Tuesday, August 9, 2022
It's Tuesday, August 9th, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Dangerous Precedent Raises Big Questions: What Justified Raid of Former President’s Residence? Is There A Good Answer? The Proof Better Come Fast
There was headline news last night, but it didn't come because of a statement from the White House. It didn't come because of a statement from the President of the United States. It came because of a statement from a former president of the United States, the 45th President Donald J. Trump, who announced on social media last night that the FBI had, in his words, raided his home and his safe at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach in Florida. The reality is what we're looking at here is something that if not unprecedented is close in American history.
Now, just to put that into context, consider this, even as you look at the Watergate scandal in the United States, in which there were very live prospects of a president being indicted for obstruction of justice, if nothing else, so far as is known, there was never a raid on the president's personal residence, and certainly there was no raid undertaken by the Department of Justice and the FBI at the instruction of his successor, that, of course, would've been his former vice president, then president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford. What we have here is almost assuredly unprecedented in American history. President Trump indicated his outrage indicating that his home, what he described as his beautiful home, Mar-a-Lago, "is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents."
The former president and his family were not in residence there at Mar-a-Lago, but rather were reportedly that their residence at Bedminster in New Jersey. But nonetheless, the raid did take place and it was undertaken by the FBI under the authority of the United States Department of Justice. And almost assuredly, the FBI had come armed with search warrants and other authorizations from at least some kind of federal court or grand jury. Now, I've spoken repeatedly about the historical precedent that seems to be broken here. This is because this is a huge issue. As you think about other nations, a constitutional form of government, the peaceful transfer of power, that's been complicated enough. The January 6th insurrection and other events complicated that picture already.
But the big question is, is America now going to go down the path of other nations that have basically lost their culture of democracy when an election takes place and the person elected decides to investigate either the candidate who lost or the president or chief executive who preceded him or her in office? That is a sign of a democracy broken. And in the United States right now, clearly we are at a moment of political crisis. Not to overplay that, it's not as if there's an insurrection in the streets. It is to say that we are now in a situation where the Biden administration and the Department of Justice had better very quickly, and I include the FBI in that, had better very quickly indicate why it was considered necessary to search the private residence of a former president of the United States.
Now, there is plenty of reporting on this already suggesting the when and the why, and the suggestion of the why is that, and this had been reported in the press months ago, there were suspicions that there were documents and other materials there at Mar-a-Lago which should have been turned over to the national archives or other federal authorities under the Presidential Records Act. Now, let's just affirm the fact that the Presidential Records Act is a righteous piece of actual legislation that must be obeyed by every president of the United States and respected by every administration. The principle here is very, very important. When the president of the United States are members of the president's administration act on behalf of the United States, they are actually producing material that is owned by the people of the United States.
Now, that doesn't mean that the average citizen should be able to walk into the White House and just grab whatever memorandum might be demanded. That's ludicrous. It does mean that authorized officials should be in charge of the stewardship of those materials, not just say for the sake of American history, but for the integrity of the American government. President Trump said that the raid was unannounced. He claimed that it was not necessary. He said it wasn't appropriate, and he basically accused the Democrats of waging a political war against him and using this invasion of his home, as he characterized it, in the siege of his home as a political act. Now, as you're looking at this, we need to understand something.
What we need to understand is that the credibility of our justice system is at stake and the credibility of our political system. To have a former president's residence, personal residence, invaded like this, searched like this, that constitutes something very, very new and, on its face, very, very ominous in terms of America's political culture. Are we entering a phase in which whatever administration in office will try to destroy the opposition, and that includes the previous incumbent, and somehow to gain materials in order to use political leverage or perhaps even the justice system? Now, we need to be clear, there is no current evidence that that is what is happening in this case. The problem is on its face, this is already very problematic.
