Monday, February 12, 2024
It's Monday, February 12th, 2024. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
‘A Well-Meaning Elderly Man with a Poor Memory’: The President’s Age is Now an Unavoidable Issue, and in a Big Way
It may well be that we will look back on February the 8th, 2024 as a turning point in the American presidency, one of those historical dates in which we say there was a before and there's an after. Why is that date so important? It is because last Thursday, February the 8th, a special prosecutor dropped the report, having investigated the current president of the United States, Joe Biden, against charges of having wrongly retained, and improperly stored, and wrongly used, highly classified information in violation of federal law. The prosecutor did find that the president had done those things, but he said he wasn't bringing a charge against him primarily because of his memory.
In what may go down as one of the most memorable lines from any report like this, Robert Hur said that the president came across as, "A well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory." And I would also quote the report as stating that the president had “diminished faculties in advancing age.” Among the evidence brought forward by the prosecutor is the fact that the current president was unable to specifically date when he served as Vice President of the United States, and, this became a very controversial issue, it led to an awful lot of Democratic Party blowback, the prosecutor went on to say that in the interview, the president was unable to come up with the year in which his son Beau had died.
Now almost immediately there were recriminations from the White House. The president came out, made a statement about how indignant he was that the prosecutor would've asked such a question, the special counsel in this case, and Robert Hur did ask the question. But we have to put that in the larger context of understanding what his responsibility was.
There were also people who were asking why this massive 300-plus page report? And why was it released to the public? Because there is no legal necessity of the report ever being released to the public. It is officially submitted to the Attorney General of the United States.
The attorney general was the trigger for beginning the special counsel investigation in the first place. But, politically speaking, he really had no choice. Of course, there had been the enormous controversy about the investigation that led to criminal charges against former President Donald Trump for having retained so many documents and, there's more to it, misusing the documents there at Mar-a-Lago, his residence in Florida. The question was, obviously, are there others who've done similar things?
Some improper documents were found in the possession of former Vice President Mike Pence, but of course the biggest political question was what about the sitting president who, after all, had been a member of the United States Senate and then, of course, has spent eight years as vice president to President Barack Obama? By the way, those years would be from 2009 to January of 2017.
Almost immediately, a political firestorm came, and it continues. Even as we speak right now, this firestorm continues to be waged. And for one thing, it simply brought to the surface the absolutely unavoidable question of President Biden's age, his mental ability, his acuity, his continuation in office through his first term, much less his suitability and physical capacity for serving a second term, the end of which he would be 86 years old.
You look at President Biden when he was candidate Biden, you look at him now, you can see how even the advanced age that was evident when he ran for president in 2020 has given way to something significantly more serious. He's also at an age where, just to speak frankly, at any given time, any given month, any given week, things can progress along this slide, and, at least in the normal human experience, everything's headed in one direction here.
In American history, concerns about the age and ability of American presidents, particularly mental ability that correlate with age, there were concerns raised about Dwight Eisenhower. But he was in his 60s. There were concerns raised about Ronald Reagan. They turned out to be quite justifiable concerns in that after he left office, after two incredibly successful terms, President Reagan issued a famous letter to the nation in which he acknowledged that he had developed Alzheimer's disease, a very brave admission. There were those even in the administration who said, in the final months, maybe this helps us to connect some dots.
But in any event, President Reagan was nowhere near the age of either of the candidates likely to be the party nominees in 2024. But particularly here, we're talking about the incumbent President of the United States, we're talking about this report from a special counsel, and we're talking about his particular age, because if he is elected to a second term, he will be closer to 90 than to 80 when he leaves office.
The vast majority of the American people say that he's simply too old. The vast majority of Democrats in polling indicate that he is too old, but nonetheless, he is almost assuredly going to be the Democratic nominee. The only way out of it, given Democratic Party rules, as we shall see, is for him either to be absolutely incapacitated, or for him voluntarily to withdraw from the race.
But the race is now so far along, you're already talking about some caucuses and primaries being held, and an incumbent president has such a commanding position, that it is almost impossible, and indeed it might be, in political terms, impossible to imagine someone sidelining the president at this point from being nominated for a second term. It would almost assuredly have to happen at the convention. And given Democratic Party rules, that is incredibly unlikely, unless President Biden decides himself to exit the race. What would happen then? Well, quite frankly, it's going to be a very interesting scenario.
And, it's also clear that many of the political concerns about the current president have to do with the lack of confidence in his vice president, that is Vice President Kamala Harris. The fact is that she is not wildly popular even in her own party. When she ran in the 2020 presidential nomination race among the Democrats, she left the race before she had a single delegate. Just to state the matter clearly, she has not increased confidence in her presidential capacities during the time that she has served as vice president. That's another issue, but it does factor into this larger equation. But let's go back to the report.
