican president. I think Peter Baker is right and that lead paragraph and his analysis in the New York Times, the report of the special counsel is going to make it extremely difficult for Democrats in the House of Representatives now in control of that chamber to make much progress towards impeachment unless something else is discovered. And here's where we need to understand that even as the Mueller investigation has come to an end, it is not the end of investigations. In modern America, sad to say the breakdown of our political system has resulted in the fact that often politics is now played out on the battlefield of competing investigations. Sometimes even criminal investigations.

Congress spends an inordinate amount of its time in these investigations and both Republicans and Democrats call for the investigations when they see legitimate basis or a political advantage. The president and the White House can breathe a deep sigh of relief with the conclusion now of the Mueller investigation, but the democratic leadership and the House of Representatives has indicated that it intends to continue investigations or expand them and the criminal investigation now shifts its primary focus to the US attorney for the southern district of New York. That's where much of that activity is likely to be focused over the next several months and years. I have argued this for some years now, but I do not believe that our system of justice, our political system, our system of government is well served by the statutes providing for either a special prosecutor or a special counsel for this kind of investigation. I think that what has happened is that our country has decided to turn to this battle of investigations rather than to deal with issues to the legitimate political process.

One of the problems we have to face and Christians need to understand this, is that there is almost no one who can withstand the full power of a federal investigation, especially when you consider all the rules of evidence and the potential that any answer could be construed as an obstruction of justice. After the debacle of the Starr investigation into Bill Clinton and the political meltdown that followed injurious to our system of government, I have argued consistently, whether a Republican or a Democrat is president, that the use of this kind of special counsel or special prosecutor is actually a violation of our constitutional guarantees of liberty. These issues, I would argue, need to be decided by the American people. They need to be decided by the ballot in the voting booth. They do not need to be decided either in the media or in the courts with this kind of investigation undertaken in a way that cannot be separated from the motivations of politics.

Part

The moral dimension of politics: Why did some Americans want the President of the United States to be accused as a criminal?

But there's another question of tremendous worldview significance. It's of moral significance, even theological significance. We need to ask ourselves the question and it appears that too few in a secular culture are even interested in the question. Why do we secretly perhaps not so secretly, but overtly want our enemies or opponents to be found guilty of something horrible. That appears to be the case, especially when it comes to what people in the White House called Trump Derangement Syndrome. The situation that leads clearly many leading Democrats to state what is effectively their hope that the president of the United States could be found guilty of some horrible crime that would amount to something like treason against the United States of America. There is a very interesting theological and biblical analysis behind this. The reality is that in a sinful world, we sometimes find pleasure or the ratification of our own righteousness by seeing allegations against another, sometimes the conviction of another.

And when it comes to the political dynamic, it's not just a situation in which the conviction of president Trump or a criminal accusation against him would have been to the benefit of his political opponents. There's something deeper going on here. There's something deeper in terms of psychology, there's something deeper in morality. There appears to be a hope on the part of some, or at least there had been a hope that the report would bring criminal allegations against the president. We can understand that politically, we can understand that dynamic, but how do we explain it morally? The Germans have a very interesting term called Schadenfreude. It's actually the combination of two words. The words in German for harm and joy. Why is it that we sometimes find joy or pleasure in the pain of others? This is a staple, actually a comedy going back to the ancient Greeks. Why do we find the pain of others somewhat entertaining, perhaps even funny? Someone slips and falls, comedians begin to work that into their act. Sitcoms feature the regular laugh track accompanying someone's embarrassment. Why do we find pleasure in that?

The Biblical worldview explains that in our sinfulness, we sometimes hope for what we should not hope for. We laugh at what we should not laugh at. Now, just consider a couple of headlines. Randall Eliason writing for the Washington Post wrote an article of the headline, "Mueller's investigation is over, Americans should breathe a sigh of relief." He goes on to say that it becomes clear that Mueller will not be charging a criminal conspiracy involving members of the Trump campaign and Russians for their involvement in the 2016 election. But after affirming the credibility of the special counsel, he goes on to say this, "Mueller apparently has concluded that there is no basis to charge the sitting president of the United States and his campaign criminally conspired with a foreign adversary to win the election. Whatever else is coming," he wrote, "This conclusion, at least should cause the entire country, not just the White House, to breathe a sigh of relief." That's just profoundly true. It's an extremely important moral point.

