briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, December 19, 2019

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

It’s Thursday, December 19, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Dark Moment in the History of American Democracy: President Trump Becomes Third U.S. President to Be Impeached After Last Night’s House Vote

Last night was a dark moment in the history of American democracy. It was dark for the President of the United States. It was also a dark moment for the entire nation. What we saw last night was an intensely partisan event, but it was also an intensely historical event, as we’re thinking about historic significance.

For only the third time in the nation’s history, the United States House of Representatives voted to impeach a sitting President of the United States. What we were looking at was an event that has unfolded in the course of American history as the framers of the Constitution understood that there must be some mechanism to bring a check upon executive power. But what we saw last night was not what the founders anticipated as the process of an impeachment.

What we saw last night was a party line vote. By the time the votes were taken on the two articles of impeachment, only two Democrats broke with the Democratic majority in the House to vote against the articles of impeachment. It was three Democratic votes on the second article and not one Republican vote supported either of the articles. And so you had all of the Republicans in a line of support for the President of the United States and all of the Democrats, constituting a majority in the House, against the president, save or two on one article and three on the second. One member of Congress, Tulsi Gabbard did not vote, although she was present.

The sense of history comes to us when we recognize that Andrew Johnson was the first president impeached by the House on February the 24th of 1868. We go all the way to December the 19th of 1998 for the second president impeached by the House and that was president William Jefferson Clinton. And now the third president to be impeached by the House ,Donald J. Trump on December the 18th of 2019. Well, what it means at the present, or at least it is supposed to mean is that the impeachment articles passed by the House are now forwarded to the United States Senate in order for the Senate to act as a jury and hold a trial of the president, a trial that would determine whether or not the president is removed from office.

So looking at the past, here’s the pattern. Neither Andrew Johnson in 1868, nor Bill Clinton in 1998 after being impeached by the House, we’re convicted or removed from office. The reality is that the Senate sustained both of them in office and both of them finished their elected terms. When it comes to the third President of the United States impeached, that is the current president, President Trump, the issue now should go to the Senate, where the Senate will hold a trial and it is likely that the outcome in the trial will be just as determinable and predictable as what is taking place in the House of Representatives. It is likely to an intensely and almost exclusively partisan affair with Democrats voting to remove the president and a Republican majority voting to retain him.

As I said earlier, the framers of the US Constitution believed in a very strong executive, the President of the United States, but they also understood that not only the president, but other officials might have to be removed for just cause and that that responsibility had to fall to another branch of government. In this case, that branch of government to which it fell was the legislative branch, but then in the legislative branch you have two different houses, the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, and each has given a specific responsibility.

The Constitution grants to the House of Representatives the sole power of impeachment. That’s just about all that is there under Section 2 of Article 1 of the United States Constitution regarding the House. When it comes to the Senate, a slightly longer statement, it reads, “The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments. When sitting for that purpose, they shall be on oath or affirmation. When the President of the United States has tried the Chief Justice shall preside and no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two thirds of the members present.” The statement goes on to say briefly, “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States, but the party convicted shall nonetheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial judgment and punishment according to law.” That’s just about all that the Constitution says. That’s under Article 1 and the responsibilities of the legislature.

Under Article 2, concerning the chief executive, the President of the United States, Section 4 states, “The president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The key language there is the language, of course, about high crimes and misdemeanors, which is not defined in this document. But furthermore, it is the fact that such officers shall be removed from office only on impeachment for and conviction of whatever may be defined as the high crimes and misdemeanors.

So what took place last night in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives? It was the first part of that clause. It was the “on impeachment for.” The next phase of the impeachment process is the question of whether or not the president will be convicted of those accusations, those articles of impeachment. But that raises a host of other issues.

For one thing, the highly partisan nature of what took place last night—as we shall consider, a very important and disturbing departure from what was imagined by the founders—that is also a process that is supposed to go speedily to the Senate. But last night, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives indicating that the House might hold the articles of impeachment rather than to forward them to the United States Senate, and that for a very clearly partisan reason.

The reason? Well, every expectation was that there would be a party line vote in the House to impeach the president. And the expectation is that there will be an almost identical party line vote not to convict the president, nor to remove him from office, when it comes to the Senate. And the political calculation, which is at least being considered now by Democrats, is to rob president Trump have the ability to say that he was exonerated by the United States Senate. Let’s just note very carefully that might be constitutionally possible because there is so little explicit language concerning the impeachment process in the Constitution.