The special counsel released a report, and that report is devastating to the current President of the United States, except in one respect, and that one respect is that the special counsel recommended bringing no charges. Indeed, as the press report, it's put in the active sense, he is not going to bring charges against the President of the United States, but that does not mean that he exonerated him.
That's something that, for instance, Democratic spokespeople said on the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday, that the President had been cleared or exonerated. That is not true. Anyone who reads the actual report is going to realize it does not exonerate the president. It nails him, as having mishandled documents, having intentionally retained some of these documents, having pulled out highly classified documents in conversation with a ghost writer, and, furthermore, storing them improperly. It's actually a considerable list.
But the special counsel says he's not bringing charges against the president. Why? Well, for one thing, because the president cooperated with the investigation, and that attitude is set in contrast with the response of former President Donald Trump, to the investigation on similar charges of mishandling documents.
But as you look at the parallel acts, they do appear to be roughly parallel, not necessarily to the same extent but roughly parallel. The difference is, at least according to the special counsel Robert Hur, that former President Donald Trump did not cooperate with the investigation. He says he did, but now you have a special prosecutor that President Trump had actually appointed as a US attorney saying that the former president had not cooperated, and at least some believed that he may have committed obstruction of justice in that process.
But, nonetheless, it does tell you something that prosecutors in this kind of context do pay attention to attitude, and disposition. But, on the other hand, there are those who are saying this is just a double standard, one standard for former President Trump and another standard for the incumbent President of the United States.
The evidence for that is that, other than the disposition, the fact is that the actions were very much parallel, if not, as I said, in scale, then at least even in the description. This is why, just in political terms, I think it's going to be very, very difficult for there to be a successful prosecution of the former president on these charges, simply because the American people are likely, at least, say, half the American people are likely to be completely unpersuaded that the disposition in the one case, can be met with the opposite in another case and that justice be served. That doesn't mean that the charges are going to be dropped.
It does mean that the prosecutorial context for any kind of charges in a prosecution against Donald Trump actually that might reach the trial stage, that becomes far more problematic, and any honest person knows it.
So the current president did have in his possession, wrongfully, some of these documents. He had stored them improperly, that is outside of a national security context, and he had even used them and made reference to them in a way that could qualify as a leak of highly classified information. He brought in someone that had no security clearance, in this case his ghost writer, and actually read from at least some of these documents.
Now those are very serious charges, but why are there no legal charges? Why no criminal charges? Well, the investigator covers that in his report. The special counsel said that there are no charges in this case primarily for two reasons. One of them has to do with the response of the president to the investigation. The second has to do with the facts that the prosecutor said even if charges were to be filed, it would be difficult to bring a criminal prosecution against this particular individual because of serious problems with memory.
In five hours of conversation, which were taped, by the way, and may one day be made public, in five hours of this conversation with the prosecutor and his team, it is very clear that the President of the United States did have huge memory problems, and many people watching him in other context certainly are not surprised by that. I think that's an extremely fair statement.
Now just to state the obvious, the White House is furious that the special counsel, in his report, described the president as being, "A well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory." Further, they are furious that he referred to the president as having "diminished faculties in advancing age". But here's where we need to understand the structure of these investigations.
The current law by which a special counsel operates is that the special counsel must explain to the Attorney General of the United States in his report or her report why a decision was made, either the decision to file charges, or the decision not to file charges. So it is required by law, that Robert Hur indicate in his report to the attorney general why he's not bringing charges. In the report, he says that it is because, at least in this second sense, it is because of the president's faulty memory.
Now that plays into yet another issue which is described by the word willfully. The law by which the special counsel might prosecute the president for having mishandled and mispossessed these documents, that law requires a willful action. A willful action requires the continuity of mental action, and that's where the memory issue comes into play.
Now there are those who would say that asking some of these questions appear to be morally out of line. In particular, asking the president about the most traumatic event in recent years in his life. Now, remember, there was an accident that cost the life of his wife and his daughter at the time, and badly injured his two sons back between the time that Joe Biden was elected to the Senate and when he took office decades ago. So this is a president acquainted with tragedy.
The death of his son Beau Biden became one of the signal events, at least in part because the president saw his son Beau as a potential successor to himself, in terms of a political role. Every father in that context appears to see himself as something of a head of an American dynasty. You can think during the 20th century, to some of those dynasties. You know the names.