We should as a nation, that's right. As a nation, we should breathe a sigh of relief that the sitting president of the United States has not been charged with actions that were at the expense of his own country. That should be a matter of relief, not a frustration. Virginia Heffernan writing an article for the Los Angeles Times. Also, with an appropriate headline, "No matter your politics, you have to hope the Mueller report finds Trump blameless." That was reported on Saturday, of course, before the release of the attorney general summary on Sunday. She was speaking about what Americans should hope for and that headline was emphatically right. She sites, Garrett Graff, writing in wired, who argued that all patriots would do best to hope the Mueller report finds Trump blameless in any conspiracy to defraud the United States. Again, emphatically right. Why is this kind of argument so rare?

But before leaving this story, and by the way, this story won't leave us even though the big weekend is now behind us. Two things become very clear, we have to mention. One is the fact that there can now be no doubt that Russia was criminally involved, agents on behalf of Russia, to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in the United States. That should be of grave concern to the American people and what the American people deserve and need right now is the president of the United States on the other side of the closure of this investigation, leading the national and international effort to prevent Russia from successfully involving itself in any American election anywhere, anytime. Right now that is a responsibility that can be born and must be born only by the president of the United States who should now be able to do so backed up with the moral authority of the conclusions of the Mueller report.

The second thing, we have to notice this, the American system of ordered liberty, our constitutional form of government sometimes summarized rightly with the phrase, the rule of law, depends upon the rule of law operating for all people, all parties at all times. What took place over this past weekend. Not only that, what's taken place, even in the political tumult of the last couple of years demonstrates that the rule of law in the United States is still fully operational, Americans should celebrate that. Even though there was an incredible amount of speculation, especially coming from the opposing party that the president of the United States or his administration would try to shut down the investigation by Robert Mueller and even as the president of the United States fueled some of that speculation with his own comments and tweets, the reality is that no such action was taken.

The entire investigation came to a conclusion after untold millions of dollars in almost two years of time and it did so with the special counsel himself able to report that he had conducted his work without that kind of interference, or the threat of that kind of interference from the Justice Department of the United States government. Once again, something we should celebrate, the rule of law does not exist in most nations. The fact that it does here is not an accident. The fact that it continues to operate as something to celebrate and it is a stewardship for all Americans looking to the future.

Part

Where are we as a culture? Even eating a chicken sandwich can be an act of resistance to the moral revolution

But next, even as there was huge political news in the United States, we turn to huge moral news, cultural news, the kind of story that isn't so important in and of itself, but is tremendously important as it points to the direction of the culture. A very revealing headline that only makes sense in light of the moral revolution.

Chris Crowley writing a feature article for New York Magazine, that's one of the magazines that gives us early warnings about the direction of the culture. He wrote an article published on the 21st of March. The headline is this, "The Great New York chicken sandwiches that aren't from Chick-fil-A." Now, how in the world would that become a headline of a feature article in New York magazine? In the digital conversation about the story, several people summarized it as how to eat an ethically sourced chicken sandwich. Meaning a fried chicken sandwich, meaning how not to eat a sandwich that comes from Chick-fil-A, that would be unethically sourced according to the argument, but what in the world is the argument? Well, Chris Crowley gets right to it, "A few years back the chicken sandwich overlords at Chick-fil-A said they were done donating to anti-LGBTQ groups. This was welcome news to fans of the chains food who did not also love its politics. Alas," he writes, "A new report shows that as recently as 2017 the chain donated nearly $2 million to organizations with anti-LGBTQ stances."

Then in a parenthesis, he writes, "This is only made slimier by the fact that the chain itself says the donations were made to support causes focused on youth and education. So," asks Crawley, "Exactly what were they trying to teach America's youth? Well, the fellowship of Christian athletes," he says, "One recipient of Chick-fil-A's generosity is pretty transparent about its feelings, "Neither heterosexual sex outside of marriage, nor any homosexual act constitute an alternative lifestyle acceptable to God." Crawley then adds a one word sentence, "Yikes." He continues, "Though the chain is largely seen as southern, New York City also happens to be home to the chains largest location, will the uproar affect the demand there or at other locations in New York City? Probably not," he says, "But you have no reason to go there. If you're the type who likes a squishy burn with juicy chicken, you can find sandwiches," he says, "All over New York "Without the lingering aftertaste of discrimination."

