briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, November 1, 2019

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

It’s Friday, November 1st, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

House of Representatives Votes Formal Authorization of Impeachment Inquiry: The Partisan Divide and the Nature of Politics

History will record October the 31st, 2019 as a now-significant day in American political history, in the history of the American presidency, in the history of Congress. But it is not clear at this point just how significant October the 31st will turn out to be, nor is it yet clear how significant yesterday’s vote in the House of Representatives will be seen in a future perspective. A team of reporters for The Washington Post summarized, “A divided House approved a resolution Thursday, formally authorizing and articulating guidelines for the next phase of its impeachment inquiry, a move that signaled Democrats are on course to bring charges against President Trump later this year.”

The headline in the Wall Street Journal was “House Passes Trump Impeachment Inquiry Resolution.” Another team of reporters for that newspaper summarized, “The House passed a resolution laying out the framework for the next phase of the impeachment inquiry, the first significant vote since the probe focused on President Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine began last month.” The New York Times report by Nicholas Fandos offered a bit more color: “A bitterly divided House of Representatives voted on Thursday to endorse the Democratic led impeachment inquiry into President Trump. In a historic action, this set up a critical new public phase of the process and underscored the toxic political polarization that serves as its backdrop.”

Indeed, the big story yesterday was that political polarization. Consider the vote undertaken in the House of Representatives. That vote came down to 232 to 196. Given the current size of the caucuses, the Republican and the Democratic Caucuses in the House, that meant that only two Democratic members of the House of Representatives voted “no” on the resolution, and not a single Republican voted “yes.”

That puts the vote yesterday into a very different historical and political context than other 20th century impeachment efforts. For example, the vote in 1974 that formalized the beginning of the Watergate hearings that led to the resignation of president Richard M. Nixon. The vote in the House of Representatives was 410 to 9. That meant that the vast majority of Republicans voted for that motion that activated an official impeachment inquiry against a sitting Republican president of the United States. Again, the number 410 to 9. In 1998, the vote that authorized the impeachment inquiry into President Bill Clinton was 250 to 176, but we’re looking again at the fact that yesterday was 232 to 196. It is really interesting that only two of the Democrats in House voted no, and both of them in Republican leaning districts that Donald Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.

And not a single Republican. That’s significant because not one Republican was willing to break ranks, and that means that the entire Republican Caucus in the House of Representatives felt politically secure in voting against the motion to authorize, at least to formally authorize the impeachment inquiry, which as the Democrats have already bragged, had already begun.

At the very onset, it is extremely important that we recognize the seriousness of impeachment proceedings against a president of the United States. Let’s just consider what we’re looking at here. One of America’s founding fathers of the Constitution described impeachment proceedings as “the grand inquest of the nation.” That is to say it would be the most important trial that any nation could undertake. In this case, the responsibility of the indictment, the impeachment falls to the House of Representatives, and should the House of Representatives vote to impeach a sitting president, the trial would then be conducted in the upper house in the United States Senate. But we are a long way from that.

What we are looking at is the fact that this is a formal authorization, and it came months after the Democrats had already begun their investigation without such a formal authorization. At the very least, that made that process, which has now gone on for several weeks and months, all the more ardently partisan. The Republicans were on firm ground to complain that the Democrats had not even put themselves on the line, and in particular they had not put members of their own caucus who are in so-called swing districts on the record as to whether or not the House of Representatives should investigate the President of the United States with an eye to possible impeachment. But all that began to change in just the last several days. Almost every single major news source indicated the fact that a change had been made in this strategy undertaken by the leader of the Democratic Caucus in the House, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic representative from Northern California.

Pelosi is a skilled veteran when it comes to the mechanisms of the House of Representatives. After all, she is speaker and was speaker before, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the United States House. Pelosi has historically kept a very tight rein on the other Democrats in the House. That’s how she became speaker, and that is how she has retained that post, the most important post in the House of Representatives. But Nancy Pelosi herself began to signal over the last several days that there had been a change in the political context. And again, almost every major news source has at least honestly indicated that all of this does represent a change in the political calculation, particularly on the part of the Democratic leadership in the House. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Catie Edmondson, writing a report for the New York Times offer us the headline, “Democrats once wary of alienating voters unite as politics shift.”

Now, notice it’s not the Constitution that has shifted. It is not the law that has shifted. It is the politics that has shifted. That’s a good issue for us to understand. As the reporters tell us, “When speaker Nancy Pelosi polled Democrats privately about taking a formal floor vote on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump earlier this month, the idea was scuttled by nervous moderates who feared a backlash from voters in their Trump-friendly districts. But,” says The Times, “when Pelosi convened her rank and file behind closed doors on Wednesday morning to lay out plans for a similar vote now scheduled for Thursday, she met with little dissent.”

