The Briefing

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The Briefing

Monday, October 5, 2020

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Transcript

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

It's Monday, October 5, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

COVID-19 Reaches the Oval Office—What Does President Trump’s Illness Mean for the Nation?

The nation was taken by storm on Friday when it was announced that the president of the United States, along with the first lady, have contracted the novel coronavirus. The news that came from the president himself by means of tweet in the early hours of Friday morning, indicated that both he and the first lady had tested positive for COVID-19. This came after other leading advisers in the campaign and in the administration had been known to have tested positive, and thus the president and the first lady were added to the list. And sadly, within a number of days so would a number of other prominent Republicans, including no less than two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But first we need to look squarely at the fact that the president of the United States, having announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, within just a few hours on Friday, announced that he was experiencing mild symptoms. But the symptoms were not so mild, or at least they did not stay so mild because later in the day on Friday, he was transferred by helicopter to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he has been since, receiving treatment. And of course, given the fact that he is the world's most famous patient, his treatment has been discussed openly in public, including the fact that physicians for the president have administered both what's been described as an antiviral cocktail of drugs and the more familiar drug, Remdesivir.

By Sunday, it had also been announced that the president was likely receiving at least some treatment by means of steroid, and that follows what is often now an all too familiar progression of the disease. But the president himself insisted that he is in both good spirits and increasing energy. He showed himself in two videos and he was also seen through the window of a vehicle near the medical center itself. But the fact remains that as of this morning, the president of the United States remains very much a patient there at Walter Reed, and thus the nation's attention and international attention is on him as a patient, as well as president.

The first lady, having tested positive also for the disease is experiencing milder symptoms and remains at the White House. What does this mean for the nation? Well, just consider the context. Let's not even think about the presidential election or a Senate nomination process for a Supreme Court Justice, or anything like that. Let's just try to think about what it means for the president of the United States to be hospitalized and hospitalized for a serious condition. In this case, the novel coronavirus, what does it mean? Well, we don't know yet. But we do know this, whenever a president of the United States, as the nation's chief executive, is hospitalized, it invokes heightened concerns. It also raises all kinds of complications. The White House is not only the official residence of the president of the United States, but it is the president's office and the hub of the entire executive branch.

The White House, and its now famous West Wing addition, they are built for the presidency. Not so much any other place on earth with one potential exception, and that is the special Air Force plane that is designed to be a presidential command center in the event of nuclear war or the threat of nuclear war. Other than that, the White House remains indispensable. When a president is not in the White House, the presidency itself becomes far more complicated. There's good reason why the president, having been hospitalized, is at Walter Reed and that is because it is not only the famed historic army hospital, now a national military medical center, it is also the official designated hospital or medical center to which presidents of the United States are taken. It has something of the feel of a medical White House and a special suite that is reserved just in case the president of the United States should require such treatment.

But then there are huge constitutional questions. The basic constitutional reality is that Americans entrust and empower the presidency with such authority that any threat to a president's health is a threat to the political health of the nation. And furthermore, when you're looking at something like this, you're looking at an event that can (A) immediately affect the stock market, that's how important the president is; (B) it can immediately embolden the nation's enemies and opponents on a national and international scene, that is also a very important issue. Third, it raises huge questions about where we stand in the political process. Now, it's important to recognize that some of these questions were answered in the American Constitution when it was first ratified. For example, the fact that upon the death of a president, the vice president shall assume the president's duties.

But there were huge questions about exactly how this would work and the first time it happened when John Tyler became president in 1841 after the death of president William Henry Harrison, just days after Harrison was inaugurated, there were many who believe that Tyler had not become president, but only that he had assumed the powers and the office of the presidency. He was basically an acting president. As a matter of fact, throughout his entire years in the White House, he was often referred to derisively as His Accidency. This continued a problem throughout the history of the United States with three more presidential assassinations until there was yet another in the year 1963, the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson became president of the United States and that followed a pattern that was established by John Tyler. He insisted that he was not merely an acting president, but the president. And that had been assumed to be true with several vice presidents becoming president for that very reason.

