Tuesday, April 16, 2024

It’s Tuesday, April 16, 2024.

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

Part I

‘A Government of Laws, Not of Men’: What Does All This Mean as Former President Trump’s First Criminal Trial Begins?

In the United States, it is often said, and this is our national commitment, we are a nation of laws not of men, which is to say the rule of law pertains to every single American citizen, period. That’s why it’s so important that so much attention has been given yesterday, for example, to day one of the very first criminal trial of a former president of the United States. In this case, the trial is taking place in Manhattan and the defendant in this case is former President Donald J. Trump. At the center of the facts and the allegations in this case is, no surprise at this point, a sex scandal. But the issues are far more complicated in legal terms than frankly they are rather complicated in moral terms. So let’s look at this for a moment and understand what we’re talking about.

The Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, had said even before he was elected that if elected, he would bring charges against former President Trump. And so there’s no big surprise here, but this isn’t really the way the rule of law is supposed to act. You’re not supposed to have a prosecutorial authority say that he’s going to bring charges, “We’ll figure those out later.” That’s basically what has taken place here. This is not all about politics in notoriously liberal Manhattan, but it is about politics. You can’t take the politics out of it, particularly the way politics has been played, even through the legal system and what is sometimes known as “lawfare” by the Manhattan district attorney. And frankly, others are in line to do the very same thing.

Now, when you look at this case, it is unusual for a number of reasons. Number one, it is without precedent a former president of the United States, in a courtroom, as defendant when we’re talking about criminal charges. That’s a precedent, that should concern us all, but here we are. And at the center of this situation is, as I have said, a moral scandal, a morality tale. But in order to get to this trial, the Manhattan district attorney, who we said had indicated he wanted to bring charges against the former president before he even knew what those charges might be, the Manhattan district attorney has here brought charges against the former president that notably the federal authorities did not decide to bring.

So at least in the view of federal authorities, having to do with the fact that by the way one of the triggers in this case is supposedly a federal election, but federal authorities did not decide to bring these charges. It was the Manhattan district attorney, and one of the biggest questions that is faced in this is whether or not Donald Trump as Donald Trump, not as the former president, that’s a part of the picture to be sure, but just as Donald Trump, the person, whether he can gain a fair trial in terms of the seating of a jury there in Manhattan. To state the matter just as simply and as irreducibly as possible, Donald Trump is way out of step with the politics and with the culture of Manhattan, not just with the District Attorney.

But when it comes to Donald Trump, we really are talking about outsize issues here. And honestly, it’s going to be very difficult to know how such a jury might be impaneled. That’s absolutely necessary according to the rule of law and how it might operate with integrity. Again, the setup here, very, very difficult. Now, the opponents, the enemies of Donald Trump are upset about one and one central thing in this case, and that is that this is the trial that is the first to come when we’re talking about the former president. This is a trial that began yesterday in terms of process in that Manhattan courtroom and even the opponents of the former president understand this may well be what they characterize as the weakest case.

The reason it might turn out to be quite weak is not because some of the material facts are really in question. The question is, are they really criminal acts? So for example, you have the payment of hush money to a woman who had been involved in the pornography industry who had a sexual relationship with the former president. That would’ve been embarrassing to the former president in the midst of the presidential election in 2016. And so, it is alleged, and the facts in this case are to a considerable degree publicly known, it was the president’s attorney who had paid a certain amount of money in order to make certain that the story did not go public.

The Manhattan district attorney has turned this into a more serious case than it would otherwise be by bundling multiple charges, and by bringing in the accusation that this was corruption tampering with the electoral process. So in other words, payoff money to someone who had been a former romantic partner with the presidential candidate was considered to be tantamount to a campaign donation.

Now, just to be honest, as I say, this is a very ugly situation morally everywhere you look, but legally, it’s not at all clear that that’s going to be a sustainable charge. In one of the shortest declarations possible, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal simply said that the Manhattan District attorney’s “hush money case is a legal stretch.” Well, it is a big legal stretch. And that means that it’s very, very dangerous in the context of the American democratic system when we are in the midst of a presidential campaign. This trial process is going to require the former president, who is at this point the assumed Republican nominee for the office of President of the United States, to require him to be in that federal courtroom for a considerable part of the day, four days a week, so long as this process continues as it is. That could be a matter of weeks that could quite easily stretch into a matter of months.

