Thursday, December 5, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, December 5, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
America’s Political Divide as an Impeachment Divide: House Intelligence Committee Releases Impeachment Report
In Washington D.C., the big story is the impeachment process going on in the United States Congress and yesterday was a pivotal day. Indeed, so was Tuesday. As The New York Times reports, "House Democrats on Tuesday asserted that President Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to help him in the 2020 presidential election, releasing an impeachment report that found the president, 'placed his own personal and political interests above the national interest of the United States.'" Now, looking at that opening paragraph, it is clear that the reporters here for the New York Times, Michael Shear and Nicholas Fandos described those words that they chose as being the words that were at the very center of the case against the president. That the president, I quote again, "Placed his own personal and political interests above the national interests of the United States."
Now, that language is particularly important. It levels a grave charge against a sitting president of the United States. It is a truly lamentable thing that any charge will be made against any president that the president had "put his own personal and political interests above the national interest of the United States.” But what is simultaneously not clear is that there is any direct case made here for the impeachment of a sitting president of the United States. In the larger sense when you're looking at this kind of language, one of the things you need to recognize is what isn't here that you would expect would be here in an impeachment report that is expected by most to be the actual framing of the charges expected to be brought against President Trump in the course of the process taking place now in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives.
But just a few lines beneath that opening sentence comes this line, "The intelligence panel adopted it," meaning the report, "strictly along partisan lines, hours after its release." So here's what you need to know at this point. That line, a single sentence paragraph in The New York Times, by using the terms “strictly along partisan lines” indicates just how partisan this process has become, and it also points to the reason why the process is likely to get nowhere after the House of Representatives is likely to vote for the impeachment of the president also along partisan lines, if not absolutely and strictly along partisan lines.
It should be considered evidence about the strength of our constitutional system that we have an impeachment process. It should also be considered as evidence of the strength of our constitutional order that no president is likely ever to be strictly along partisan lines. The partisan warfare in the United States has now reached a fever pitch to the point that the Democrats have gone ahead with this particular process even though the Intelligence Committee had to forwarded this report to the Judiciary Committee without a single Republican vote.
The New York Times speaking of the report went on to describe it as a sweeping indictment of the president's behavior concluding, "That he sought to undermine American democracy and endangered national security, then worked to conceal his actions from Congress. Democrats," said The Times, "left it to another committee to decide whether to recommend Mr. Trump's impeachment, but their record presented what are all but certain to be the grounds on which the House votes to formally charge him."
The partisan divide in this particular equation is also made clear in the media coverage. For example, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal referred to the impeachment case made by the Democrats in the House Intelligence Committee as, "Mr. Schiff's Impeachment Opus." The subhead in the editorial, “His overstatements reveal the weakness of the Democratic case.” Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California is the chair of the Intelligence Committee. He's played a very prominent role in these proceedings, but his credibility in this particular case has also been undercut by the fact that he has been a persistent critic of the president long before any of the issues that are now under consideration in this impeachment process had arisen. Further evidence of the inherently partisan nature of this process is the fact that many of the Democrats now calling for the impeachment of the president of the United States were the people who called for the impeachment of the president even before he took office.
Meanwhile, more liberal media sources and newspapers ran headlines that indicated the grave charges against the president. And so you're looking at the fact that the divide between the two parties is also evident in the divide in American media and for that matter, a divide amongst the American electorate. But even in the report forwarded to the Judiciary Committee, those who framed the case against the president wrote, "Impeachment by its nature is a political process." And that points to the fact that as a political process in a nation, which is itself a political process, there is virtually no way that an elected president of the United States is ever going to be removed by the United States Senate unless there is an extremely widespread consensus among the American people that it should happen. That consensus among the electorate would be reflected in a consensus among the United States senators, but at this point, there is no evidence whatsoever that the case has been persuasive enough to lead a single member of the Republican caucus in the United States Senate to vote to remove the president.
The Drama of the Impeachment Process Continues: Testimony from Constitutional Scholars Reveals Both Constitutional and Political Divide
But all of that was about the report forwarded to the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. On Wednesday, yesterday, the big story was testimony before that committee about what the constitutional framers intended and what the constitutional language means when it comes to the impeachment clause in the United States Constitution, especially what is meant by high crimes and misdemeanors that would justify removing a president of the United States.