But that would be in direct contradiction to the practice of the United States House of Representatives in the two previous cases of impeachment and in what will go down in history as the most important non-impeachment in American history. And that was the impeachment process that eventuated in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon from office in 1974. In no case was there any question that the House of Representatives would speedily and expeditiously forward the charges of impeachment to the United States Senate for trial. Consider the awkward position that the Democrats are now placing themselves in, even by openly considering, waiting, and holding when it comes to the articles of impeachment.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee stated over and over again in the hearings process last week that the Democrats in the House had to move forward quickly when it came to the impeachment of the president, because they had to act with the 2020 presidential election looming over us and they had to act in the interest of the Constitution of the United States of America. It would be, to say the very least, unbelievably hypocritical at this point for the Democrats who said that they had to rush this process thus far to say that they’re going to hold it rather than to send the charges to the Senate, because they do not want to take the political risk that the President of the United States will later be able to claim exoneration.

The moral gravity of the situation that unfolded through last night comes down to the reality that historians will never refer to President Donald Trump without referring to his impeachment. That’s true now for President Bill Clinton. It was true throughout the last century and more for President Andrew Johnson. The act of impeaching a sitting president of the United States is so significant that historians cannot fail to mention it in almost any context of historical reference. That has to weigh very heavily on President Trump and it should.

But history is likely to be extremely critical of the Democrats in the US House of Representatives who acted in a partisan way, as you look at the framing of the articles of impeachment, the vote even about the House proceeding with the impeachment investigations, the way the investigation was held clandestinely within the House Intelligence Committee, very clearly for political purposes and the way that the actual vote broke down last night. It should be the humiliation of the Democratic party to recognize that the party line vote on impeachment is itself an indictment of the partisan nature of the impeachment attempt to President Donald Trump.

And furthermore, especially during the deliberations of the Judiciary Committee, Republicans read into the record over and over again statements by leading members of the Democratic majority in the House about their intention to impeach President Trump even before he took the oath of office as president. That is another point of the historical record, which will be a moral indictment against the Democratic majority.

President Trump will bear responsibility for the actions that became the catalyst for the impeachment. He will bear responsibility for his behavior in office, which has often led to a confrontational, partisan nature beyond the norm of the American presidency. But the Democrats are now the ones who exploded the bomb. In moving ahead with this impeachment process that eventuated without a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives, they have found themselves holding in the weight of history an impeachment charge that was approved only by members of their own party in opposition to the elected President of the United States.

Included within the 230 votes against the president on article one and the 229 against the president on article two was a member of the House of Representatives who is now registered as an Independent who months ago had been a Republican. That would be representative Justin Amash of Michigan, but otherwise it was an entirely party line vote.

Something to think about as we reflect upon the events last night and put those events in the historical and constitutional context, is the fact that impeachment was never envisioned as a partisan affair at all. And thus, the situation would be different morally and constitutionally speaking if even just one or two Republicans had voted against the president and for the articles of impeachment. That would have at least made it less entirely partisan than it was.

But the vote came down the way it did. And that means, and here is a part of the historical verdict, not one member, not one Republican member of the United States House of Representatives believed that what the president had done or was accused of doing, rose to the level of impeachment or removal from office. Not one. And thus, it goes down as the historic failure of the Democratic majority in the House to convince even one or two Republicans to vote against the president. That sets up a situation that will more than likely validate the Republican majority in the Senate for moving forward on the articles of impeachment.

If there had been at least some Republicans who had voted against the president in the House, that would make it more difficult for the Republicans to hold together in the Senate. Or to put it another way, it would make it easier for some of the more moderate members of the Senate to go with the Democrats in convicting the president and removing him from office.

But there was another dimension to all of this and that was that the minority leader, the Democratic leader of the United States Senate, in the course of the last several days has proposed specific methodologies for the Senate trial that have indicated to Republicans that there will be absolutely no bipartisan agreement on even the nature of how the trial is to be conducted. One of the interesting demands that was made by Senator Schumer is that the Senate also call witnesses and subpoena documents.

But remember what I read from Section 3 Article 1 of the US Constitution. Describing and assigning the responsibility of the Senate for the trial, the Constitution stated, “The Senate shall have the sole power to try impeachments. When sitting for that purpose they shall be on oath or affirmation.” That means they will be the jurors.

So just consider what Senator Schumer was demanding. He was effectively demanding that in a trial, jurors, members of the jury have the opportunity to subpoena witnesses and documents. Most Americans have at least seen enough criminal trials on television to understand that that’s not how the process works. Jurors don’t get to call witnesses nor subpoena documents.

