briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

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

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

Part I

Constitutional Crisis in the United States: Speaker of the House Announces Impeachment Inquiry Against President Trump

On both sides of the Atlantic, the words “constitutional crisis” are now being heard, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom — those two nations, perhaps the globe’s two most important stewards of constitutional democracy. But as you look at the two stories, they are at one and the same time, both in one sense the same and in another sense, of course, quite different.

In the United States, the political volume was turned way up yesterday when late in the day, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, announced that formal impeachment inquiries would begin within the House of Representatives. This is a big step, no doubt a very big step. This is one of the few times in the entire history of the United States that the House of Representatives has moved forward as defined by the Constitution in a formal process that could, at least, end in the impeachment of a sitting president of the United States.

If that impeachment were to be followed by conviction in the Senate, actually a quite unlikely development, the reality is that the verdict of the American people in 2016 could be effectively reversed. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, would be in office, but it does mean that the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, would succeed the President, Donald Trump.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s consider the fact that the first response to all of this is that in the United States, this is a constitutional crisis that is primarily political. We need to pause for a moment. Is that true or is that false? We just need to remind ourselves, soberly and calmly, it is true, but it is always true. That’s because we are talking about a political process.

It is very strange for people all of a sudden to act as if they are morally outraged when politicians act politically. When a political process and a political system turn out to operate on a political dynamic, we really can’t honestly be surprised. And of course, everyone in this situation is summing up the picture according to their own political interests. That’s what political parties do, and that is what elected politicians do. If they were not masters of the political game, or if they are not, they will not last long.

So you have two different sides who are now facing off. If you consider it in those terms, you have the president of the United States and you have the House of Representatives. Each of them wields considerable power, but at the end of the day they are both going to have to operate on the basis of the opinion and judgment of the American people, you might say mediated through the House of Representatives and then mediated through the Senate, or for that matter, mediated through the political process between those two important branches of government, the executive and the legislative.

But when you look at the background to the story, it goes back to the fact that there was in recent weeks a whistleblower complaint that was filed against President Trump based upon a phone call that the president had with the president of Ukraine. Now, the accusation by the whistleblower was that the president had made a promise to the Ukrainian president that violated the law or the Constitution of the United States in either word or in spirit. Now, that’s a suspicion or that’s a charge. That’s a complaint that was filed by a whistleblower.

The president had acted as if he was not going to respond in any really clear way other than to say he had done nothing wrong, but also yesterday, the president of the United States interrupted a process of events with the United Nations to announce that he would release the full transcript of the conversation that he had had weeks ago with the Ukrainian president. So where do we go from here? Well, potentially somewhere, potentially nowhere.

The president said that he was doing what presidents do in a conversation with the head of state of another country. He was making the interests of the United States clear. In the course of that conversation, the president acknowledged, as did his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that at least a part of the interest claimed by the president of the United States is the fact that Ukraine should investigate the son of the former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. The son would be Hunter Biden. The accusation is coming from the president and his attorney that there has been some form of cover-up of dubious and perhaps even illegal activity by the son of the former vice president.

Now, of course, even that comes as a part of the background of the fact that the president in his relationship with Russia has been a central issue of political controversy going back to even slightly before the president was elected, especially thereafter. So is this mere politics or is there something substantial here? Well, time’s going to have to reveal that, and the president will certainly do the American people a service by releasing that transcript of that phone call at this time.

But we also have to register the fact, not only on behalf of this president but on behalf of the presidency, that that is actually a very bad precedent. It is a bad precedent for presidents of the United States to have to release conversations they have with the heads of foreign powers. Why is that a bad precedent? It is because if those conversations are not considered to be not only formal but also confidential, then that could lead in itself to a breakdown of international conversations and also a weakening of the presidency. The Constitution invests in the chief executive largely what could be described as near sole power for that kind of conversation between the president of the United States, who is in the U.S. both head of government in that sense and, more importantly, head of state and those who would be either the head of government or the head of state in other nations. In many of those nations, it takes two to hold those positions, not just one.

So as we’re trying to think in rational and calm terms about this controversy, it appears that it’s a bad precedent for the president to release the transcript of this conversation. However, it is probably now a political impossibility that he not release the transcript, especially after in public he said that he would. But even as that is a bad precedent, it will now lead, if indeed it is released to the American people, the American Congress finding out whether or not there was anything that either the American people or the American House of Representatives would consider problematic.