But everyone looking to the vote that took place yesterday understood that it would reveal a deepened dramatic partisan divide, as the report in The New York Times looking to the vote writing from Wednesday said, “The voters expected to be deeply partisan. The resolution scheduled for Thursday would not authorize the investigation, a step that is not required under the Constitution or House rules, and that Democrats have consistently said is not needed.” So that raises another question: If it’s not needed, then why did they take it? It is because the Democrats saw a political advantage to scheduling and to holding the vote. Also, writing a day before the vote, The New York Times predicted that there would be few Republicans who would break ranks with the president. Indeed, so few that the number turned out to be zero.

Looking at this in worldview analysis, it is really important to understand that the fundamental dynamic behind the decision to take the vote was political, but Christians are the last people to be surprised when politics gets political. We understand that every dimension of politics is by definition political, and even when it doesn’t appear to be political, you can count on the fact that it’s about to become political again. But the Christian understanding of sin drawn from Scripture reminds us that even as politics will always be political, in a fallen world corrupted by sin, politics becomes simultaneously more important and more dangerous.

That is not to say that persons elected to high office or appointed to government service never act in the government service or in the common good. It is to say that you cannot remove any politician at any time from a political context. You cannot isolate political motivations, but sometimes you can see them very clearly.

Part II

A Grand Inquest of the Republic, Now? The 2020 Presidential Election Sets the Context

But Christians thinking carefully here would also have to pull back the curtain a bit and ask ourselves, “What are we actually looking at here? Why would the House of Representatives, even by such a deeply partisan vote, maybe especially in light of such a deeply partisan vote, why would the House Democrats have moved forward with this official and formal vote?”

Well, we could come up with at least two reasons. One of them is the fact that the House of Representatives, claiming its oversight role assigned by the Constitution, is now moving forward to investigate whether or not the President of the United States has undertaken actions that, in light of the Constitution, represent high crimes and misdemeanors that should lead to his impeachment and eventually to his trial in the Senate, potentially to his removal.

That is a huge issue. That “grand inquest of the nation,” as it was called, was put in the Constitution as an emergency provision, an emergency provision that we should note in the entire constitutional history of the United States has never once resulted in a president being impeached in the House of Representatives and then found guilty, convicted by the United States Senate and removed from office. Andrew Johnson in the 19th century was impeached, but he was not convicted. Bill Clinton in the 1990s was impeached, but he was not convicted. Richard Milhous Nixon was neither impeached nor convicted, but rather on the brink of an assured impeachment and a likely conviction in the United States Senate, Richard Nixon resigned his office, the only President of the United States to do so.

Donald Trump is defiant in the face of the accusations that go back to the fact that a phone call that the President had with the president of Ukraine has been alleged to represent the President of the United States leveraging American military aid that had been authorized by Congress in order to incentivize a foreign government, in this case, the government of Ukraine, to undertake or to announce that it was going to undertake a criminal investigation into the activities of Hunter Biden, the son of the former Vice President of the United States and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. At this point, there is a little argument as to whether or not President Trump did seek to gain that investigation from the Ukrainians and the public announcement of that investigation. That is now documented on a phone call, now infamous phone call, that President Trump himself released as a transcript.

That raises another question; in that phone call, did President Trump do anything wrong? He says no, but even many prominent Republicans in the House and in the Senate argue that yes, the president did something wrong. He should not and certainly should not himself have asked the Ukrainians to undertake such an investigation, and certainly should not have done so on a personal phone call with the Ukrainian president, and should not have done so with congressionally authorized military aid at stake. But in a partisan context, one of the things we need to do as just an honest thought exercise is to turn the tables. If this were Democratic president who had undertaken the very same actions of the transcript identified the President of the United States as a prominent Democrat, would Republicans be outraged?

The answer is of course they would, but that then leads to another question. The constitutional definition of offenses that would justify the removal of the President of the United States referred to high crimes and misdemeanors. So what does this tell us? It tells us that not one Republican member of the House of Representatives, fully knowledgeable of that transcript and generally knowledgeable about the investigation thus far in the House Intelligence Committee, not one Republican, not one felt compelled to vote for the authorization at this point of the investigation. So that means at least two things; that is, in all likelihood, the majority of those Republicans feel that the president, yes, did something wrong, but they also seem to feel unanimously that whatever the president did, it did not rise to anything close to a high crime or misdemeanor that would justify his removal from office. Taking a stand the way the Republicans in the House took their stand indicates that they are willing to put their own reputations and the reputation of the Republican Party in Congress on the line in order to make that argument. Frankly, I think that is a very justifiable argument.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are now in the position of voting overwhelmingly with all but two of their members in the House to authorize the investigation. We also need to note the Republicans have complained, and in this case I think again rightly complained, that the rules undertaken by the House with the Democrats voting for this resolution do not offer the kinds of protections for this president that the impeachment proceedings in 1974 and in 1998 provided for President Nixon and for President Clinton. That includes the fact that even as the media have indicated that Republican members of the House, particularly of the House Intelligence Committee, will have the opportunity to subpoena documents and to subpoena witnesses. That will only happen if the chairman of the committee or a majority of the committee, including Democrats would approve. That is nothing like the case in 1998 or in 1974.