But when Lyndon Johnson became president in 1963, having served as John F. Kennedy's vice president, it was clear that the Constitution and its order needed to be clarified. For one thing, most Americans do not remember that between November the 3rd, 1963, when Lyndon Johnson ascended to the presidency upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy, until January the 20th of 1965, there was no vice president of the United States. Nor was there any mechanism at that time for anyone to become vice president if the then vice president became president in the midst of a presidential term. All that was changed and clarified in the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, that was ratified and became part of the Constitution in the year, 1967.

That didn't fully clarify everything. For one thing, in presidential succession beyond the vice president, much of the process actually is rooted in legislation rather than the Constitution. And there are many legal scholars who believe that at least part of that legislation is itself unconstitutional, which means that were at ever to become activated, it would likely lead to extended court battles. In humility this is one issue that reminds us of the fact that no constitution can be absolutely comprehensive. Every constitution has to establish a process, but no constitution can envision every conceivable circumstance. And that raises other questions, that even with the president appearing to do well with the virus, just raises constitutional and electoral questions.

For example, what should happen if the one who is at the top of the ticket, holding the presidential slot on one of the major party tickets, should be unable to serve as president, but nonetheless was nominated by the party? Well, at this point, if that happens before the election, one of the questions is, could the name on the ballot be changed? And the answer is up until a certain point, but you'll notice we are beyond that point now. The fact is that people are already voting in most states and the ballot is already fixed. It cannot be changed before November the 3rd.

So what should happen? If the one who's at the top of the ticket should be unable to serve, well this is where a little bit of constitutional homework is important for us. Remember that Americans are not directly voting for a president of the United States. They're casting a vote for president and vice president. It's a unified party ticket for which the American people respectively will vote, and that includes a presidential candidate and a vice presidential candidate of the same party. But Americans are not actually voting for the ticket. They are actually voting for the electors who will eventually serve in the Electoral College. And presumably, if a presidential candidate were elected but unable to serve, the Electoral College would clean that up by electing the vice president on that ticket as the president to serve the new term. There is absolutely no provision in the Constitution for extending an incumbent president's term by even a day.

But that raises a second question. What if a presidential candidate should be able to serve at the time of the election, but unable to serve for one reason or another, by the time the inauguration day came about? Well, if the presidential candidate has deceased, it is assumed given the constitutional order of the 25th Amendment that the individual elected vice president, and with that election ratified by the Electoral College, that individual would be inaugurated as the next president of the United States. Even before there was any question about either candidates held, that had already raised another issue, because what if the Electoral College is unable to determine a winner? Well, then it goes to the House of Representatives, we're back to the House again.

Does that mean that, given the fact that there is a Democratic majority in the House, that would mean a majority of votes for the Democratic nominee presumably, for president? No, it doesn't turn out that way. Because according to the Constitution, if such a moment should be reached, every state's delegation would have one vote. So at that point, it would matter far more consequentially whether or not there is a Democratic or Republican tilt state by state, to that state's congressional delegation. Counting where we stand right now in October of 2020, there would be a majority of Democrats in the House, but a majority of states that would have a Republican majority in that state's delegation to Congress.

All that could change just as a matter of political fact and all of this is being raised at a time when we should be praying for the health of the president of the United States. It is a matter of far beyond politics that Americans should be United in praying for the health and wellbeing of our president. It is not just a party or a party's electoral hope that is weakened by a president who is ill or whose health is threatened, it is the entire nation. The president of the United States serves the entire people and he serves as the chief executive in a constitutional order when much depends upon the presidency and the health of the president.

But there is a political dynamic to this and it's undeniable, at this point we are just about 29 days before the election, and what is absolutely crucial is that between now and election day, there are only three weekends. The weekends are particularly valuable when it comes to a national election and there are only three remaining. Therefore we're likely to see a lot of changes in America's political landscape as if it were not changed enough by the COVID-19 pandemic in general. It is now directly affected by the fact that one of the two party candidates is now in the hospital with the coronavirus itself.