The New York Times, the same team of reporters produced a story with a headline, "Scholars Call Trump's Actions on Ukraine an Impeachable Abuse of Power." Now, as we're thinking about the divide in the media, consider the fact that reporting on the same events, Fox News reported with the headline, "Impeachment legal case is woefully inadequate and dangerous, legal expert Turley testifies." Now the background to this is the fact that Democrats are in control of the U.S. House. Thus they are in control of the Judiciary Committee and thus they can set the ground rules. The ground rules they set, were that there would be four legal experts who would testify before the committee yesterday, three of them were chosen by Democrats to represent one side of the debate. Only one was chosen by Republicans to represent the other side of the debate and you can do the math. By the time the testimony was over, there had been three arguing on one side and one arguing on the other. If you knew who invited those who were giving the testimony, you knew in advance exactly how the testimony would turn out.
The single witness that was allowed to the Republicans was Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University's Law School. On the other side were three other law professors, and they included Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, Harvard law professor and Bloomberg columnist, Noah Feldman, and University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt.
Speaking of what's described in the report prepared by the Democratic majority in the Intelligence Committee. Gerhardt said, "If what we're talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable." Gerhardt went on and said, "This is precisely the misconduct that the framers created the Constitution including impeachment to protect against." However, the word “misconduct” is not within the Constitution's cause. That is within his own argument. The consensus would be that the president's actions represented a misjudgment and indeed they were misconduct. But the word “misconduct” covers everything from something that is relatively minor to something that would be so major that the American people would agree it should require the impeachment and removal of a president of the United States.
Where do the actions of President Trump in this case fit? Well, the reality is right now that at least a majority, a vast majority of Democrats are willing to say it rises to the level of impeachment, but at this point, not one Republican in the House or in the Senate has been willing to say the same thing. This is essentially the case made by the witness brought by the Republicans in the Judiciary Committee. Jonathan Turley is actually a very well-known legal scholar in Washington circles. It's not by accident that the Republicans on the committee invited him to do the speaking as the constitutional scholar that they would cite. Jonathan Turley got right to the point. He said, "The reference to the Hunter Biden deal with Burisma should never have occurred and is worthy of the criticism of President Trump that it has unleashed. However," he went on to say, "it's not a case of bribery." The use of that word by Turley is due to the fact that House Democrats began to use that word and we now know that they did so after they conducted what amounts to marketing research about what word would be most injurious in the public mind. That's not a serious legal or moral argument.
Turley's point is that the behavior of the president should be criticized, but that it is absolutely irresponsible to speak of this behavior as rising to the level of impeachment, much less removal from office. He went on to say, "Furthermore, President Trump will not be our last president and what we leave in the wake of this scandal will shape our democracy for generations to come." He went on to say, "I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and abundance of anger." He said, "If we are to impeach a president for only the third time in our history, we will need to rise above this age of rage and genuinely engage in a civil and substantive discussion." Speaking precisely of the charges made in the report against the president, Turley said, "If the House proceeds solely on the Ukrainian allegations, this impeachment would stand out among modern impeachments as the shortest proceeding with the thinnest evidentiary record and the narrowest grounds ever use to impeach a president."
But I'll go on and say that if you could look at the Intelligence Committee report and understand that that's likely to be pretty much the report that comes out of the Judiciary Committee and pretty much what the Democratic majority in the house will forward, then you can also count on the fact that the legal arguments made by Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University are likely to be very much like the legal arguments that will be used by Republican senators as they have to weigh the issues once the case is forwarded from the House as expected to the United States Senate.
There's another aspect of these developments that deserves our attention. The Democrats do have a majority in the House. They gained it by electoral advantage. They won more seats than Republicans in the 2018 election. That's one thing, and as they are the party in the majority in the United States House, they elect the speaker of the house. They are also in a position to set many of the rules for this kind of process. But in the House Intelligence Committee, the Democrats held a very tight reign and allowed Republicans almost no voice whatsoever in the process. The House Judiciary Committee is slightly different because of the open nature of that committee's proceedings. It is after all, not a committee primarily set up to investigate intelligence matters, but nonetheless, when the Democrats had the opportunity to show that this was not a partisan process, they could have allowed Republicans to have had two witnesses on Wednesday and they would have had two witnesses. But it says a great deal that the Democrats stacked the deck so much when they had an opportunity and you might even argue a moral reason for not doing so. They did so anyway.