Now, the former president says he did nothing wrong. Well, we’ll let the legal scholars figure out if there was something wrong legally in what the president did or those did on behalf of the former president, who was then a presidential candidate. Morally speaking, let’s just remind ourselves Christians, we’re talking about an illicit sexual affair. We’re talking about the sin of adultery. And we’re talking about a pattern here, which quite frankly is beyond refute. It’s a very ugly picture. And this is not an excuse for any politicians. It is simply a matter of a brokenhearted recognition that if you are going to start bringing legal charges against every politician who has committed sexual sin, quite frankly, our legal system would not be able to bear it. That isn’t to say it shouldn’t happen, in moral terms, but that’s a different question than whether or not it should happen in legal terms.

One of the big challenges for Christians during this trial is going to be separating the issues the way it is, in worldview terms, necessary to separate them. At the same time, we understand that there are limits to how much you can separate them. And so we understand that one of the big questions here is the distinction between what is morally right, and what is say legally right. Or to put it another way, what is morally wrong and what is a crime.

Now, in a perfect situation, the answer to those two questions would be the very same thing. But in our situation, under the rule of law with legislation adopted by Congress or the appropriate legislative body and with the rule of law righteously in operation, it is simply not the case that everything that is a sin is a crime. And you could also argue, sadly enough, it’s not always really clear that every single crime is a sin, which is to say there are some process crimes, there are some crimes that quite frankly are so confusing, it’s not clear that anyone had to have any evil intent to commit at least some of these crimes, certainly some that are promulgated by the administrative state.

So as this trial unfolds, there are going to be numerous questions we will face. Some of them just have to do with the operation of the rule of law. Will there be an adequate jury impaneled for this trial? Will it be in any sense a jury of Donald Trump’s peers? Now, that’s not to say they are his equal in terms of economic power. It’s not to say anyone is really going to be able to come to this with the same kind of resume of political office. This is the first former president of the United States to be in such a situation after all. But at the very same time, every single defendant in the United States deserves a jury that is fair-minded and will honestly and fairly evaluate the evidence and the arguments and come to a just decision.

Now, here’s something else you need to see. It is true that the district attorney there in New York, in one sense, will win politically with his own voters whether or not he wins this case, and that’s because the voters of New York will be very glad that this trial took place, the very liberal voters of a very liberal city, because they will see a certain amount of damage done and they will think that a certain point has been made. Remember that according to the rule of law, according to the laws of New York, the laws under which this trial is now operating, a single juror not voting to convict means that the defendant would not be convicted.

That’s one of the points made by some observers not only here in the United States but elsewhere. This appears to set a pretty dangerous precedent when you are talking about a presidential candidate in the midst of a presidential campaign. It also appears to be a pretty dangerous precedent when you have to bundle all these charges together in order to gain the kind of stature for the felony charges that the district attorney has here brought. It is also dangerous to recognize that we are in a situation in which it is going to be very easy for this entire process to melt down, for the entire case to fall apart. That’s not to say it is certain to happen, but it is certainly a looming possibility. This will be an embarrassment not only for the rule of law in this country, but for this country’s reputation around the world, our legal system’s reputation.

Now, as you look at that, we also just have to come back again and again to say we are talking about very serious moral issues here. And this is where Christians are going to have a hard time thinking this through because Donald Trump is not going to be on trial for adultery. He is not going to be on trial for breaking his marital vows. He’s not going to be on trial for the statements he has made, more or less, boastful of that sin and of violating his marital vows.

When it comes to this kind of trial, it follows an indictment and criminal charges that have to do with specific violations, it is alleged of laws or a law, serious enough to bring about this kind of legal process eventuating in a jury trial. And here’s where in worldview analysis, we need to recognize that there is always more to this than the morality and the law. There is, also in this context, the politics. And here’s the amazing thing. When you look at the Manhattan D.A. and you look at the Democrats and the others who are so excited about this trial and they are so certain that it might mean the doom of Donald Trump, they’re very excited about it because they see this as political payback to Donald Trump.

On the other hand, even as the former president has protested this process, he is spending an awful lot of time making sure that his political base is aware of just about every twist and turn, which is to say that in the strangest turn of events here, in terms of just politics, in terms of just the political equation, it might well be that this trial has potential to be at least partially a benefit not only to the enemies of the former president, but to the former president, who oddly enough seems to see the trial at least in part in light.