But here’s another issue. As you think of the U.S. Constitution, it becomes very difficult to understand exactly what a president can do that would be illegal in that sense. Now, obviously, if the president commits high crimes and misdemeanors according to the Constitution, he can be impeached or eventually removed, but we’re not talking at this point about any specific statute. We’re talking about what many people simply claim to be against the law or against the Constitution, but it’s going to take a specific law, it’s going to take a specific constitutional provision in order to further that argument.

Honestly, we simply do not know at this point if there is any likelihood that this process will move forward. But again, we’re talking about politics, and perhaps the most important political tipping point that was indicated yesterday is that the speaker of the House of Representatives now sees it as in her interest as speaker, holding the allegiance of her own party in the House, but also of her party, the majority, that is, a Democratic majority, that now holds leadership in the House of Representatives. She sees it in her interest and in the interest of her party to move forward with the impeachment inquiry. Does that mean that she does or does not see it in the best interest of the country?

At this point, we simply have to assume that we will all find out whether or not an impeachment inquiry is in any way indicated by the unfolding events. President Trump will interject that there have been calls for his impeachment even before he took office and without any specific charge. And the president has defined that as a basic spirit of opposition on the part of the Democrats that could lead to no justifiable investigation. And the president is now acknowledging that he did call for the Ukrainian government to conduct an investigation of whether or not Hunter Biden, and by extension Joe Biden, the former Vice President of the United States, had acted improperly.

And as you’re looking at that, it does turn out to be a story that could be quite embarrassing for the Democratic Party and for the vice president, even as he is now a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Why? Well, it does look a bit odd that even as there was a political crisis in Ukraine, especially in 2014, and even as the United States became involved during the administration of President Barack Obama, and even as the Vice President, Joe Biden, made several visits to Ukraine on behalf of the administration, and we now know that his son Hunter Biden was shortly thereafter hired for a $50,000 a month position with the leading gas company in Ukraine, you can understand why the president says there just might be something to look into there.

But we’re talking about a political recklessness, frankly, on both sides, charges being made back and forth in a way that is unquestionably unprecedented in recent American history. And of course the Democrats are charging, according to their interpretation or presentation of the whistleblower complaint, they are charging that the president of the United States invited a foreign power to be involved in, to interfere in, an American presidential election. The Democrats are charging again.

Again, you and I are looking at the fact that this is a very political process. Politics are at stake and politics are involved everywhere you look in this dynamic. That doesn’t mean that there are not other issues, legal issues, constitutional issues, moral issues, that are involved. Time will tell, and we need to take that time in order for the American people to tell whether or not this is an impeachment crisis, a constitutional crisis or not.

But even as America might be looking at what many have claimed to be as a constitutional crisis, that language is probably already overblown. For one thing, you’re looking at the fact that the Constitution of the United States, that written document that goes all the way back to 1789, that document is still right now operating as the constitutional authority, the textual constitutional authority for the government of the United States of America. Even as people are declaring a constitutional crisis, even the mechanisms they are using are still consistent with the Constitution. And the standard of judgment is a written constitution.

Part II

Constitutional Crisis in the United Kingdom: Brexit Turmoil Continues as Supreme Court Rules Against Prime Minister

Now cross the pond and consider the alternative that is taking place and demonstrating itself right now in Great Britain. Also yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down a unanimous decision against the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Boris Johnson, saying that the prime minister had acted by calling upon the Queen to prorogue, or to hold Parliament out of session, was unlawful, void and of no effect. The president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom read that judgment, and it came after weeks of controversy after the prime minister had gone to the Queen and received the Queen’s assent to delay the opening of Parliament.

And the politics behind this is that it would have reduced the time that Parliament would have had to have opposed the prime minister as the prime minister is seeking to move Britain towards an exit from the European Union by an October 31 deadline. But it is fascinating to consider the fact that in the United Kingdom, the nation probably is looking at a constitutional crisis. The prime minister, who is the head of government but not the head of state — the Queen, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state — the prime minister indicated that he believed the decision was wrong, but that he would accept it and not contest it. That means that in all likelihood, Parliament will be back in session perhaps as early as today.

But the big issue in Great Britain is that England never has had a written constitution in the same sense as the United States Constitution, and furthermore, it is not operating out of a written constitution. It is actually claimed, or at least many leading English statesman and political theorists have claimed that Britain’s unwritten constitution is actually superior to America’s written constitution because it is able to evolve with the nation.

