Thursday, November 21, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, November 21, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Impeachment Proceedings Continue in the House: Was Gordon Sondland’s Testimony Yesterday a Game-Changer?
Americans just aren't sure how big a story this is. The impeachment hearings now being held before the United States House of Representatives are captivating millions of Americans but not other millions. Right now it appears that Americans are quite split on just how important the entire question is, but let's just remind ourselves we are talking about a constitutional process which, if carried to its ultimate conclusion, would remove an elected president of the United States. That has to add a lot of gravity — what the Greeks would refer to as gravitas — to our understanding of what's taking place. And it is a tragedy that in this nation everything is now played out on a scene of the most extreme partisan divide. And furthermore, a flurry of messaging coming from all political sectors that leaves most Americans in something of a day, trying to figure out not only exactly what has happened, but exactly what does this mean.
The grand state inquest or grand inquest of the state in the Founders' language referring to the process we know as impeachment was intended in our constitutional order to prevent any president of the United States from becoming effectively a dictator. It is the ultimate constitutional protection of the fact that the president of the United States cannot gain or grab totalitarian power, and that there are checks and balances. We need to remind ourselves as Christians that our constitutional separation of powers in the United States is based upon a deeply Christian instinct, and that is that power corrupts and as Lord Acton famously said, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." So in order to avoid absolute power, our Founders established a separation of powers between the executive and the legislative and the judicial.
Now, sometimes this has played out rather awkwardly. When President Andrew Jackson, early in the country's history lost a major case before the U.S. Supreme Court, he refused to follow the dictate of the court, challenging the court by asking it what army it had in order to enforce its decision. The obvious answer: It has none. But in 1974, when president Richard Nixon was about to be impeached in the House of Representatives, he lost a case before the United States Supreme Court, a unanimous decision ordering the administration to release what became known as the Watergate Tapes. The president of the United States, President Nixon complied even though he knew it would mean the end of his presidency.
So as Christians trying to think about the headline news of our days, we need to remember that there is a good basis for a constitutional provision for impeachment. But there's also a very good reason why the threshold that is needed for impeachment and then for removal, that is not only the house voting by majority to impeach, but the Senate voting by a two thirds majority to convict, that is a very high threshold and we also understand why it's so. Which leads to a second observation, which is that even as there had been two presidents of the United States who were impeached, Andrew Johnson and William Jefferson Clinton, there has only been one president who was removed and he was removed by a forced resignation, not by impeachment. President Nixon surely would have been impeached in the House and almost assuredly would have been convicted in the Senate, but he did not allow the process to go that far, which is to say that thus far, and all of America's more than 200 years of constitutional history, there has been no president who has been impeached and then removed from office by the constitutional provision for impeachment.
We also have to recognize that that constitutional provision early in our nation's experience would have been carried out without not only the immediate flash of social media and Twitter and all that we have today. It would not only not have been by televised hearings. It would have been with those making the decisions operating in something of a political vacuum as long as they were acting in their capacity. That's hardly the case now. Now, especially after the impeachment of President Clinton, now you have a situation in which it is an ardently political process and an almost now predictably partisan process. That is to say, if you look at the R or the D connected with any member of Congress's name — that is Republican or Democrat — you can pretty much right now come to the conclusion of where they are going to stand regardless of who the president is, regardless of what the charges might be, regardless of the historical circumstances. Because right now impeachment has become a partisan event in the United States.
And this puts Christians trying to think Christianly in the awkward position of understanding that there has to be a provision for impeachment, and it has to be real, and that the threshold for removing a president has to be high as it is high. And thus when looking at the culpability of any president who might be charged with any kind of actions which might lead to impeachment considerations in the House, we would have to ask the question: 1) Did the president do it? And 2) Does that rise to a high crime or misdemeanor that would justify the removal of an elected president of the United States from office? So where does that now leave us as of November 21st, 2019?
It leaves us with the developments yesterday, most crucially, the testimony from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. In his third appearance before the committee, he changed his story in such a way that before, not only the committee, but before the watching nation in live proceedings, the ambassador indicated that there had been a quid pro quo in which President Trump, largely through an agent, Rudy Giuliani, his attorney, had put pressure on the Ukrainians to initiate and to announce the beginning of an investigation into a gas company and into the former vice president of the United States, Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and that that would be necessary in order for congressionally approved national security funds to be given to Ukraine in order to bolster his defenses against Russian incursions and threats.
The story of yesterday's testimony was reported by The Washington Post with these words, "Trump's U.S. ambassador to the European Union, a longtime Republican donor who gave $1 million to the presidential inaugural committee and was confirmed by the Republican Senate, gave the House Intelligence Committee an account of the president's culpability in leveraging the power of the Oval Office for his own political gain."