So in the president's favor, the special prosecutor said he wasn't bringing criminal charges against the sitting President of the United States, but that was at least in part specifically, as he reported in writing, because of his lack of confidence that the president could show up in court and be considered someone who was acting in a way that was intellectually consistent, and operating on the basis of a healthy memory. That is exactly what the prosecutor says, in other words, in his report.
Furthermore, the asking of some of these questions was to document in ways that would be evident in the report, and sustainable in terms of public argument about the lapses in the president's memory.
So this is not a pretty picture and, at the human level, no one should celebrate anyone's humiliation, ever. But the reality is, that the President of the United States is the nation's chief executive, commander-in-chief of our armed forces, and the most important constitutional officer, the most important single constitutional officer, in our political system.
Given the evolution of the presidency into the modern age, the presidency has to be occupied, the White House has to be occupied, indeed, the Oval Office has to be occupied by someone who can respond with absolute mental ability to an international crisis at any point, 24 hours a day, all the way through a presidency.
Now I can promise you that this issue is not going to go away, and that's for several reasons. Number one, we're in a political context of absolute political warfare. There is no way all of this, along with all kinds of video clips and other things, will not be shown in the midst of the 2024 campaign.
Frankly, at one level, it's hard to believe that Joe Biden could be reelected President of the United States on these terms. But then again, we're living in strange times.
Just in terms of intellectual honesty, I think we'd all have to assert that the condition of a president related to age, is not out of bounds in political discourse, and it is going to be an issue. Frankly, it's going to be an issue on both sides of the equation because President Trump was actually the oldest president in office when he left office, but he was pretty quickly eclipsed by the man who occupied the Oval Office after him, Joe Biden, who's even older.
So indeed, if this is the race, Biden versus Trump, you're going to have the two oldest candidates, nominees in American political history who are even four years older than they were in 2020. This is almost inconceivable.
The most important action on this right now is, by virtue of the fact that the president is a Democrat, it's in the Democratic Party. As I said, in terms of mechanisms, and, by the way, the courts don't establish the mechanisms that political parties have to follow. They set their own rules. But the courts will make certain that they follow their own rules.
The Democratic Party and the Republican Party follow different rules, even if they're following somewhat the same timetable. But the reality is that the Democratic Party, in the name of reform, has adopted rules that would make it impossible, virtually impossible at this point, to deny Joe Biden the nomination if he wants it and he gets to the convention.
But, as I said, the other side of the equation is Donald Trump. Of course, if you're talking about the mishandling of documents, that's pretty evident in terms of the scale of the investigation and the charges that have been brought against President Trump.
I want to be very clear, I see them as extremely serious, and I think they should be seen as extremely serious. Now we have both of the major party nominees who, to one degree or another, are going to be complicit in this even as they run against one another. Both of them, in his own way, has compromised national security at least in some of these grounds.
We Would Not Aid an Ally in Need? Evaluating the Former President Trump's Words About NATO Over the Weekend
But it was other issues that brought President Trump into the headlines over the weekend. Once again, the former president found a way to walk on a political situation which had been unfolding to his advantage until he started talking. The two big issues going into the weekend had to do with NATO and the military service of the husband of his remaining challenger for the Republican nomination, a distant challenger to be sure, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.
First, the NATO issue, speaking in South Carolina at a political rally, the former president seemed to be calling up what was presented as a conversation that he had had while he was president with the head of a NATO ally, the head of state, presumably the head of government, of a NATO ally.
The former president presented this leader of a big country as having asked, "Well, sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us?" He then said that he responded at that time with these words, "You didn't pay, you're delinquent." He went on to say, "Yes, let's say that happened. No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever they want. You've got to pay."
Now when you're talking about a candidate on the hustings, you're looking at a candidate speaking at a political rally, sometimes rather inadvisable things are said. But in this case, this was not only inadvisable, this is very dangerous to the national security of the United States.
Now President Trump seems to believe that NATO is an imposition upon the United States, and thus he implies, I guess, that the United States is in NATO out of benevolence and out of concern for our European allies, that we would protect them. But the actual reason for the formation of NATO as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not so much benevolence, as the fact that it is in the national interest of the United States, that what was then the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc not run freely over Europe, and instead that there would be a community of nations in the North Atlantic Treaty organization, NATO, with a mutual defense pact. It was well-understood at the end of World War II, that the biggest bill for that mutual defense is going to have to be paid by the United States.
And as I said, it's not rooted in benevolence, it's rooted in American national interest, because the American political and military leadership at the time understood that our European allies were a buffer between ourselves, and the Soviet Union, and the Eastern Bloc. Yes, there was a sense of Atlantic solidarity and, yes, the United States did prop up and, in one sense, continues to prop up NATO financially. And, yes, many of our European allies are delinquent and they're very irresponsibly delinquent in terms of building up their own military, and funding NATO as is their allotment.
