Monday, January 8, 2024

Monday, January 8, 2024

It’s Monday, January 8, 2024.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Former President Trump Struck From State Ballots? Huge Constitutional Issues Hang in the Balance as SCOTUS Decides to Take Up Colorado Case

Well, over the course of the last couple of weeks, there have been so many issues that have come at us, issues that demand attention from Christians and analysis from a Christian worldview. But we need to look at issues global, national, the 2024 presidential election looming before us, and of course, other issues related to church, like theological, ethical issues.

Well, we just need to get started and we need to get started right here with the big story being the fact that Donald Trump has appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States for relief from action taken by the states of Colorado and Maine to remove him from their ballots for the 2024 election. Both of those states did the same thing, they took action to remove Donald Trump from their ballots. Now, the presenting issue before the Supreme Court is going to be the Colorado case, and the Colorado action was taken by a state court. In Maine, it was taken by a state official.

The bottom line is still the same, citing the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution, Colorado, and now Maine, have declared Donald Trump, the former President of the United States, to be guilty of being an insurrectionist and thus to be ineligible from appearing on a federal ballot. Now, as you might imagine, the court in Colorado and no doubt, the public official, a Democrat in Maine, expected this decision would be appealed by the former president. It was also very likely that the Supreme Court would decide to take the case. Just a reminder, the Supreme Court has to decide to take most cases.

It did so in this case, precisely because this is a constitutional issue with national ramifications and an individual decision by a state having to do with the federal ballot is not likely to stand, or at least in this case, not likely to stand without judicial review, and in this case, because of the stature of the issues reviewed by the nation’s highest court. Now, the commentary, the people writing the editorials, doing all the talking on the national television channels, cable news, all the rest, they have basically been arguing what you might call a Republican line and a Democratic line, and that means that this is a partisan issue.

Everyone knows it is a partisan issue, and the Democrats are saying, “Look, these actions are entirely justified. Donald Trump should be removed from the ballot.” Republicans have been unified, and this includes opponents of President Trump himself for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Every single one of them has said that these state actions are wrong and unconstitutional and potentially quite constitutionally dangerous.

But let’s just look at what we are facing here. We are looking at the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution. Now, that’s one of the amendments that came in the wake of the Civil War.

It has enormous constitutional significance in the United States, not because it is as old as the Constitution, it’s not, but because it emerged in that immediate federal era after the close of the Civil War. So, many of the issues that had divided the nation were addressed by various amendments to the U.S. constitution. The clause in the 14th amendment makes very clear that anyone guilty of insurrection against the United States of America shall be ineligible for public office and thus to run as a candidate. Now, you can imagine the intended target of that particular clause going back to the 19th century. It was those who were actually a part of the insurrection against the federal government of the United States of America.

You talk about insurrection, you’re talking about civil war, and that’s exactly what the nation experienced. In the aftermath of the Civil War, during the period known as Reconstruction, and remember, that was the Reconstruction of the Republic, that’s where the language came from, there were constitutional amendments, and for that matter, a good number of laws and court decisions that were handed down and passed, in order to try to create a new constitutional reality. Now, that 14th amendment, Insurrection Clause, was clearly directed to those who had been a part of the insurrection against the federal government known as the Civil War.

Now, one of the things we need to note is that that did not prevent all of the actual insurrectionists by legal definition in the 19th century from serving the federal government, not to mention at the state level. But we need to ask ourselves a very fundamental question here. One is simply a political question, you might say, and that is, is it politically right or wrong to strike President Trump, that is, former President Trump, from the ballot for the 2024 election? Is that right or wrong? Well, that comes down to an even more basic question, which is, is the Constitution to be read the way that the Colorado Court and the Maine official read the Constitution? Even if they’re reading it the right way, does this apply directly to the case of Donald J. Trump?