One last aspect here, both sides in this, see all of the scandalous publicity about this trial as taking the place of earned media. Now, what does that term mean? It means that nobody’s paying for political announcements here. These are not political advertisements. It means that nonetheless, the media is obsessed with this and everyone is talking about it. You’re going to hear the name Alvin Bragg over and over and over again, the Manhattan district attorney. You’re going to hear the name of Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney over and over and over again. You’re going to hear the name of Stormy Daniels. You’re going to hear the name of Donald Trump over and over again. That is called unearned media.

Every side in this equation is going to try to figure out how to make that unearned media work for them. And we’re just going to have to say that we’re aware this is what is taking place, and no one at this point knows how that game is going to play out.

But Christians, we have to end this discussion by reminding ourselves that this is not just a game. This is about the rule of law, and that is based upon a worldview that developed out of biblical Christianity and the Christian biblical understanding of the importance of law, starting first of all with the law of God. So in the midst of all of this, we had better watch these things very, very carefully and understand that far more is at stake in this than just what is discussed, what becomes scandalous, what becomes a matter of this case. In this Manhattan courtroom, the issues loom far, far larger.

Part II

California Ups Fast Food Minimum Wage to $20/Hour — What Does This Mean, and Is it Just?

Okay, now let’s talk about the worldview significance of something very, very, let’s just say very different, but something very relevant. This has to do with the fact that just in the last few weeks, the state of California has moved the minimum wage for all fast food workers to $20 an hour. Not just that, it’s a minimum of $20 an hour. Now, keep in mind that the actual minimum wage in this country is a fraction of that. And keep in mind that even as California has been raising the minimum wage and other jurisdictions have as well, when you’re talking about fast food workers just mandated at a $20 per hour level, well, what are the implications of that? Is this good news or bad news? How would we know?

Well, this is where Christians understand that there are some really important biblical principles at stake here. One of those principles is that the worker is worthy of his hire, which is to say, we need to pay people fairly. In an economy, that’s a very basic principle. And an economy that violates that principle finds itself in big, big trouble. That’s one of the reasons why the communist experiment and the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s one of the reasons why when you have wages that are too high, the jobs just disappear. You have wages that are too low, people are being unjustly treated.

Now, the issue of a minimum wage in this country has been controversial from the start. And even when you get to the 20th century in the progressive reform movements that eventuated in the minimum wage, there were big arguments for and against it. Maybe it’s helpful to us to remember what those arguments were. The argument against the minimum wage is that a free market will establish what is a fair wage.

In a free market, you’re going to find out what your labor is worth because someone’s going to pay you to do a job and what they’re willing to pay you and what makes sense in their business model is what your labor is worth. But those who were on the other side, who were the proponents of a minimum wage mandated by government, and most importantly the federal government in terms of a federal minimum wage, they came back and said, “Yes, but there are inequities in the market and there is very real oppression. There’s the misuse and abuse of employees. And honestly, employers can get together and simply agree to keep wages low in order to keep their costs low and make their profits higher.”

And when you talk about tumultuous events, including the unionization, the labor movement that took place in the early 20th century, and then the Great Depression that took place when the stock market crashed in 1929 and over the course of the next several years, you’re talking about the fact that there was enormous political pressure in this country for some kind of minimum wage.

Now, as you’re looking at the trajectory of the minimum wage in the United States, frankly, it has risen rather slowly. It tends to rise with fits and starts. It hasn’t risen from $7.25 since the year 2009. Now, that’s taken place during that period. And even in 2009, it came after a massive financial crisis in 2008. But now you’re talking about certain jurisdictions where it may be 12, 13, 14, 15, $16. Now, in the state of California, particularly for the fast food industry, it’s $20. So is that good news for workers? Is it good news for justice or is it bad news?

I’m going to say that in the big picture, this is not good news. It is not good news because in this case, that $20 minimum wage, first of all, it’s arbitrarily established, and secondly, it requires a giant distortion of the California economy. And quite honestly, you just have to understand that when you are looking at wages that high, for that particular kind of job, you are looking at the fact that what is going to happen is that that increased cost is going to be passed on to consumers. And that’s why the average, say, McDonald’s meal in California is I think, quite daunting for the average family. It’s quite shocking. If that’s what fast food costs, well, you can see where that logic goes.

But this also comes down to the fact that there will be fewer jobs. That’s just a fact of life. If you’re going to raise the minimum wage to that level, a lot of those jobs are going to disappear. And here’s the other thing we have to keep in mind. We are in the midst of a massive transformation in our economy. Honestly, it is likely that future Americans, if the Lord tarries, are going to look back at this particular era and see something like a third or fourth industrial revolution, this one having to do with artificial intelligence and automation, which is to say that fast food is one of the dimensions in which it is almost certain that in that economic sector, there will be fewer jobs per restaurant, certainly per customer sale, looking to the future than there are now.