The New York Times reported this way, "An ambassador at the center of the House impeachment inquiry testified on Wednesday that he was following President Trump's orders with the full knowledge of several other top administration officials when he pressured the Ukrainians to conduct investigations into Mr. Trump's political rivals detailing what he called a clear quid pro quo directed by the president."
The more conservative Wall Street Journal began its report this way, "A U.S. ambassador who played a key role in the Ukraine pressure campaign at the heart of the impeachment inquiry said at a public hearing that he urged Ukraine to announce investigations at the express direction of President Trump."
Now all of a sudden you have a Latin phrase, quid pro quo, being used over and over and over again in the media. You have the president himself saying that there was no quid pro quo. You have members of Congress saying from the Democratic side, yes, there was clearly a quid pro quo. Now you have that phrase, quid pro quo, showing up again and again in the media and especially is tied to ambassador Sondland's testimony yesterday.
So what is a quid pro quo? The easiest way to translate that into easily understandable English would say that quid pro quo means “this for that.” It's an easy formula to understand. And by the way, there is nothing inherently wrong with a quid pro quo. Every contract is a quid pro quo. “You pay me this, I'll do that for you.” Every parent uses a quid pro quo dozens and dozens of times a day, especially with young children, "If you clean that mess, you may have a snack. If you do not clean up that mess, you will not be able to have a snack."
Now, of course when you're talking about these impeachment proceedings, you are not talking about something as simple as a mess and a snack. You're talking about something as monumental as congressionally approved defense funds over against the president calling for an investigation into a man often described as a political adversary. Now let's just talk in moral and political analysis for a moment. How much damage was done to the president yesterday? The answer is quite a bit of damage. Because here you had someone who was a close ally of the president saying that he was directly involved in the quid pro quo. Now under Republican cross-examination, Ambassador Sondland, who after all did change his story as he gave this testimony yesterday, he also admitted that he had not received any such instruction from the president himself, but that it had been primarily conveyed by Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and current attorney of President Trump.
Now will this change votes in the House of Representatives? Probably not or only a marginal number. The Democrats who came into this calling for the impeachment of the president were, if we're honest, basically the Democrats who've been trying to impeach the president from the beginning. The Republicans who are saying they will not vote for impeachment are Republicans who probably would not vote for impeachment except under the most egregious unimaginable circumstances. So what's going on right now in these televised hearings is something of a political dance. You have the Democrats wanting to do as much damage to the president as possible. You have the Republicans trying to do the opposite, and both sides are trying to figure out if some surprising development is going to happen during these hearings that will be a game changer. The Democrats are going to claim that Ambassador Sondland's testimony yesterday is a game changer, but it's not likely to turn out to be so.
It is, however, if unlikely to change the picture in the house, it is likely to change what takes place in the Senate. What does that mean? It means that Republicans in the United States Senate are now less likely to argue that a quid pro quo did not exist. They are now more likely to argue that it does not in the end matter, and that it does not rise to an impeachable offense, and is not even properly considered in this light.
The argument I have made from the beginning of this controversy is that it's almost a surety that the president did offer a quid pro quo because it is implied in that conversation he described as beautiful with the Ukrainian president. If it doesn't come in those words, it is implied, but it does not appear to me to rise to the kind of serious charge that should lead to any consideration of the removal of a president of the United States. This kind of quid pro quo is if we're honest, probably more common in American foreign policy than we would like to think. But most administrations would carry out such political pressure by different means. Certainly not involving the president of the United States himself, and certainly not involving someone acting as a personal attorney to the president of the United States. This reflects a level of political and constitutional recklessness that we have not seen in living memory in the Oval Office.
But we are also looking at a hyper-partisan environment in which many the people now calling for the impeachment of the president, were the people who were calling for his impeachment before he even took the oath of office. I will make the prediction that unless there is some kind of game changer, and I do not believe yesterday's testimony was, you're going to have a majority of Democrats who are able to impeach the president in the house. That's now almost a sure thing unless a significant number of Democrats decide they will not vote for impeachment. The interesting question would be, what could possibly produce that now? But then I will also argue that it is likely now that the Republican majority in the United States Senate will pause to move more slowly in the consideration of the charges presented by the House. But in the end, it does not appear to me to be rational to believe that a super majority in the United States Senate will vote to remove the president. Instead, it appears most likely that the majority in the Senate will come to the conclusion that there was a quid pro quo, that it did happen, but that it does it rise to that level. And thus they will not remove the president of the United States.