By the way, here you’re looking at one of those basic questions that is asked, whether or not you are to look at a constitution as a text that is to evolve or a text that is to be amended. In the United States, an amendment is at least theoretically necessary, but that gets to the two different schools of constitutional interpretation in the United States, one that basically wants to eclipse the textual reading of the Constitution. That’s the more liberal or progressive interpretation, an interpretation that claims a living Constitution. And on the other side, a more conservative originalist, textualist understanding of the Constitution that says the actual words, the actual sentences are binding.

The argument of the constitutionalists on the right is that if you want the Constitution to be different than it is, the Constitution allows for its own revision by amendment. But if you can’t pull that off politically, then you can’t pull it off judicially by judges merely saying that the Constitution is what they want it to be, that it means what they want it to mean. But then contrast that, and this is so important from a worldview analysis, just contrast that with what took place yesterday in the United Kingdom, when the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom declared that the prime minister’s action was unlawful, void and of no effect, what law were they citing? What constitutional provision were they citing?

Well, actually, they really weren’t. They were merely declaring it to be unlawful, void and of no effect. They were making essentially a political judgment. You could say they’re making a constitutional judgment, but there isn’t a written constitution. There’s no specific words that are binding upon the government, and by the way, the danger of all that in a genuine constitutional crisis is that there is no understanding as to what would have happened if the prime minister had rejected, and said that he would not accept, the decision of the nation’s highest court.

There is no clear indication of where the United Kingdom goes from here. And of course, the United Kingdom is looking at an October 31 withdrawal from the European Union, an act that came by a referendum of the British people. And unless something remarkable happens, that deadline is still looming before the government and before the nation. And Boris Johnson as the prime minister wants that date to be effective, even if necessary for Britain to take a so-called hard exit or Brexit from the European Union.

Now, the British Parliament is indeed the mother of all parliaments, and the British even unwritten constitution had a tremendous influence upon the constitutional form of the United States of America. You are looking at a relationship in many ways of a mother nation and a daughter nation, but you are also looking at a political argument. Is it better to have a written constitution or an unwritten constitution that is simply built up over the years of accumulated custom and tradition and pattern?

I think at this point it’s really clear that a written constitution is superior. Just consider what happened in the 24-hour period of Tuesday, September 24, 2019. On one side of the Atlantic, you could have the President of the United States, Donald Trump, and the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, in an argument that is both political and constitutional, and each of them could hold in his or her hand a copy of the Constitution of the United States of America and make their argument on the basis of that written text, each having the text in hand, every single American able to look to that text and read the very same words.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, a constitutional crisis is unfolding without a written constitution. If in the United States both the president and the speaker can hold the Constitution in hand, in the United Kingdom no one can hold the written constitution in hand, because the constitution is unwritten. There’s more to this to be sure, and we’ll be watching both of these situations very closely. As I am in London, I’m looking at the British situation very much up close.

Part III

The 75th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden: Remembering the Failed Attempt to End World War Two in 1944

But next, I turn to the burdens of history and the lessons of history. Turning to other headline news, recently in the United Kingdom, just in recent days, the nation commemorated the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. That was the 1944 airborne invasion of a part of the Low Countries that ended in disaster for the Allied forces. The effort behind Operation Market Garden, which is even to date the largest airborne operation in human history, the idea was to get behind the German lines and to speed the defeat of Nazi Germany, with the designer of Operation Market Garden, the British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, suggesting that if successful, Operation Market Garden could lead to the defeat of Nazi Germany by Christmas of 1944.

Of course, that was not to happen. It was to happen instead well into 1945. As Dominic Nicholls of the Daily Telegraph summarizes, “Operation Market Garden was a daring plan in which airborne troops seized vital bridges ahead of an armored thrust that it was hoped would open the door to Germany and end the war.” The problem behind the military defeat that the operation turned out to be was that the Allies had misestimated three crucial issues. The first had to do with the amount and vehemence of the German opposition, especially tank units. The second was the inherent difficulty of trying to base a military operation upon seizing bridges, even just crucial bridges. It turns out that it’s very difficult to protect an invading force as they are concentrated on those bridges.

The third was that the entire operation depended upon good weather. The bad weather did not appear on the first day of the operation, but it did on the second, but the bad weather wasn’t in Arnhem, which was the focus of Operation Market Garden on the European continent. Instead, it was in Britain, where fog settled in, and the fog did not allow the deployment of a crucial second wave on the second day of both troops and planes.