Here’s the problem, and it’s one that I do not see addressed by most people, and thus I think most of the conversation is reckless and irresponsible. Here’s the issue, if we are talking about someone who is an insurrectionist, there has to be some kind of legal action behind that identification, something like what would be, it seems most important here, some kind of criminal conviction. Just to state the obvious, there is no criminal conviction against the former President of the United States. Now, there are criminal actions pending, but there is no conviction. President Trump has been convicted of nothing in terms of anything that would relate to the insurrection clause of the 14th amendment.

Does that mean that he didn’t do it? No, it doesn’t mean that. There are all kinds of actions that are taken that might be illegal, or for that matter, unconstitutional, but there has been no court that has decided that in terms of a legal decree or some kind of judicial conviction. That simply hasn’t happened. That’s what’s missing here in this case. Now, even that wouldn’t settle the issue conclusively because it still would not immediately be clear that this is the right reading of that clause of the 14th amendment in the first place. But assuming that, just for the sake of argument, this is the right reading of the clause, the fact is that Donald Trump still has not been identified legally as an insurrectionist by any legal jurisdiction.

So, when those who are pressing to have him removed from the ballot make the argument that he’s an insurrectionist, how are they basing their argument? Well, they’re basing their argument upon the president’s actions and words back on January 6th of 2021. January 6th, you recall that date? Did the President say those things? Did he do the things that are alleged? Well, at least when it comes to much of what was said and much of what was alleged, that’s pretty much now public fact. But does that amount to an insurrection? Does that amount to the President, at that point he was still President of the United States, does that mean that he was acting as an insurrectionist?

Well, again, there has been no criminal charge yet on which he has been convicted. So, those who are trying to make the argument, like the Colorado Court, they’re going to say, “Well, it’s just obvious that he committed an active insurrection.” The problem is, of course, it’s not at all obvious. Nothing like that is obvious. What is most obvious is that there is no criminal conviction at this point. We’re talking in a timeline. This is January 8th, 2024. At this point, there is no conviction. There was no conviction at the time the Colorado Court and the Maine official took this action.

Well then, some of the proponents of the Colorado Court’s action will come back and say, “Well, the former president was identified as an insurrectionist in the official and voluminous, very long report of the House Select Committee.” The problem is the House Select Committee is, number one, a representation of a separate branch of government, and number two, it’s not a criminal court. There is no criminal conviction by the House Select Committee. It is merely an investigative report. Republicans are going to quickly come back and say it was an investigative report undertaken by leaders of the House, Democratic leaders of the House, on their terms, by their appointments, with the whole thing rigged.

Was the whole thing rigged? Well, certainly there was something to January 6th and I think the vast majority of Americans, and that includes the vast majority of American Evangelical Christians, are certain that the President of the United States at that time, Donald J. Trump, said and did things that were morally wrong and frankly, abrogated his responsibility as the President of the United States. But that’s a political judgment at this point. That is not a legal conviction. Now, we should note that there have been criminal convictions that have been brought against some of the participants in the events of January 6th, 2021 in Washington DC, in particular the raid on the U.S. capitol.

But that’s very different than saying that there’s a criminal conviction against the 45th president to the United States, because at least on this date, there is no such conviction, which means that these actions are taken by those who presume a conviction, and it can be argued to doing so for crassly political purposes.

By the way, another major concern we should all have is that this just becomes an issue of political competition and that the removal of a candidate from a state ballot just becomes an issue of partisan warfare. There are already those who are saying, “Well, if President Trump is bumped from the ballot in some states for this reason, then President Biden should be bumped from the ballot for other reasons,” and other reasons will be attested.

The point is actually neither one of those has been convicted of anything relevant to the insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment. Now, at this point, that raises another huge issue and that issue is, how should the Supreme Court deal with this situation? How should it deal with this challenge? The Supreme Court is going to be presented with a complex question, and that question’s going to include, does the state of Colorado… Because that is the presenting case we’re talking about here. Maine’s not a part of this case at this point, but obviously, the action taken by the Supreme Court could very well nullify, or for that matter, affirm the Maine action as well.