For instance, you go into a restaurant like McDonald’s now and sometimes you don’t even talk to someone, you are talking to a screen and then all of a sudden the food appears on the counter. Well, that is not just a matter of digital amazement. That is a matter of labor cost savings. Don’t miss that point.

Now, I think a fair-minded way of looking at this is that the oppression of workers is something that certainly can happen in an economy like this, particularly when you’re talking about people who may be new to the country, might not speak English, might not have much awareness of the context and their options. There are people we can understand who might find themselves in a situation in which any honest person would say they’re underpaid. Someone here is actually oppressing that person, stealing that labor to translate it into the interest of the business.

Now, on the other hand, you’re looking at something like what is taking place in California. And you understand that when you get to that kind of distortion field serving a political purpose, and honestly, in California it’s largely possible because you have a liberal democratic governor and an overwhelmingly liberal democratic state assembly or legislature, you really are looking at a mess. And there’s more to it than just that. If you are going to distort this into something that is mandated by government too high, well, businesses will respond. They’ll respond, as I say, with fewer jobs. They’ll also respond with higher prices. But there’s something else. They’ll respond by picking up and moving somewhere else.

The justification for a minimum wage law should be that basic justice requires it to be, this. And that doesn’t mean that that’s an optimal wage. It doesn’t mean that that’s going to fit everywhere and every place and every job at every time. It simply means that in this society right now, we have commonly agreed that the per hour rate for anyone who’s going to be working has to not be less than that. But as soon as you say that, you recognize that even that might be an overstatement, because if you’re talking about, say, someone who might be a mother or a father of children at home and might be looking at this being a major income for the family, that’s one thing. But if you’re talking about a 16-year-old with a first job a few hours after school, well, I think most of us would say that’s a bit different.

And sadly, the bottom line in a lot of this is that those 16-year-olds have better not count on these jobs in the future because employers are not going to risk paying $20 an hour for Caleb or Kimberly, who quite frankly have absolutely no job experience, and let’s all be honest, aren’t worth $20 an hour, at least at first.

But here’s where a sane society recognizes it really is to everyone’s benefit, including Caleb and Kimberly, that they start working and finding out what it means to be in the workplace, finding out what it means to work for someone, finding out the link between labor and reward, finding that satisfaction, saving their money, and finding satisfaction in that. If younger Americans do not have that experience, we’re in even bigger trouble economically and morally.

Part III

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose: Californians Critique Governor Gavin Newsom for Loophole Allowing His Own Restaurant to Bypass $20/Hour Minimum Wage Law

Honestly, if you’re going to legislate this, then the upper limit is simply what the political class believes is politically possible. That’s pretty much the way things are in California. But I also want to add that if you do this, you are almost certainly going to be a hypocrite.

But when it comes to hypocrisy, it is hard to come close to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who, after all, is deeply personally invested in a restaurant business which offers a minimum wage for some jobs, the Los Angeles Times and other papers report, at $16 an hour. That’s $4 less than the mandated minimum wage for fast food restaurants because the governor’s own financial interest in a restaurant isn’t covered by the fast food regulation with the legislation as written.

You just got to love a politician who plays the game according to the rules. Heads, I win. Tails, you lose. But of course, this isn’t the end of the story because the other big story in California is the number of people who are leaving, who quite frankly can’t afford to be there. And this is a problem now in many parts of California, but particularly in Southern and in Northern California where the real estate, the housing costs are just incredibly high. That is a part of the point that the legislature, and in this case, the California governor made. But the point is that raising wages the way they are is going to make those costs even higher, which leads to another major report in California just over the last few days, indicating that even though there has been a vast expenditure in trying to come up with low-cost housing, thus far, it hasn’t made even a minor dent in the problem.

And that is because California’s government has become an example of what takes place when government doesn’t solve problems. Increasingly, the government is the problem. Now, in California, let’s admit, that is something of a shared responsibility because the culture itself in terms of certainly the coastal elites, has been moving in a very liberal progressivist, frankly anti-capitalist direction for a very, very long time. But as we are well reminded, ideas have consequences, and some ideas turn out to be extremely expensive. And in this case, expensive in more ways than one.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 

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 on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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