Yes, there's no question that that is true, but the United States is in no position, as a matter of fact, the United States would completely abrogate our treaty responsibilities if we were to say, and I think it's actually doubtful that the former president said any such thing in these words to a European ally, that we would simply tell Russia to have its way and do whatever they want. That would be not only disastrous for that country, not only disastrous for others of our allies in the region, it would ultimately be disastrous for the United States.
Now that doesn't mean there's no ceiling that constitutes a rightful American investment in this mutual defense. It is, after all, a mutual defense treaty. It is an organization of allied nations in mutual defense, and that requires that all parties actively participate and contribute. And especially after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, it's interesting to see there are other nations such as Sweden and Finland who now want to get into NATO. They want to join that mutual defense pact.
And quite frankly, it's in the American interest that they do just that. It's in the American interest that we create as much of a buffer in Europe to Russian imperialism as is possible. That's important for American interest. It's very important that there are other soldiers that are on the front lines, because eventually those front lines would be peopled by the United States and our personnel, except for the fact there is a mutual defense agreement and, thus, a NATO treaty.
The biblical worldview requires us to try to look at the basic moral reality of what's at stake, and there's something we just need to understand. Nations will act consistent with their understanding of their own national interests. This is a key insight of what we refer to in Christian theology as the Augustinian worldview. This is the worldview, those made very clear by Augustine, one of the most important of the early theologians in the church as he was analyzing Rome, and even looking to the fall of Rome. Nations act in their own interest, however they define the national interest. They may get it wrong, but they're not going to act in ways that are perceived as injurious or contradictory to their national interest.
The Americans, who brought leadership in the formation of NATO, believed then that it was in our national interest, and American leadership has believed that all throughout that time, and especially with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which, by the way, raises a lot of issues we're going to have to consider right now. We'll be turning to that rather shortly in future editions of The Briefing. But the reality is that was a wake-up call to the fact that American interest is not limited to the North American continent.
Major Haley is Abroad Serving His Country: The Story Behind the Bizarre Headline
But, as I said, the former president also walked on his own message and, quite frankly, gave the other side ammunition with a comment that he made about the husband of his remaining Republican challenger, Nikki Haley.
Again, speaking before a political rally, and that appears to be a particular vulnerability for the former president that's been pretty well-documented going all the way back to 2015, 2016, President Trump went on to ask mockingly where Nikki Haley's husband is, suggesting in this video clip that the reason he is not present and visible on the campaign trail is because he knows his wife is going to lose and embarrassingly so.
In actuality, if you ask where Major Michael Haley is of the South Carolina Army National Guard, if you ask where he is, he is deployed in a foreign nation right now on behalf of the American flag, and as an officer of the United States South Carolina Army National Guard. He has the rank of major. He is currently deployed.
Now the vast majority of Americans would consider that to be a most honorable occupation, and a most honorable reason not to be visible on the campaign trail. Now some of the allies of President Trump have said that the video clip is being misused, but, nonetheless, there is no question that the former president did draw attention to the absence of Major Haley from his wife's campaign and seemed to mock the fact that he wasn't there.
This is a former president who's made other dismissive comments about members of the United States military. Remember, the president, constitutionally, is commander-in-chief.
Now, all of this just underlines the fact that we are in one of the most interesting and volatile periods of American political history ever. There are major issues at stake. Quite frankly, we have two candidates who are not only sharing the fact that they're rather aged, although one more than the other, and apparently far less energetic than the other, we're also looking at two very established political brands in the United States, and, quite frankly, both of them have problems, but they're not the same problem, when it comes to their political positions and to what four more years of either one of them would mean.
Given the reality of what is at stake and the fact that this is headed towards some form of a binary in really meaningful terms in the November election, there may be a third-party candidate, but in the political context in the United States, you're looking at a binary choice, the fact is that right now most of the people who have been committed to vote for President Biden's reelection are probably still headed in that direction. Most of the people who were going to vote for former President Trump in the next presidential election, they're probably undeterred. I think there are actually very few people who are honestly and meaningfully between those two categories.
But, nonetheless, there are enough who aren't in either one of those two established camps to mean that the outcome of the 2024 election really could come down to something said or done by either of the candidates at any point, and that clock is ticking and that calendar's turning.
Actions have consequences. Christians understand that, but Christians understand that words have consequences as well. A sobering thought for us all on Monday of the week.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmoler.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 on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.