I don’t think so. I think the Supreme Court of the United States is likely, overwhelmingly, to rule that this is not a correct jurisdictional question for the states, or at least in terms of a national election of this consequence. I think it’s also going to be incredibly important that there is no criminal conviction, and thus there has been no legal determination by any federal authority that Donald J. Trump committed any kind of active insurrection against the government of the United States of America. At this point, those charges are political. They are not tantamount to a criminal conviction. That simply hasn’t happened.

Now, this takes us back to some previous moments when the Supreme Court of the United States was itself, you might say, under a form of constitutional trial. It had to act on behalf of the nation, but it had to act in such a way that it was clearly upholding the Constitution of the United States and not merely acting in crass political terms. That included the nine zero decision ordering President Richard M. Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes. The fact that it was a unanimous decision, and that meant that some of the very justices nominated by then President Nixon agreed in unanimous decision, that added moral weight.

In contrast to that, what happened in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, that is the presidential election of the year 2000, that is the contrast to the Watergate decision because there you had a split decision in the case Bush V. Gore, and it was very clearly alleged that the Republican-nominated candidates voted in a way that upheld the election of George W. Bush and the Democratic-elected justices did the opposite. At least, that was the allegation, and that led to injury to the Supreme Court. This has set the Supreme Court up, in this case, for a similar kind of political dynamic. So, it would be to the advantage of the court to come as close to a unanimous decision as is possible.

Now, that might be hard. Certainly, in political terms it would be hard. It might be hard in terms of constitutional complexity. On the other hand, it might turn out not to be hard. It might be that the absence, for example, of a criminal conviction is, well, in the eyes of both, the more liberal and the more conservative justices, rationale for casting out the decision undertaken by the state of Colorado through this court action. It might be that the Supreme Court doesn’t have as hard a time as we might imagine coming at least close to an overwhelming, if not unanimous, decision. On the other hand, it could go the other way. The court could rule on other grounds.

It’s going to be very interesting to watch, but as I said, it’s virtually impossible that the Supreme Court could ignore this case. They’ve taken the case. It is one that they will eventually have to decide. They’ve announced that oral arguments will be held in the first days of February. In the case of say, Bush V. Gore, the Watergate case, a decision came very quickly and it’s likely to come pretty quickly in this case simply because the political calendar is going to demand it. So, it’s going to be a very interesting period. Get ready for what will be undeniably extremely interesting oral arguments presented to the Supreme Court the first week of February.

Part II

The 2024 State of the Union Address: President Biden Seeks to Do Damage Control as He Ratchets Up Re-Election Campaign

Now, similarly, with the 2024 presidential election looming before us, President Biden has announced that he will be delivering the State of the Union address on March 7th. Now, that address is going to turn out to be extremely important in this particular context, and that’s because when you look at President Biden, who is already the oldest person to serve as President of the United States, running for reelection and with his party offering no real contest to him for that 2024 nomination, given the fact that there are so many questions about his competence and certainly those related to his age, even those inside the White House are admitting that they are staking a whole lot upon the live television broadcast of the State of Union address by President Biden on March 7th.

It is going to be a moment of very real and very important political theater in the United States, and the ramifications are not only for the 2024 election, but obviously for the next four years of American presidential politics. Now, the polling at this point is going very badly for President Biden, and what’s interesting is to note that that polling is going very badly among some of the key constituencies that elected him back in the 2020 election, and by the way, also awarded him the Democratic nomination in that year. What we’re looking at is that many younger Americans, including younger Democrats, many more liberal Democrats, and as you know, younger Democrats, they are very clearly more liberal, they’re quite frustrated with the former President.

Many ethnic identification voters are, for that matter, showing that they are not so keen, not necessarily on voting for President Biden, if he indeed becomes the Democratic nominee over against say, Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, but they’re actually saying they might just sit out the vote. As one strategist said, just as we went into the weekend, the big issue for President Biden is not going to be so much the Trump vote, but the sofa vote, meaning how many people just stay on the sofa and don’t vote. But the one issue that is being held out as a concern inside and outside the Democratic Party is the issue of President Biden’s age.