But finally, American Christians should be quite concerned about the debasement of our civic culture and of our political process and constitutional order by a lot of the language and the vehemence that is being evidenced in the midst of this process. For example, I go back to that lead article in The New York Times and by the fact that it cited the report by stating that the committee had found that the president "placed his own personal and political interests above the national interest of the United States.” Just think about it, that's an extremely serious charge. We elect a president of the United States to do exactly the opposite, to put the national interest above the president's own personal and political interests. But as you're looking at that charge, it should also concern us that it represents such a generality and that generality is very dangerous to our political order.
Exactly when should we understand that a president has placed his own personal and political interests above the national interests? Because in reality, the presidency is a political office. Arguably, it is the most political office in the entire world in any democratic or constitutional system. There is nothing the president of the United States does that isn't in some sense political, because he doesn't gain that office by inheritance it has to be won by the electoral process. And it is a political process from the beginning, it is in the middle, and it is at the end. And it's just a fact of political reality that presidents seek not to take any action that will be injurious to their own political interests.
The technical term for any president of the United States throughout American history who gave insufficient attention to his own political interests is “one-term president.” But there clearly are lines that should not be crossed. There are lines that shouldn't be crossed and once crossed should require criticism and correction. There are lines when once crossed there should be a public judgment. There are lines once crossed that should be factored into the electoral decision by citizens of the United States. There are other lines once crossed that should lead the United States House of Representatives seriously to consider impeachment. And perhaps those lines, once crossed, should lead not only to impeachment by the House, but eventually to a vote to remove the president in the United States Senate.
The important thing for us to recognize is that that last line has probably only been crossed one time in American history, and that had to do with President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, a scandal in which the president was directly involved in misbehavior that included the active obstruction of justice. But President Nixon wasn't impeached and he wasn't removed from office by the United States Senate because the process never went that far. And in view of the fact that it likely would have proceeded that far, the president resigned from office. Which is to say in over 200 years of history, this process has never been carried through all the way to the end removal of a president. It is always possible that something could happen surprisingly in the midst of this process that would change minds across the political spectrum, but that's unlikely and it certainly hasn't happened thus far. Thus far, instead, it has been almost like the entire script has been written in advance.
Disney+ Launches with Cultural Warnings on Some Content: The Changing Moral Landscape
But next, we're going to shift to a big story that helps to explain America's culture as it stands today and as it is changing before our eyes. For example, the report in The Washington Post ran the headline, "Disney Plus warns of outdated cultural depictions in some films. That's not enough, some experts say."
Marisa Iati is the reporter in this story, and it has to do with a number of articles that have come out that are telling us on the one hand about the big economic power and entertainment cloud to streaming media and the fact that Disney is now making news by taking its products off of other platforms, Netflix in particular, and starting its own streaming service, Disney Plus. And behind all of that is the assumption that Disney is such a powerhouse that Disney Plus can't fail. And furthermore, that allegiance to and affection for Disney and it stories is going to mean that millions and millions of Americans are going to sign onto Disney Plus. And that of course is a big plus for Disney except for one thing. In order to populate Disney Plus, Disney has to make available Disney products. And those Disney products emerged over decades and decades of American history and in one sense they tell the story of the transformation of America's culture.
The headline in The Washington Post cited what Disney Plus is putting up as a warning about some of its films and products saying that they represent "outdated cultural depictions." Now what would that mean? For one thing, it would mean Asian stereotypes that appear in the film Lady and the Tramp with the two Siamese cats, with the now famous line, "We are Siamese if you please. We are Siamese if you don't please." But the very appearance of the cats was undeniably stereotypical and Disney isn't removing Lady and the Tramp from the streaming service. It isn't rewriting or remaking the movie in this case, it's just warning in advance, viewers should expect outdated cultural depictions.
Disney may update some stories, either animated or by live action remakes, but in reality they are putting up a lot of material that is very dated. It's also very beloved by millions and millions of Americans. Some of those products are also identified as offensive by others. Disney's made the decision, "We're going to put the products up, but we're going to offer this warning about outdated cultural depictions.”