If the Democratic majority wanted to try to demonstrate that this is not a partisan act, they would have adopted a different resolution. But again, we have to note that underlying shift, a political shift that has led to a very different decision on the part of the Democratic Caucus in the House. For example, back in March of this year, just a few months ago, Speaker Pelosi said that she would only support any impeachment effort if it is “something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.” But the vote yesterday indicated that it wasn’t bipartisan, and long before the vote was taken, it was known that it would not be bipartisan. Similarly, Jerrold Nadler, now, the Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, Nadler had rightly said that moving forward with an impeachment proceeding would only make sense if the crimes were so heinous, so outrageous that, in the view of the American people largely as a whole, they would constitute grounds for the removal of an elected President of the United States.

But clearly that is not the case yet, so why are the Democrats doing this? Well, for two reasons. Number one, their base is demanding it, and their base is moving progressively to the left, far further to the left, you might argue that even in the beginning of the calendar year 2019 or back in March when Speaker Pelosi made that definitional statement. But we’re also looking at the fact that not only is the Democratic base moving left, but we’re also looking at the fact that the Democratic Party, especially in the House, has decided that it is worth it at this point, especially with the 2020 presidential election standing just before us, to move forward with this investigation in the hopes or at least in the possibility that some new information will be revealed that would lead to that kind of shift in the public consciousness, or for that matter, that might at least politically wound a sitting president of the United States. The Republicans, just to be honest, are making the reverse calculation.

But there are two other dimensions of this that we should understand and think about carefully. One is that months ago, Speaker Pelosi also said that the House of Representatives should not responsibly undertake an impeachment proceeding if there were not, at the time, plenty of evidence of the fact that the Senate, including Republicans in the Senate, would vote to convict the president upon that evidence. Just to be honest, at this point, there is not only no such confidence, there is every confidence that that is not the case. So that raises the question again: Why are we at this point at exactly this moment? But the other dimension has to do with the Constitution itself and with the calendar. This is, you’ll recall, November the 1st of 2019. That means that we are just a year and a few days from the election of the next President of the United States, or at least the next electoral decision the American people will make concerning who will be their president.

That means that when you are looking at the timetable, the House of Representatives is now moving forward with an impeachment inquiry based upon a very partisan vote with the reality that the American people will have their opportunity to decide the question in just a matter of a few months. As this moves forward, I will make a very clear prediction, and that prediction is this: Unless there is overwhelming evidence of extreme malfeasance undertaken by the President of the United States, this impeachment inquiry will not lead to a conviction of the president in the United States Senate, and if the vote at the end of the impeachment proceedings is as partisan as the vote at the beginning, then this is going to be seen as little more than an overt political act.

At the end of the day, the vast majority of Republicans are likely to say, given the evidence that we know now and the evidence that is anticipated at this point, the Republican majority is likely to say, “Yes, we agree. The president of the United States was wrong to have made that request in that context of the Ukrainian president. That was wrong, but it was neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor. It does not come close to constituting an action that would constitutionally justify reversing the electoral decision of the American people in the 2016 election.”

But even as we are observing and we are praying, as Christians, for all of those involved in this process, for all those who hold high office, we need to ask a question. We need to actually hope that the Republicans and the Democrats are asking themselves this question in the House of Representatives.

The question addressed to Republicans would be this: just what kind of evidence, if supplied, would lead you to vote that yes, the President of the United States has acted in a way that has violated his oath of office? That’s a question Republicans need honestly to ask. But at the same time, the opposite question is also true. Democrats, if they are honest, must be asking themselves: just what kind of evidence would be necessary for me to actually move to remove a President of the United States or to vote for that president’s impeachment? And furthermore, would I accept the very same rationale and the very same evidence for voting for the impeachment and thus recommending the removal from office of a president of my own party?

I think that those are not only the right questions that we should hope are being asked, but furthermore, I have confidence that the American people intuitively will make their way to those two questions. But as it stands, as of the vote yesterday, every Democrat but two and not a single Republican voted for the resolution to formalize this investigation. That, at the very least, is now a matter of history.