Those concerns, as we have indicated, are held inside the Democratic Party and are being articulated by an increasing number of persons even inside the Democratic Party and close to the White House. One thing to keep in mind is that President Biden ran his 2020 presidential campaign basically from Delaware. He ran it from his house, and the context you may remember was COVID. Because of the issues of the lockdown and the pandemic, the argument was President Biden needs to set an example, of course, this is very much according to the Democratic line on COVID, needed to set an example by staying home, avoiding the public, avoiding public events, etc.

Well, just to state the obvious, there is no pandemic in 2024 and President Biden is going to have a very difficult time, or at least you should think a very difficult time, justifying not being out on the hustings, as they say, in electoral politics. That’s where Democrats see all kinds of liabilities and vulnerabilities and Republican see all kinds of opportunities. They can just see many advertisements and live events in which you have President Biden obviously showing the signs of age. Again, we’ll be talking more about the State of the Union as it looms before us, but it tells us something that the White House felt that that announcement needed to be made right now not to satisfy Republicans, by the way, but to satisfy Democrats, or at least some of them some of the way.

Part III

A Tinderbox Grows Even More Incendiary: The Increasingly Hostile, and Theological, Conflicts in the Middle East

In coming days and weeks, we’re going to be taking a closer look at recent developments in the Middle East. It has been a tumultuous period of time, but we expected that, especially with Israel continuing its military action against Hamas primarily in Gaza. But there have now been missile attacks coming from Hezbollah, an Islamic terrorist group in the north, situated mostly in Lebanon, and there have have been retaliatory strikes. Israel made a direct hit upon a Hamas leader there in Beirut under the protection of Hezbollah, and the United States made a hit in Baghdad on a major Islamic terrorist figure as well.

There are open conversations in Europe, in the United States, in Congress involving the White House, involving Israel, involving our allies all over the world. They’re very important conversations having to do with the risk of the military action undertaken by Israel in its defense of its own existence against Hamas as an Islamic military force. Of course, Israel’s responding to the terror attack, the murderous incursion into Israel by Hamas on October 7th of 2023. Israel, and you can take Israel at its word, is absolutely determined to at least eliminate Hamas as a live threat. Furthermore, Israel at this point is pretty impervious to Western criticism that it is taking this too far in Gaza or is taking the action too seriously.

There’s a lot for us to talk about there in terms of moral calculation, but we also just need to understand that the role of Iran is now looming larger and larger, and that situation’s getting more complicated faster and faster. Just to make that point graphically clear, there were two bombing attacks undertaken last week in Iran. There were the deadliest attacks that have taken place since the Iranian Revolution a generation ago. The bombings led to the deaths of many, up to about 90 people, 30 of them reported to be children. These bombings took place at gatherings that were set and government-inspired to observe the fourth anniversary of the killing of the Quds Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that was Qasem Soleimani. He was killed in an American strike four years ago to that day.

Almost immediately, Iran responded by blaming the United States and Israel, and of course, Iran is behind so much of what’s going on, on the attacks on Israel and on American interest. This includes the attacks upon shipping in the Red Sea undertaken by the Houthi Rebels. It includes support for Hezbollah. It includes support directly and indirectly for Hamas destabilization of Israel. Of course, Iran is committed to the non-existence of Israel and defines the United States as the great Satan. The problem for Iran is that neither Israel nor the United States undertook this attack. Rather, the attack in Iran was undertaken by the Islamic State.

That is just a reminder of the fact that even as you’re looking at various issues and lines of conflict in the Middle East–of course, you have Israel versus so many of the Arab nations. You have Israel, as a Jewish state, there in an overwhelmingly Arab and even more overwhelmingly Islamic Middle East. But you have to remember that Islam is divided into two major schools, and that includes the Sunnis and the Shiites. The Shiites are the smaller number. They’re considered to be outright heretics by the Sunnis. The Shiites include the predominant power structure overwhelmingly in Iran, also Hezbollah, and you’re looking at other groups as well that are identified with the Shiites.