But it's not just a matter of two cats in the animated version of Lady and the Tramp. The Washington Post report tells us that this warning statement is actually offered before anyone views the movie Dumbo or Peter Pan. The Post then said, "The decision to attach this message to some animated films was met with both praise from people who viewed it as an accountability measure and criticism from those who thought its wording was dismissive. The mixed response, experts say, highlights the fact that Disney only has begun to take responsibility for the problematic representations."
Well, no doubt Disney has a certain burden here and a certain corporate responsibility, but the larger issue for the rest of us is understanding that at the time, every single one of those Disney products basically fit within the mainstream of American society. So that tells us that responsibility here isn't limited to Disney because Disney wasn't considered out of line in any of those depictions when they were released by the studio.
This tells us something about how moral change happens in a society. Sometimes it is change for good. Sometimes it represents what biblically-minded Christians would recognize as being change for the moral better. For example, removing racial and ethnic stereotypes should be something that biblically-minded Christians, who after all want to be faithful to Christ command to love our neighbor as ourselves, this should be something that we would greet as a good development. And for Christians, we understand that this raises a host of issues that aren't tied certainly to just one company or even to just one tradition of entertainment. Because we also know that there are things that cause us to smile or to laugh or to grimace, that tells us a great deal about ourselves and what we actually see as how our fellow human beings should and should not be depicted.
But the consciences of many Christians should also be provoked when we consider many of these products and recognize what many Americans missed as we were watching them and failing to see some of these depictions for what they were. For example, Disney's animated film Dumbo includes birds singing a song that encapsulate stereotypes of African Americans and just in case we missed it, one of the birds was actually named Jim Crow.
Now and this cultural moment, it is very clear that this will not be enough to satisfy some and it will be too much to satisfy others. It's also very clear that even Disney is not willing to release every one of its major motion pictures from the past. For example, Song of the South is not available through Disney Plus.
But here's where Christians also have to recognize that behind these changes at Disney and in the larger culture, there are major moral developments that we believe should not take place and cannot be seen as moral progress. This dimension was made very clear in a recent article in The New York Times, which was a profile of Jennifer Lee. And Lee is the chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios. She's also, we are told, the first woman to direct a Disney animated feature film. This entire article is based on the assumption that what you see in Disney movies, especially so many of the princess movies is sexism. Indeed the headline of the article, “Defying Fairy Tale Sexism.”
Maureen Dowd writing for The Time says, "For decades, Disney hypnotized us into thinking that someday our prince would come. We would get a wake-up kiss, don the glass slipper, let down our locks so he could clamber up the tower and rescue us. True love would break the spell, chase away the bad spirits." But the central point of The New York Times article is that these Disney princess movies represented a form of sexism which is also openly criticized by many others as hetero-sexism. That is to say princesses were princesses. They were assumed to be born biologically female to identify as female and to be looking for a romantic partner who was male.
So we understand what's going on when in the culture progress is claimed by those who point to Frozen and its heroin Elsa as not looking for a prince, as no prince coming to the rescue, and Elsa being absolutely rather genderless when it comes to romantic expectation of which she has virtually none. Or at least virtually none is Disney’s story, but there are others, particularly amongst LGBTQ activists who are claiming that Elsa is actually gay. Disney is denying that she is gay and there's no gay content to Elsa as a character, but the point is that at this point, Disney's safe approach, at least as represented by these movies, is to avoid all forms of romantic entanglement whatsoever when it comes to the heroes and heroines of Disney movies. And of course there is the charge coming from the LGBTQ community that even when you are talking about Elsa, you haven't gone far enough because there is no depiction of a heroin who is a transgender individual.
You can count on the fact that as you're watching the transformation of American society, you can expect that if not Disney, then someone else is going to come out with that kind of product because after all, you're talking about the fact that Hollywood has its own agenda and Hollywood's agenda has been to the left of the average American going all the way back to the emergence of Hollywood as a major entertainment Mecca in the early years of the 20th century.
But there's another point here for Christians to consider and that is that there are those who are right now saying that in so far as biblical Christianity exists in the United States, biblical Christianity is itself an outdated cultural depiction. There are those who are arguing right out in public that anyone who holds to a biblical understanding of marriage, of gender, of sex and of sexuality is simply woefully out of step. And of course that means that there are those who are calling for a remake of Christian theology, which is actually what we will discuss on The Briefing tomorrow.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find 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'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.