Part III

Totalitarian China Releases Morality Guidelines to Control Total Life of Citizens: When a Dictatorship Becomes an Idolatrous Autocracy

But next, as we are thinking about morality, we shift from Washington to Beijing. The Guardian in London reports, “China has released new morality guidelines for its citizens on everything from civic education and how parents should teach their children, to rubbish sorting and the appropriate etiquette for raising the national flag.” The document is formerly known as the Outline for the Implementation of the Moral Construction of Citizens in the New Era. Given the totalitarian nature of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese State, you won’t be surprised that the new morality guidelines, representing the moral construction of citizens in the new era, covers everything from table etiquette to the responsibility of Chinese citizens to defend China’s honor at home and abroad.

Miriam Berger, reporting for The Washington Post, to tells us that the document, remember it’s officially called the Outline for Implementing the Moral Construction of Citizens of the New Era, should actually, she says, be called “The World According to Xi.” That means Xi Jinping, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. And that’s really what it is; it is the world according to Xi. And, as The Washington Post also goes further to explain, that it appears this new move, these new morality guidelines, to be all about the man who is behind it all, and that would be president Xi Jinping. As The Washington Post rightly says, “He has been busy centralizing power and cementing himself as China’s main man above all else.” It actually is at the point that Christians would recognize as being not only statism and totalitarianism, not only a dictatorship, but also it is trending into idolatry.

Xi’s philosophy of life right down to the details of the dinner table, this is now known as Xi Jinping Thought. It was declared so in 2017. Giving the thought of Xi Jinping the same rank as the thought of Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China, and Deng Xiaoping, who also led China through very crucial decades. But the noticeable issue in the new document is that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have effectively disappeared, which means that Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Thought has now been largely replaced by Xi Jinping Thought.

Citizens of China are now told that they are responsible for the cultivation of civilized and self-disciplined online behavior, as well as the implementation of an environmentally friendly way of life and manufacturing, the full development of etiquette and courtesy. Citizens are to avoid all uncivilized behavior on the subways, while eating, while drinking, while playing music on speakers. All of those acts, if in public, will be subject to penalties beginning in April. But the big issue here is conformity. Total conformity, the claim of the State upon citizens 24/7, at home and at work, in public and in private. As a matter of fact, the Chinese Communist Party basically denies that distinction between public and private, which is one of the foundational hallmarks of Western civilization and is also that which is consistent with a Biblical worldview, privileging the family over against the overarching demands of the State.

It is also clear that this document comes with the power of coercion and now with the power of the modern, hyper-modern surveillance state. China is now using facial recognition technologies and other high technologies and artificial intelligence to aid the state in cracking down, for example, on religious liberty — crushing churches, finding underground believers, crushing any kind of organization that would represent a mediating institution that might in some way limit the power of the State and of the Communist Party. The new moral guidelines make that point explicitly, including language that the government is now to instruct citizens on how to behave properly in all aspects of life.

Several observers have noted the quasi-religious status of these new guidelines. For example, in English translation two words leap off the page. Those words are “believe” and “faith.” But the believe and the faith are directed towards Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. Citizens are now told that it is morally right to honor Xi Jinping, to believe in him, and to have faith in him, and it is morally wrong not to. Now, Christians looking at that all of a sudden see that affirmation of the fact that we are spiritual beings because God made us that way, and that spiritual devotion is going to come out. It is going to be demonstrated one way or another.

But speaking of China, on October the 30th, just two days ago, the United States Secretary of State gave a speech on China at the Hudson Institute’s Herman Kahn Award Gala, and that speech deserves our attention. The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, spoke openly of the fact that for decades, Americans have wanted friendship with the People’s Republic of China. And, he said because we as Americans always continue to hope for that, sometimes our efforts to achieve that goal have instead accommodated and encouraged China’s rise for decades. But, said Secretary Pompeo, this was done even when “that rise was at the expense of American values, Western democracy, and security and good common sense.

The secretary went on to say, “We downgraded our relationship with our long-time friend, Taiwan, on the condition that the Taiwan question would be resolved peacefully to normalize relations with Beijing.” The secretary continued, “We all too often shied away from talking directly about the human rights issues there and American values when they came into conflict, and we downplayed ideological differences even after the Tiananmen Square Massacre and other significant human rights abuses.”

Several paragraphs later, the secretary got to the heart of the problem when he said, “These bad outcomes were all too predictable. They were predictable byproducts of dealing with a secretive regime that doesn’t respect fairness, the rule of law and reciprocity.”

It was a remarkable and historic speech by a U.S. Secretary of State and one we should note, but we also need to recognize that when you are looking at China, we are looking — and Christians have to understand this — we are looking at a regime that has set itself up as nothing less than an idolatrous autocracy, and that’s where Christians thinking merely but clearly in biblical terms understand that can’t end well. It’s not just that we are talking about dictatorship. It is that we are talking about idolatry.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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