So problematic that I will just say, as a matter of fact, that the confidence of the American people will require that the Department of Justice and the FBI very quickly determine and to make clear why raid on a former president's personal residence was necessary. Back in February of this year when it was announced that some documents that should not have been at Mar-a-Lago were discovered there and when this process began, the Archivist of the United States said in a statement, "The Presidential Records Act is critical to our democracy in which the government is held accountable by the people."
In its report on the situation, on the search at Mar-a-Lago, The Washington Post reported that back in February, the Archivist of the United States had said in a statement that representatives of the former president were "continuing to search" for additional records. Now, here's where the situation just gets more interesting and perhaps you just say a bit more odd. The next paragraph in The Washington Post article reads like this. "The inventory of unclassified items in the boxes that were recovered earlier this year from Mar-a-Lago is roughly 100 pages long, according to a person familiar with that document." Now, get this, the next sentence.
"Descriptions of items that were improperly taken to Mar-a-Lago include a cocktail napkin, a phone list, charts, slide decks, letters, memos maps, talking points, a birthday dinner menu, schedules, and more," according to one source, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the ongoing investigation." An anonymous source said that in the inventory of items missing or believed to be missing and perhaps at Mar-a-Lago were included a cocktail napkin, a birthday dinner menu, and other things. Now, assuredly, in those other materials, there might be materials germane to national security. As a matter of fact, given the role of the president of the United States, we might think that's even likely.
But still, what are the federal investigators looking for? What was the FBI seeking? Once this radical act, unprecedented in American history, has taken place, and it happened last night, how long will the American people have to wait until we find out why this was supposedly necessary? And if it turns out that it wasn't, we are looking at a massive legal and judicial credibility crisis in the United States, a credibility crisis that would extend not only to the FBI, but to the larger Department of Justice. Now, wait just a minute, you say, that would be an insult to American history and unprecedented in itself. Well, scandal with the Department of Justice and scandal with the FBI is hardly unprecedented. Now, Americans rightly respect our system of justice.
We look with admiration to America's system of justice certainly as it stands among the nations, and we understand the importance and the work of the FBI. Most American citizens just reflexively respect that work and respect to the FBI. But just remember the course of American history. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI was J. Edgar Hoover. Most Americans will at least recognize the name. Hoover became head of what was known as the Bureau of Investigation of the federal government in 1924. Now, this is a huge story, by the way, because given America's conservative constitutionalism, it wasn't believed for many years that there was authority for the federal government to undertake a police power that would be superior to the States.
And by the way, legally speaking, it isn't necessarily superior to the States, but it is federal rather than limited to state jurisdiction. Prohibition and the rise of organized crime in the early decades of the 20th century and the Cold War, in fears of espionage thereafter, led to public support and political support for the development of what became the FBI in 1935. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the BI, the Bureau of Investigation, became the head of the FBI and he would remain in that role for 37 years until his death in 1972. Why are we talking about J. Edgar Hoover? It's not because Hoover, the first director of the FBI, wasn't serious about fighting crime. He was. It's not because he wasn't serious about fighting organized crime.
He was. It's not because he wasn't serious about fighting spies and espionage in the United States. He was. We're talking about J. Edgar Hoover because he also used the FBI to gather intelligence which he used against his political enemies, or even his leverage against his political bosses. Most importantly, presidents of the United States. He gathered evidence about just about every one of them, particularly as you move into the '50s, '60s, and '70s. And that's why J. Edgar Hoover never lost his job until he died. After Hoover's death, politicians in both parties moved together to consolidate a new set of policies and guidelines for the FBI. After all, the FBI does essential work. Indeed, it's an essential agency.
But there was bipartisan support to conscribe the role of the director, to limit it, by the way, to a fixed number of years as a term and to put the FBI under sufficient oversight. And that's not a slander against the FBI. Any intelligence agency, any law enforcement agency has to be under some superior authority if the nation is going to operate by the rule of law. Those protections put in place, by the way, after the death of J. Edgar Hoover, if not prevented claims that there have been political actions undertaken against political enemies by an administration through the Department of Justice and through the FBI. And furthermore, there's more to it even than that. Let's look at the Department of Justice.