Part II

The Inevitability of Moral Judgment: Humans Simply Can’t Avoid It

But that raises another issue that wasn’t envisioned by the founders in that was that the entire impeachment process has become something akin to political theater. That raises an interesting question. Why did the president act as he did leading up to the impeachment trial, and why did the Democratic majority in the House act as it did?

Well, the simple answer is that both of them in their own way must have understood their approach to be that which would be most positive to them in the political judgment of the American people, or at least in the judgment of the base of their own political parties. That is to say that President Trump, though now historically marked by the fact that he is the third United States President to be impeached by the House of Representatives, might actually gain politically in light of the 2020 presidential election process because of this Democratic action.

At the same time, the Democratic majority in the House that is now exposed for pushing through such an extraordinarily partisan impeachment process had also done so largely in order to meet the demands of its own highly partisan base. To put the matter simply, there were those with great energy in the Democratic party who were so intent upon impeaching the President of the United States, that they would not have been satisfied unless the Democratic majority in the House, and this goes all the way up to the Speaker of the House, had agreed to go forward with this process.

Just note very carefully the statements that had been made by leading Democrats in the house, including Speaker Pelosi just a matter of months ago. Speaker Pelosi was clear that she did not then believe that any impeachment process, which would not be bipartisan, that no such impeachment process would be legitimate. And yet that is precisely the partisan impeachment process over which she has just presided. She has just done what months ago she said would not be credible.

But the fact is that the very liberal, very energized base of the Democratic party is not particularly concerned about credibility when it comes to the United States House and the constitutional responsibility of impeachment. They have been determined to take radical political action ever since President Trump was elected, and so far as they’re concerned just about any extreme political action will do.

In analysis by Christian biblical worldview, one of the things we need to consider is the fact that this entire process, though partisan, is also moral. Both sides are making moral judgements about the other side. Just about everyone involved in this process is making moral judgements about the President of the United States. The President of the United States is making and expressing his own moral judgements about those who had taken such action in the House. And both sides, all sides, are making all kinds of moral judgements about the intentions and motivations real or perceived of others throughout the process.

Why? We cannot because of how God made us look at events of this consequence without asking deep and abiding vexing moral questions. And those moral questions are not satisfied by this process. They are now exacerbated by the process, by the partisan nature of the process, by the political calculations all over the place that are now very much a part of this process.

But at the same time we have to understand that there are certain words in every language—we’re looking now at the English language—there are certain words which just hang almost in the atmosphere with moral meaning. One of those words is “impeachment.” Now what makes that word perhaps even more powerful is the rare nature of its usage. Americans don’t use that word very often in everyday English is just not a part of everyday vocabulary. We don’t talk about impeaching this or impeaching that. But it is interesting to know that just about all of us recognize when the verb to impeach is changed into a modifier, when we speak of someone’s character as unimpeachable. Unimpeachable means morally upright, beyond moral question.

Finally, on this issue, we need to recognize that it is deeply humbling to recognize that it is virtually impossible to know with any certainty the future verdict of history and of historians. That is beyond our ability to prognosticate.

Famously, in an interview with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, former President George W. Bush, when asked what he thought historians would think of his presidency said, “I don’t really care. By then I’ll be dead.” But my guess is tonight that no matter how much President Trump wants to say that this does not really bother him, it must to some extent weigh on him knowing or not knowing how history will record the events of last night and knowing what exactly future generations will think of him.

Now from a Christian worldview perspective, that is not only true of President Trump, but of Speaker Pelosi and every member of the House of Representatives, especially those who were in leadership.

It’s also a good question for every one of us to consider. Are we willing to live as we live, knowing that we’re making the decisions we’re making, are we willing to live with those decisions and with our moral actions, understanding that if the Lord tarries future generations will, if they think of us, make moral judgments about us?

Just to think of President Andrew Johnson, he has not gone down in history as heroic in any sense. But it is also true that those who sought to impeach him have fared worse in historical judgment. That was probably not certain on either side in 1868 when that process was undertaken. Similarly historical judgment concerning the impeachment of Bill Clinton has changed at least once, maybe twice or three times just in the roughly 21 years since his impeachment in 1998. That’s not a lot of historical perspective, but it’s enough time for some opinions to change and then to change again.

This story will certainly be unfolding into the Christmas holidays and the new year. At the very earliest, the Senate trial would commence shortly after New Year’s and continue for a matter of several days, if not a few weeks. That story is still to be told.