There's one more dimension of this particular issue that demands our attention, and that is that the American people have an understandably insatiable appetite to want to know the health of the president. What is the actual physical condition of the president? And that is a very complicated issue because the president as a patient is after all a patient, but he's also the Chief Executive of the nation and thus, there are immediate questions. Is the president doing well? Is he improving? What are the threats or potential threats to his health? What are the conditions under which he is being treated? In this sense he's not just a patient, he's a patient whose health has a great deal to do with the potential health of the nation.

That means that there needs to be a rational, calm, but honest and clear word from the White House and from others, including medical authorities about what is and is not the case about the president's condition. Now there's a very long history. It's a, bi-partisan, very long history of the White House being something less than clear about a president's condition. This was true when President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack we now know was far more life-threatening. This was the case when President Ronald Reagan, another Republican, was shot in an assassination attempt and it turned out he was in a far graver situation than Americans had been told. It was the case also about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was in an unprecedented way elected to a fourth term, but was already a dying man. The people around the president knew it, the American voter was not told it.

Similarly, there was obfuscation about the health of John F. Kennedy during the time that he was both a senator and a presidential candidate, and later when he was president. The White House is of course a national institution and symbol. It is also the hub of the executive branch of our constitutional order. It is also an intensely and 24/7 political headquarters, and it is impossible that it would be otherwise. But there's a special responsibility that falls upon the White House when it does release information, and this goes also to the White House medical staff, when there is a release of information about the president, it had better be credible.

But once again, especially for Christians, as we are aware, the Bible tells us that we are to pray for all those in authority. And that means we should be praying for all of those in authority, including importantly, the president of the United States continually but especially urgently now.

Part

The Clock Is Ticking: The Timely Nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in Spotlight as Three Republican Senators Test Positive for COVID-19

But next, we also have to pay attention to where we are right now, given the crucial calendar that we're working with in the process of the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The United States Senate, through its majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had announced that hearings would begin October the 12th, confirmation hearings for Judge Barrett, but the situation where the president's health has become further complicated with the fact that three Republican senators, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina have also come down testing positive for the coronavirus.

There have been other political leaders as well, but those are three Republican members of the United States Senate. Two of them, Senators Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now this becomes all the more complicated when you consider the calendar. When you consider election day, the number of days between now and election day. When you consider the number of days beyond that before the seeding of a new Senate and the number of days beyond that before the inauguration of a new president of the United States. A clock is ticking. It is extremely important, and I think Christians understand this, that Judge Amy Coney Barrett be confirmed as the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court and that must happen either just before or just after the election, preferably before the election. That would be a very clarifying event for all parties concerned.

The majority leader indicated that the Senate would move ahead with hearings to begin on October the 12th and a vote coming up a number of days thereafter. It is unclear whether or not those hearings would be in whole or in part now in a virtual format rather than in a Senate conference room or committee room. It's going to be a very interesting few days. As if 2020 wasn't interesting enough, as if just four or five days into October, this month isn't interesting enough, there're going to be more interesting twists and turns over the next several days than you can imagine.

Part

A Sex Scandal and a Positive COVID-19 Result: A Big Test Facing the Voters of North Carolina

And one of those is being faced right now by the voters in the state of North Carolina and in what is considered one of the top five most competitive Senate races in 2020. It could very well be that the outcome of the North Carolina Senate race in 2020 has a great deal to do with the party composition of leadership, which party is in majority in the United States Senate. The Democrats had targeted incumbent Republican first-term Senator Thom Tillis as someone they might be able to defeat and they nominated as their Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham. But just in the last several days, Thom Tillis the Republican has come down positive for COVID-19, but Cal Cunningham has come down positive for having to confess a sexting scandal with a woman other than his wife. And the calendar on the sexting scandal indicates that he was involved in this activity when he was already engaged in a very intense Senate campaign.