Islamic State is Sunni and it sees the Shiites as heretics, and the Islamic State undertook itself this attack on an Islamic nation, but a Shiite nation in Iran. The Islamic State was identified by the United States and Israel as a likely perpetrator. By Wednesday of last week and into Thursday, the Islamic State was actually taking and claiming responsibility. This leads to another very interesting, very revealing development, and that is that Iran, and of course, it’s led by a Shiite Islamic theocracy, is denying that the Islamic State was actually the perpetrator and continues to blame Israel and behind Israel, the United States of America.

That’s for public consumption most importantly there in Iran and many observers are simply pointing out that, “Here’s the problem for the regime in Tehran, it clearly cannot defend its own citizens against attack, not just from say, Israel and the United States, but from other Islamic forces.” All of this just leads to a further destabilization. What was already a tinderbox is just becoming even more incendiary and as we’re going to be seeing in days and in weeks to come, the issues are just getting even more fundamental. One of the things we’re going to have to look at are some of the issues that are now faced by Israel, and quite frankly, are being complicated by questions raised by the White House in the United States and you also have many European nations that are trying to put pressure on Israel.

There are huge questions about what comes after the military action in Gaza. Of course, that’s not entirely in Israel’s hands, but Israel is not going to accept the proposals that are being offered by many Europeans and even by the American White House when it comes to turning to the Palestinian authority as it is now constituted as a successor government. You’re looking at all kinds of huge questions with a very long history. As you know, as Christians, it’s not just a long history, it’s a long theology as well. It’s going to be our task to unwind and analyze many of these things in days to come. The headlines aren’t going to wait for us. We’re going to have to work hard and work together to keep up with them.

Part IV

The Dangers of Riding a Tiger: The Inevitable End of Totalitarian Dictatorships

Finally, of course, we’re going to have to be taking a look at this situation in Ukraine and developments also in Russia. But even as we prepare to do that, one of the allies of the Russian President Vladimir Putin is Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is the president of Belarus. Last Thursday, he did something that only a totalitarian autocratic leader can do, he gave himself immunity, or at least you would think it could only happen in an autocracy and one kind of strongman government or another. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, quote, “President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus signed a law on Thursday that gives him lifelong immunity from criminal prosecution and prevents opposition leaders living abroad from running in future presidential elections.”

The Journal goes on to say, and it’s continuing here in Associated Press report, quote, “The law theoretically applies to any former president and members of his or her family. In reality, it is only relevant to the sixty-nine-year-old Lukashenko who’s ruled Belarus with an iron fist for nearly 30 years.” Now, I just want to quote Winston Churchill as I’m fairly prone to do anyway on this case. Winston Churchill said, “The problem with being a dictator, an autocrat, a totalitarian leader, is that you have to ride a tiger. You ride a tiger for as long as you want to ride the tiger, but then you realize you can’t get off because once you get off, the tiger’s going to eat you.” That’s the problem with autocrats, with totalitarian leaders. The moment they cease being in total power, they generally end up quite dead.

The image of a man riding a tiger is quite apt here, and it’s quite pictorial because we actually are looking at numerous people all over the world and it’s not just individuals. Like in Tehran, it’s a religious elite, an Islamic elite. They are basically riding a tiger. That’s why all these headlines really do matter, because eventually, time comes for every single leader and time comes for every regime. In a totalitarian or an autocratic context, the problem is you hold onto power, and you might even make a claim politically to absolute power, the problem is that power can be lost, absolutely, quite immediately, with devastating consequences.

But you have to give him credit for at least some ingenuity here, and also just a little bit of political honesty, to declare immunity for himself. Actually, declaring immunity for a category of persons, of which there is, oh, wait, just a minute, only one. By the way, quite obviously, we’re not the only people who are watching the actions of President Lukashenko there in Belarus. You have to know his old crony, Vladimir Putin, is watching very closely as well. If anyone right now is riding a tiger, it’s Vladimir Putin, and he knows full well the moment he gets off the tiger, he is no more. It’s just a brutal fact of life that in the aftermath of a totalitarian state, there aren’t that many former presidents who live as former presidents very long.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Davenport, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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