The operation involved both British and American troops and pilots, but as the Telegraph tells us, “The doomed plan conceived by General Bernard Montgomery, Commander of the British forces in Europe, ended with British paratroopers trapped in house-to-house fighting. It left more than 1,500 dead and nearly 6,500 captured when their ammunition ran out after nine days of vicious battle.”

The commemoration just days ago involved many veterans, British veterans in particular, who had survived the operation and survived even at a very elderly age until now. And the backdrop of that was also, like the recent commemoration of D-Day’s anniversary, the knowledge that this might be the final anniversary for many of those veterans, especially when you’re looking at the five-year pattern of this kind of commemoration. The youngest of these veterans would be well into their nineties.

But as we think intelligently about the lessons of history, we do understand that we can look back in retrospect and understand both why this operation was attempted and ultimately why it failed. But there’s something else. These commemorations were held involving the British people, and they were honoring British troops in particular. And how in the world does that differ from the United States, where there was much less attention to the entire operation and its failure, the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden? It tells us that history looms largest over us when it is nearest to us.

The fact is that the history of Operation Market Garden is far closer to the British people than to Americans. The same thing is true for other historical events which are closer emotionally to the United States and its people than to the British people. Two individuals can share the same experience, but they don’t share identical memories nor the intensity of those memories. And the same thing is true not only of individuals but of nations. And of course, another lesson of history is that even as the British people were commemorating the 75th anniversary, they did so knowing that even as Operation Market Garden was a failure in 1944, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime were indeed defeated in 1945, just a matter of months later.

Part IV

The Collapse of the Thomas Cook Travel Agency: The Big Story of How Travel Changed the World

But next, another big history lesson with worldview implications that is currently unfolding in the United Kingdom. On Monday, the Thomas Cook firm announced that it was immediately ceasing operations. The most historic and one of the largest touring agencies in the world, Thomas Cook effectively went bankrupt and had to cease all operations, but it did so stranding no less than 150,000 British citizens somewhere in the world. And the company collapsed even as some of its own airplanes were in the air. There’s a big history here, and it has to do with issues that should be of interest to Americans as well, not so much when you think about business, but when you think about life as we know it.

You have to go back to 1841 when Thomas Cook, the man who eventually became the name of the company, he invented the idea of putting together package tours, especially to entice people to leave their own towns and cities and to travel to another. This was made possible by the advent of the train system, the railroad, and Thomas Cook understood that it just might be possible to encourage people to leave one town, say, London and go to another one like Birmingham. The idea was that this could be leisure travel.

Now, the important thing to understand here is that if you’re looking at 1841, most people around the entire world had never conceived of leisure travel. Travel might occur because of necessity, but as historians point out, most people who were alive in, say, 1840 never traveled more than a few miles from the place where they had been born. Travel was if anything an urgency, a necessity, an endurance, but the arrival of the railroad made all of that different. Travel could now be a matter of leisure. It wasn’t an act of daring. Thomas Cook understood the commercial opportunity. He began to offer these early versions of package tours, and eventually, of course, the history will reveal that those package tours grew. They expanded, the firm grew, and of course eventually Thomas Cook became not only a travel agency but also an airline.

But as you look at the company, it’s also about the morality of overreaching. Thomas Cook failed for many reasons, some of them just systemic changes in the economy. Most people now have access by computer to all the resources to effectively serve as their own travel planner, if not travel agency. Thomas Cook also decided to expand by encompassing another firm that would increase its number of so-called storefront offices to about 1,200, even at the time that people were turning away from that kind of storefront office.

But the big issue of worldview analysis is this: We now take travel very much for granted. It’s not only now based upon the railroads or even ships going across the sea, but on airplanes that can be within a matter of hours virtually anywhere in the world. And at virtually every income level, especially in the United States as in much of Europe, travel is simply taken now to be an ordinary human experience, and there can be no doubt that the experience of travel changes the way we see the world and in one sense, even as we see ourselves.

The collapse of the Thomas Cook agency means that the government here in Great Britain is now facing a significant challenge of repatriating 150,000 of its citizens. It is doing so with planes chartered both from the United States and from other nations, and at this point it appears that this repatriation, getting its citizens back to Great Britain, is the largest repatriation undertaken by any similar country in any time other than wartime. In a very real sense, Thomas Cook, starting back in 1841, changed the world, but now the collapse of his company means that British citizens are stranded all over the world. Thomas Cook is of course long, long dead, but he would assuredly not only be saddened, but see a great deal of irony in that.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from London, England, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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