It's very easy and indeed there's a healthy reflex in the American people to say, "We have confidence in the rule of law. We have confidence in judges. We have confidence in courts. We have confidence in our law enforcement agency, and we have confidence in the Department of Justice." It's a paragon of integrity. Well, indeed in many ways it is. And of course, it must be. It should be, but it hasn't always been. Let's just point to the fact that under the administrations of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon, so this is a bipartisan pattern, we now know that attorneys general and other officials within the Department of Justice also use the power of justice, that is the Department of Justice against political enemies and in defense of a political movement.
It was by no means an accident that President John F. Kennedy appointed his own kid brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, something that would not be allowable now, but he did so, as both of them understood that the administration would be threatened by evidence or claims that might be made by the FBI overtly or covertly traced back to J. Edgar Hoover. Now, this is not to say that there's just a moral equivalence when you say the name's Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon when it comes to say the politicization of the Department of Justice. But frankly, the record's pretty close, and it all depends upon which evidence you're looking at, but at least there has to be historical agreement that all three of those administrations misused the Department of Justice in some way.
Now, again, after the Nixon and Watergate era, there was an effort by Congress to try to put in place policies that would prevent any kind of abuse. But this is where Christians understand that in a sinful world, power will be abused. The power to investigate, the power to prosecute is a very powerful power, even when Americans have a general confidence in law enforcement, and that's right, and a general confidence in the Department of Justice, and that's right, a general confidence in our government and a general confidence in the FBI. As a matter of fact, most Americans would rather watch a drama featuring the FBI than read a headline like this about them. The reality is we have to be watchful of this kind of thing.
And there are certain barriers which Americans have always been able to point to and say, "Well, in our country, nothing like that has ever happened." Now, what happened last night at Mar-a-Lago was unprecedented. Was it right, or was it wrong? Well, it's not actually up to someone who was the subject of a search to prove that it was wrong. It is up to the law enforcement agencies who've undertaken the search to prove that it was lawful and in this case, to prove that it was necessary. The American people are likely to have a very high expectation of the fact that the government should very quickly through the DOJ, the Department of Justice, and the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, indicate why a raid on a former president's personal residence had been necessary.
Now, it's already clear going all the way back to February this year that there were likely materials at Mar-a-Lago that shouldn't have been there. Now, could they been returned to Washington more quickly? Were they all inventoried and handled rightly? Well, it's hard to say, but in some cases, we do appear to be talking about fairly innocuous materials. That's not to say that there is any excuse for violating the federal act that is in place here. It is to say that what took place last night at Mar-a-Lago is not just unprecedented, it is incredibly risky for a democratic experience in constitutional self-government. The integrity of the former president of the United States is at stake here. To be sure, it always is. And in the historical perspective, always will be.
And that's true of every former president, but particularly with what is at stake here. But the integrity of the United States government is also at stake here and the credibility of the Department of Justice and the FBI. It is going to take some time for this matter to be clarified, to be sure, but it better not take much time and it better be truly clarified. One aspect of the Christian worldview that comes into play here is the reality that when you look at our constitutional separation of powers and the concern about limited government, that's a deeply rooted theological insight. Now, this goes back to the statement that was made by the British statesman Lord Acton, who famously said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
That is a statement absolutely consonant with biblical Christianity, with the Augustinian line of theology that has so shaped Western theology and Western civilization and political systems is the reality that if you're going to have a limited government, you're going to have to work continuously at limiting it. The Bible also makes clear the legitimacy and rightful authority of government. Just consider a passage like Romans 13.
Well, at least you can count on this much, even as we wait for issues to be clarified and final judgements to be made, you're going to be seeing a lot of headlines about this story.
Even Liberal Media Acknowledge the Inflation Reduction Act Will Not Actually Reduce Inflation: So Why Are Democrats Touting This as a Legislative Victory?