Natalie Andrews for the Wall Street Journal explains the situation this way: "The battle for the Senate seat in North Carolina that could determine which party controls the US Senate next year has been cast into disarray with incumbent Senator Thom Tillis quarantined after a positive COVID-19 test and Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham facing a sexting scandal." Now, we are told that on Friday, Mr. Cunningham, "a married father of two, apologized for text messages with a Democratic strategist in which he called the woman"--I'm not going to read those words--"and discussed plans to meet with her, though it is unclear if they did." The story then tells us, "He has no plans to drop out of the race. Mr. Cunningham, according to the Wall Street Journal, hasn't discussed details of the relationship." It's unlikely that he's going to get by with not explaining those details. We are looking at something that can only be described as a massive sex scandal right in the final weeks of a crucial race for the United States Senate.

Now, it is the case that this race has become incredibly complicated because you're looking at the incumbent Republican candidate and Senator Thom Tillis now testing positive for COVID-19, which means he's not going to be able to campaign as normal but then again, 2020 wasn't normal to begin with, given the pandemic. But when you're looking at Cal Cunningham, the Democratic nominee, he's facing a very real question about his moral credibility. And I'll just say, given the fact that he has acknowledged the sexting, it's not just a suspicion, it's not just a concern, it is a very ugly reality. And that raises another issue.

When you're looking at assigning a certain kind of political blame to candidates for what befalls them, there are those who would point to Senator Thom Tillis and say, "You could have been more careful when it comes to COVID-19." That would be a wisdom issue, but when it comes to Cal Cunningham, it's a character issue. When it comes to a confrontation between a wisdom issue and a character issue, well that's a character test for the American people. If the voters of North Carolina vote for the Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham, they're going to be voting for a candidate, knowing that as recently as the last several weeks, he's been engaged in inappropriate behavior ... how's that for a euphemism ... with a woman not his wife and with sexting. Does no one ever learn? But the voters of North Carolina had also better recognize that in that Senate election, they may be not only a deciding force, they may be the deciding force in the future majority and the power of the United States Senate. They had better understand that. It's a powerful stewardship for the state of North Carolina.

As we conclude The Briefing today, let's conclude with a few thoughts about how character works in American politics. And whether you're voting for a president or a senator or a county commissioner, or yes, infamously dogcatcher, character matters, and voters have to decide how character matters. They also have to decide how does this behavior, this character issue affect a vote when you're looking at the political context. The fact is that in any election, every single election voters are never absolutely certain who they're electing, what exactly this person is because human beings are complex creatures and human beings even change over time. Someone who might never be suspected of this kind of behavior could show up as either suspected or guilty of it later on, maybe years down the road.

But there's something particularly egregious about the eruption of this kind of story right in the middle of a Senate campaign, a major political campaign with national significance, when it is clear that the candidate has been involved in this kind of immoral behavior during the campaign itself. I will wholeheartedly agree with the comment made by John Aldrich in that Wall Street Journal article, he's a political science professor at Duke university. When asked about the North Carolina campaign, but looking at the larger American political moment, professor Aldrich said, "We have as a society taken October surprise much too far."

That phrase October surprise is part of American political and presidential election lore going back to the fact that there has been a suspicion at various times and various elections that a candidate has pulled out a surprise in October that would build momentum for a win in November. And it has been most often the case that that has been suspected of an incumbent president. That's where the phrase comes from. But in this case, it's not about the presidency, but it's about a Senate race. This just reminds us that what is now an October surprise sets the stage for what soon will be a November decision. As I said, the clock is ticking.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

Remember that this coming Friday, Friday October 9th at 3:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time, we're going to have a Boyce College virtual preview day. I'm excited about it. I want to invite you to participate. If you know a Christian young person who's looking for the most substantial and faithful Christian worldview undergraduate education, or if you're the parent or a loved one for one of those young people, then please participate in this virtual preview day. You'll be able to participate in an exclusive Ask Anything Live, I'll be a part of that. A virtual campus tour and information fair with faculty and staff. You can learn a very great deal indeed about Boyce College. To register or learn more, visit boycecollege.com/preview, that's boycecollege.com/preview.

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 about Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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