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we are now at the point where a chicken sandwich is a major symbol of the culture war. Actually, we've been there for some time, but not with this kind of vehemence and not with the links to which the argument is now being made. And as you think about Crowley's article, recognize that just a few days before he had written an article entitled, "Chick-fil-A donated $1.8 million to anti-LGBTQ groups in 2017." So before we even consider Chick-fil-A, what would be these anti-LGBTQ groups to whom the organization made donations? Well, it turns out they would include the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as we've just seen, and the Salvation Army, and a home for troubled youth. But before turning to the moral convictions of those organizations, let's just consider the obvious, not one of them was established with any primary purpose to deal with human sexuality whatsoever. To identify them in the media as anti-LGBTQ groups is not only a distortion of reality, it's a deliberate ill intended misrepresentation. That's the way this moral revolution is being driven.

And as you look at the article, you discover that Chick-fil-A donated $1.6 million to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which according to this report, "Requires its employees to sign a policy that bars them from homosexual acts." Well wait just a minute, that larger quote made very clear that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes actually considered illicit and un-biblical any sexual activity outside of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. In other words, they hold to the historic Christian position that the Christian Church has held on the basis of scripture for 2000 years. Neither of these articles makes any detailed accusation against the Salvation Army. My guesses, because it wouldn't have been to the benefit of their argument, but just consider the fact that the Salvation Army is here identifying primarily and essentially as an anti-LGBTQ organization.

Here's where we stand in modern America. If we hold to biblical convictions on human sexuality and gender, then no matter what we might be talking about, no matter what our organization might primarily be about, even if we are the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the view of the moral revolutionaries we're just an anti-LGBTQ organization. And thus we need to be outed, we need to be opposed and any contributions to such organizations need to be fair argument for why someone should avoid buying a chicken sandwich from you. But then in the very same weekend, Alexa Lardieri, staff writer for US News and World Report, gives us a story from San Antonio telling us that Chick-fil-A is now banned from opening in the San Antonio Airport. The subhead, "The San Antonio City Council voted to pass a project as long as it didn't allow Chick-fil-A to open an eatery in the airport." The article tells us that Chick-fil-A has been banned from opening a store at the San Antonio International Airport because of its "legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior."

We're also told that the San Antonio City Council approved a new concession's agreement that will bring new food chains to one of its terminals, but Chick-fil-A will not be one of those new chains. City councilman Roberto Trevino according to the report, made a motion regarding the deal, amending it so that it did not include a planned Chick-fil-A eatery. Trevino's amendment we are told was approved six, four by the council. He said, "With this decision, the city council reaffirmed the work our city has done to become a champion of equality and inclusion. San Antonio is a city full of compassion and we do not have room in our public facilities for a business with a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior." He went on to say, "Everyone has a place here and everyone should feel welcome when they walk through our airport. I look forward to the announcement of a suitable replacement by the firm handling the concession."

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas quickly criticize the decision by the San Antonio City Council and he cited the fact that the rationale is particularly troublesome. They cited the very thing progress report, there was also the basis of the New York Magazine article all identifying the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Salvation Army, and a home for troubled youth as anti-LGBTQ organizations. We have to understand how high the stakes are here, political stakes, cultural stakes, moral stakes, but beyond that financial stakes. We're talking about business here, we're talking about a deliberate effort undertaken by LGBTQ activists and many in official positions such as being a member of the City Council there in San Antonio who are trying to bring financial harm to Chick-fil-A simply because in some way it has represented Christian convictions. Christian convictions held by the founders of the company and by those who are running the company, but convictions that have not compromised the ability of the company to serve and welcome all within its restaurants. That's really not even in question.

What becomes very clear, however, is the fact that there is no safe place in this culture from those who are demanding the full surrender of conviction in the face of the moral revolution. There's no safe place, there's no safe product, there's no safe sandwich. But this story isn't even just about Chick-fil-A, it's also about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It's even about the Salvation Army. It's about the fact that the pressure that is represented in this story isn't limited to San Antonio, it's not limited to chicken sandwiches, it's not limited to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. We've actually come to the place where in this country, eating a chicken sandwich can be an act of resistance against the moral revolution. Who would have expected that?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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