Next, if the story about the FBI's investigation there at Mar-a-Lago had not taken the headlines, the headlines, at least the Democrats would've hoped, would have been concentrated on what they call the Inflation Reduction Act.
That act did get through the United States Senate. And thus, it's going to get through Congress. And according to all reports, it will be signed by President Biden. It's going to be claimed as a great Democratic victory. Now, a lot less necessary in order to get here. For one thing, this is going through the Senate's process known as reconciliation. That's a budget, that's a fiscal control and authorization process, which allows the Senate to move forward with this kind of bill packaged as finance and budget to go forward with a mere majority of votes. In this case, it would be 50 plus one in the 100 seat Senate and not to require 60 votes, or what's called cloture, and thus, there is no risk of a filibuster, which means Republicans can't stop this bill.
You say, "Well, Democrats only have 50 votes." Yes, but if there is a 50/50 tie, which isn't necessary, by the way, there could be some eventuality where when the vote is taken, a Republican might not be in the room voting. There might be even a legitimate reason. But nonetheless, it won't matter because the administration will be sure that the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, who in this case is the presiding officer of the Senate, can cast when there is a tie, the tie breaking vote. You know exactly how that's going to go. But as we look at this, we need to understand that this is an illustration in general of how legislation shouldn't happen, but it is going to happen. Republicans at this point are unable to stop it.
The Democrats are claiming this as a great legislative victory, but let's take a little closer look at it. The bill is labeled. It's identified as the Inflation Reduction Act. You can add, if you like, of 2022. Inflation Reduction Act. It's actually the successor to a failed democratic initiative that had been proposed by President Biden as the Build Back Better Act. But that even far larger so-called stimulus bill, public spending bill, bills that involve spending and taxation and presidential initiatives, it failed. It failed at least in part because West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin wouldn't vote for it. He might not have been alone, but he certainly stood his ground, until he didn't.
When the smaller bill came through, it was clear that he had negotiated perhaps even individually with the Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York a deal. It was a deal that Manchin's Republican friends consider basically a sellout. But again, let's look at the bill. Let's look at its name, the Inflation Reduction Act. That's to say that this is being sold to the American people. It's being presented by the administration and will be trumpeted by Congress as a serious response through federal policy, financial incentives and spending in order to reduce inflation, which is now so vexing the American people and troubling the American economy.
But here's the problem, mo one who understands economics and understands this legislation can make that argument with a straight face. Even the editors of The Washington Post, a very liberal paper, and they wanted the Build Back Better Act. They wanted far larger. They start out their editorial about their positive support for this legislation with these words, "The Inflation Reduction Act may not reduce inflation - one sign that Senate Democrats' reconciliation package, now that most of the drama is over, deserves a dispassionate accounting." In the third paragraph, they begin this way, "To claim The Inflation Reduction Act will on its own transform the economy would be foolish." They go on to say this, this is pretty remarkable, and again, this is the editorial board of The Washington Post.
I quote, "The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the proposal will change the inflation rate by less than one-tenth of a percent over the next two years and that's in either direction." The editors of The Post went on to confront other democratic claims about the bill, going on to say that the impact of the bill's likely to be felt further into the future. And that includes the claim that it will reduce the deficit. In any event, the editors of The Post can see that the size of the deficit is so large that this is not a meaningful contribution, even if it works according to plan. There's no indication that it will actually work according to plan, according to claims. But nonetheless, notice this, the editorial board of The Washington Post is big time for this legislation and big time for the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, why? Well, there are two reasons here. Number one, those who are trying to get the federal government, want to see the federal government invest in certain kinds of technologies in the name of climate change, they're likely to find the funding in this bill something they want to support. The bigger issue, however, is this. It's not the current funding, it's the promise of future funding, because some funding mechanisms in this bill packaged as the Inflation Reduction Act are rather minor in the grand scheme of things, or at least far smaller, the Democrats had hoped for, but they are a promise of things to come. They set a precedent. They set a baseline. And understand this is how Washington works.