Part III

Levi’s or Wranglers? Hip-hop or Country? Liberal or Conservative? Why Does it Matter?

But next, as we’re thinking about the partisan divide in American history, I want us to consider on a lighter note that that partisan divide is now showing up in places of which you may not have thought and that would include American’s choice of blue jeans and of preferred music.

Concerning blue jeans, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “Blue Jeans vs. Red Jeans: Retail’s Partisan Divide.” “Brands,” said The Wall Street Journal, “are now more politically active and reflect and drive America’s split.”

A team of reporters for The Wall Street Journal write, “Levi Strauss and Wrangler both got their start as the go-to jeans for cowboys, railroad workers, and others who pioneered the American West. Today they are on opposite sides of the political divide that is affecting not only how people vote, but what they buy.”

Now what is the research? Well, consumer research indicates that Levi’s are far more likely to be worn by moral and political liberals and Wranglers by those who are more rural and more conservative, which means also more Republican.

So now it turns out that the pants you wear, or at least the jeans you wear, maybe even the jeans you would prefer, will tell us a great deal about your political inclinations as well. It’s also interesting looking at the research to recognize that this divide on blue jeans is not entirely new. It’s been developing over time and in retrospect that is true of just about everything, as we conceive America’s current very deep and widening partisan divide.

The reporters for The Wall Street Journal tell us that there’s no simple explanation behind the pattern, the distinction between Democrats and their preference for Levi’s and Republicans for their preference for Wranglers, but it does often come down to what one does while one is wearing those jeans. That is to say that Levi’s are now often preferred by urban people who wear jeans and Wranglers by more rural people who wear jeans because jeans is what you wear when you do the kind of wrangling work that they do.

The Wall Street Journal says that some of the more modern pattern might be due to social and political stances that companies are taking, “Such as Levi’s embrace of gun control. Some,” they say, “is tied to larger geographic shifts and the political parties.” And they write, “As rural counties become more Republican and urban areas lean more Democratic.”

How does it break down? “Wrangler is popular in the cowboy counties of the West and Midwest, while San Francisco-based Levi’s resonates more with city dwellers. Together,” say the reporters, “those factors are combining to create a new, more partisan American consumer culture. One where the red blue divisions that have come to define national politics have drifted into the world of shopping malls and online stores.”

As a brand, Levi’s has been signaling largely to the cultural left and to urbanites and evidently that’s been working. Meanwhile, Wrangler, according to The Wall Street Journal, “Has stayed focused on playing up its cowboy heritage, which tends to mean more rural and often more Republican. It launched a new campaign in September that compares bull riding to other adrenaline inducing activities such as riding a motorcycle.” This is reflected in sales, “In heavily Republican states such as Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Idaho per capita online sales of Wranglers are much higher than they are in more urban states such as New York and California. Those two states are strongholds for Levi’s according to the research.”

But then interestingly at the same time, The Economist of London looking at the United States has run research indicating that musical preferences and listening patterns also reflect the new widening partisan divide in the United States. You can figure out where some of this is going. About midway through the article, The Economist reports, “The musical style that best predicts liberalism is hip-hop. For conservatism, it is country.”

This also is reflected in numbers, electoral numbers. “In 2016 Donald Trump’s vote share in places where country outsold hip hop was 22 percentage points higher than in those where hip hop was more popular. When combined into a statistical model, race, age, education and urbanization account for an only 18 point gap. The remaining four points consist of factors reflected in music but not by demography.” What does that mean? It means that musical preferences in this sense were an even stronger indicator of presidential voting patterns than where one lives, age, and class. That’s really saying something.

It’s also interesting to note that generations do play a part, even in this analysis. Baby boomers raised during the age of rock and roll still like rock, that is both liberal and conservative baby boomers, but they don’t necessarily like the same rock and they all recognize that rock artists tend to lean left even if those who listen to their music do not always follow those political preferences.

Once again, a biblical worldview helps to explain this because we as human beings eventually begin to harmonize and make more consistent our own values and moral judgments and convictions. The totality of our worldview will eventually show through in just about everything, including a choice of jeans and a choice of music and a choice of many other things that you might not consider reflect red and blue, but upon reflection, turn out to anyway.

So I guess all of that also means that if you sit down on a plane wearing Wranglers ready to listen to country music, and the person sitting next to you is wearing Levi’s getting ready to listen to hip hop, you just might not have only a trip, but a very interesting conversation.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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