But all of this is just a reminder of how tattered our political system is and how threatened the norms of our democracy now are. Consider the fact that recent headlines in major media such as The New York Times have told us of the fact that the partisan divide on this question is so deep that it is hard to imagine how people on either side of this decision would change their minds about whether or not the president should be removed. Behind all of this is the reality that most Americans these days live in two different social silos. There is a Democratic silo and a Republican silo. People in one silo really don't even have to talk with those in the other silo. Nor do those in those two silos now have to watch three limited television networks and read basically the same newspapers.
In the hyper-partisan and increasingly fractured America we live in, you have a situation The New York Times recently described with a headline, "Fractured Lens of Cable News Broadcasts two Impeachments." That is to say bluntly that if you are watching MSNBC or Fox News, you are watching a fundamentally different narrative about what appears to be a fundamentally different event and just about every statement is parsed to mean something which is absolutely different depending on which network you are watching. CNN, by the way, has increasingly moved to the left in its political analysis, and so you have Americans who have options on the left and at least one option in cable television news on the right. But beyond that, through social media and other media now available in the digital age, even beyond the cable news networks, people can read what they want to read in order to hear what they want to hear.
This also means that Americans, in their separate silos, can now decide what evidence they are willing to consider and what evidence they won't consider at all. Those who are watching MSNBC are really living in a different planet in a sense from those who are watching Fox News and vice versa. And you have Democrats who are, of course, complaining that the Republicans don't care about the evidence and would not make a judgment against President Trump, even if he committed an illegal act right before their eyes.
At least some in the mainstream media have been honest enough to say that if you go back to the impeachment hearings in the 1990s of President Clinton, a Democratic president, and you look now at the impeachment proceedings in the house against President Trump, you can find almost the same sentences offered now, they're just uttered by the exact opposite party. Back in the 1990s, it was the Republicans who were saying, "This president has committed acts which are incompatible with continuation as service of president of the United States." And you had Democrats who are saying, "Even if he did it, it does it rise to that consequence." Now you have the very same arguments just with different political labels.
What Exactly Is a Quid Pro Quo? Democrats Drop Latin Phrase in Favor of Words Like “Bribery” and “Extortion”
But on the Democratic side you've got something else going on here we also need to notice. Because in my view, this will have long-term meaning for the future of the United States of America and our experiment and constitutional democracy. Over the weekend, that Wall Street Journal ran an editorial that was very critical of Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who is chairing these proceedings. And it pointed out that there was an attempt by Democrats to change the vocabulary of charges against the president. Not only saying that he had abused his office and acted improperly, but they began using the word “bribery.” And it was not just Representative Schiff, it was also the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. The speaker made a statement last week, speaking of devastating testimony against the president, delivered by top diplomats that in her words, "corroborated evidence of bribery.”
Now, here's what we need to know. The accusation of bribery is far beyond the accusation we just discussed thoroughly of a quid pro quo. A quid pro quo can be quite legitimate. Like I said, parents use them all the time. Every contract is based upon a quid pro quo. But bribery is something different, and the reason we need to pay attention to that word is the fact that the accusers of the president have just in the last few days decided that that is the word they're going to use. Why do they use it? Because the word “bribery” is a part of our constitutional tradition tied to the process of impeachment, but there's more to it than that.
The Wall Street Journal pointed out in that editorial over the weekend that Democratic leaders had actually used a polling organization to determine which words would most get the attention of the electorate. And it turned out that when voters were asked whether quid pro quo or extortion or bribery was the most compelling, that report said, "The focus groups found bribery to be the most damning." And that according to the Washington Post. And as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, "All of which means that after the first week of public hearings, we are more or less left where we were before, except with the fact that Democrats got the message because just last weekend they began using the word ‘bribery’ almost in unison to describe Mr. Trump's conduct."
The New York Times reported on the same phenomenon this week with a headline story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg. The headline, “House Democrats Adopt a Sharper, Simpler Vocabulary.” With rather candid political analysis, Stolberg looked at the use of the word “bribery” by the speaker and said, "In part, her more aggressive language reflects Democrats' realization that their narrative about Ukraine, a story they once thought would be simple for the public to understand is not as clear cut as they thought. After a week of dense hearings, Republicans have succeeded somewhat in muddying it up and many voters are confused while others are not even listening. Focus groups conducted by the House Democrats campaign arm showed that the party was not helping itself by using the Latin phrase quid pro quo, and thus," Stolberg reports, "they were looking for a more direct language and they settled on the word ‘bribery’ because they were advised to do so politically."