Once you start spending in a certain direction, once you tell the American people that they need, for example, a cap on certain expenditures, it's virtually impossible that politicians will later take the heat for reversing that policy or ending that spending or, for that matter, here's the big lesson of the last 50 years, even trying to cut back the growth of that spending. There are likely parts of this bill, or at least what's included in this bill for now, that will likely appeal to many Americans. For example, the fact that according to this particular legislation, eventually there will be a 2,000 per year cap on out of pocket costs for prescription drugs for Americans. And that sounds very, very good to many Americans, especially Americans who find themselves, at least in some years, spending more than that.
Furthermore, the fine print makes very clear that that particular cap won't be in place or, in the words of the editors of The Washington Post, "won't kick in for years." And by then, Americans will have forgotten about the spending and they also are probably not going to remember that they should trace increased use of the Internal Revenue Service, massive funding increase for the IRS, to trace that back to this legislation. And to finally realize that for many Americans, for untold millions of Americans, including some who right now think that kind of benefit would be mighty nice, they're going to end up paying far more in taxes for that benefit than the benefit actually itself will represent. I also have to point to an editorial piece, an op-ed, written by Paul Krugman.
He's won the Nobel Prize, by the way, for economics. A very liberal economist who writes often from a very liberal political position at The New York Times. My favorite line in his piece, which is celebrating this bill, the title of his op-ed, by the way, is, the headline, Did Democrats Just Save Civilization? But then he says this, "Actual experts on energy in the environment are giddy over what has been accomplished," listen to these words, "and serious economists aren't worried about the effect on inflation."
Did he just give it all away? Did he just admit out loud that the Inflation Reduction Act really isn't going to reduce inflation and that that's not really the point?
‘I’ve Kept the Most Interesting Company Imaginable with People Long Gone’: Prolific American Historian and Storyteller, David McCullough, Dies at 89
But we end with something that isn't political today, just something we need to recognize, and that's the death of David McCullough, one of the most beloved historians of recent American history. His bestselling books, going back to 1972, his history of the Brooklyn Bridge, known as the Great Bridge, it established David McCullough's ability to narrate a story. He became one of the master narrators of American history. Several of his books reached the bestseller list, two of them in particular. Two of them actually won Pulitzer Prizes, both of them presidential biographies in 1992 on Harry S. Truman and in 2001 on John Adams. Many of his books were actually turned into documentaries or television programs, particularly on public television.
He became very well known to millions of Americans because of his participation in the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. He was a hard worker. It took him seven years to produce the John Adams biography. It took him a decade to produce the Truman biography, and yet the books came and they came. He put an enormous amount of work into his writing of history. But as Daniel Lewis said for The New York Times, "There was hardly anything in his writing to suggest that he had ever staggered under the weight of his homework," which is another way of saying he put an awful lot of historical work into his writing, but his writing was clean, crisp, and it carried the reader along.
So much so that many readers were no doubt, frankly, unselfconscious of the fact that they were reading history and they were enjoying it, even thrilled by it. There was one other great asset that God gave David McCullough, and that was his voice. A voice that meant that he not only had voice through his writing, but his actual physical voice became one of the most familiar and authoritative in American television, particularly public television. He was able to narrate not only with his pen, but also with his incredible voice. I listen pretty regularly to some of his lectures, and The New York Times is right in pointing to the fact that one of the greatest things he ever said about his work was spoken in his Jefferson lecture in the humanities delivered to the National Endowment for the Humanities as he was receiving its award.
He said, "The reward of the work has always been the work itself and more so the longer I've been at it. The days are never long enough," he said, "and I kept the most interesting company imaginable with people long gone." That's exactly right. That's one of the geniuses of history. It's one of the great gifts of history. And especially history well done and well written, we do indeed get to keep the most interesting company imaginable with people long gone. He died Sunday at age 89 at his home near Boston.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can call 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.