That tells us something rather dark about the current partisan situation in the United States. It is a very sad development in this country when you have one party using basically marketing techniques to decide how to inflict maximum damage in an impeachment process against a sitting president. Now, I want to be abundantly clear here. I have no confidence that Republicans if in the same situation, would not use the same kind of marketing technology and advice. But I will say, regardless of who is using that kind of technique in the middle of a constitutionally dignified process, whoever's doing it is doing the American people and our democratic system of government wrong.
It may well be that biblically minded Christians are the last people capable of keeping the category straight under these political considerations, and in the midst of these very partisan times. Christians begin with an understanding of sin. We understand that sin is real. We expect sinners to sin. We also expect to face the necessity of restraints upon sin. One of those restraints is the law. Beyond the law, the Constitution of the United States. That is reflected in the separation of powers, it's reflected in the fact that the Constitution does have a process for removing an elected president of the United States who would effectively act unconstitutionally as a tyrant. But we also have a category of sober mindedness in understanding that this kind of impeachment process should only be invoked when there is real and credible evidence of actual wrongdoing that would lead to that conclusion and carry that weight.
But as a final point of analysis on this issue, it may be Christians who remain as the last people in this country who understand that the exigencies and urgencies of politics do not justify this kind of absolute political destruction that now appears to be increasingly regular as a part of America's political life. We're living in a time right now when people on both sides of this political divide seem to act as if every single political event or action or decision or opportunity is the only important issue in the world, and anything virtually as means, justifies whatever is the desired end. That is a game that Christians not only can't win. It's a game that Christians can't play.
There Is No One Beyond Moral Accountability: Prince Andrew Is Removed from Public Role After Epstein Scandal
But next, while we are thinking about the effects of sin even in this life, there came an announcement from Buckingham Palace that Prince Andrew would be withdrawing from public responsibilities for the foreseeable future. As The New York Times headline declared, "After Disastrous Epstein Interview Prince Andrew Steps Down from Public Duties." Mark Landler reports, "Prince Andrew announced on Wednesday that he would step back from public life seeking to contain a firestorm over his ties to the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein that threatened to scorch the entire British royal family."
Now, we'll just notice an irony that this comes out within days of the third season of The Crown, a show that demonstrates that there is not only internationally but particularly in the United States, a huge audience fascinated with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and also with the royal family. But when you're looking at the story of the British monarchy in the modern age, you are looking at what Walter Bagehot called, the dignified dimension of government, the monarchy, dignified only in particular in the person of Queen Elizabeth II herself, and just a few members of her family. So much of the rest of her family does not act in any way that would rightly be described as dignified or even honorable. Instead, many of them simply seem to operate as royally funded celebrities whose misbehavior or other proclivities seem to grab as many headlines as anything that could be described as honorable. For a decided American Anglophile, I'll admit this is a very difficult process to watch.
But in the account of Prince Andrew, the sad reality is that he had no choice but to withdraw from public life. And when the statement says the foreseeable future, it's actually such an egregious problem that is hard to imagine that there is any foreseeable future in which Prince Andrew could play a public role on behalf of the British crown again. Why? It is because he has been trapped indeed by his own words in that recent BBC interview, in complicity with one of the most heinous names now of modern history, Jeffrey Epstein, who is now known to have been a serial child molester and abuser of young girls. And even with the fact that that was an admitted reality, the second son of the Queen of England, a prince of the realm and the Duke of York, actually went and stayed at Epstein's home in New York City and was photographed in compromising positions.
In the interview in which he thought he had successfully dismissed all of these concerns, he actually raised the concerns by offering no particular consolation or concern for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein whatsoever, and instead offered what can only be described as a tendentious if not to say unbelievable defense of his own innocence. This is, we should note, not the first brush with scandal of the queen’s second son, but it is yet another reminder of the fact that reputation is ultimately all that in this life we may have as understood by others. As others perceive us, it just might be that there is nothing other than our reputation that can be left. And Christians understand why this is so and why the Bible puts so much emphasis upon moral character. This is why the Founders of the United States system of government understood that a public respect and honorable character was absolutely necessary for the credibility of public leadership.
This is a good reminder not only on both sides of the Atlantic, but wherever this news may reach, this is a good humbling public reminder of the fact, that being dignified in public office and with public responsibility, being seen as respectable and honorable and faithful is ultimately indispensable. There is no one beyond the law of God, and this story is also an interesting reminder that there is ultimately no one, not even a duke of the realm in Great Britain, who is beyond moral accountability.
The statement from the Duke of York released from Buckingham Palace stated, "I have asked Her Majesty if I can step back from public duties for the foreseeable future, and she has given her permission." In the dignified language of Buckingham Palace, this actually doesn't mean that the Queen offered her permission. It means that the Queen expressed her insistence.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from San Diego, California, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.