Friday, May 31, 2024

It’s Friday, May 31st, 2024. 

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

Part I

May 30, 2024 — Day of Historical Consequence: Former President Donald J. Trump Becomes First President in U.S. History Convicted of Criminal Charges

Usually, on Friday, we turn to matters of cultural importance and then we turn to questions. That’s what I had expected to do today, but not so. And that’s because yesterday, Donald J. Trump became the first President or former President of the United States to be convicted of crimes, and in this case to be convicted on 34 counts, felony counts. And so we are looking at May the 30th, 2024 as being one of those days that is going to be remembered in American history. No matter how old you are right now, you are going to remember this day one way or the other.

I can still remember as a boy of 14 when President Richard Nixon announced his resignation. I can still remember the powerful visuals of seeing him go to the helicopter, and get on, and fly away as President, knowing that he would eventually land in California on Air Force One as it was no longer Air Force One, and he was no longer President of the United States. When it comes to Donald Trump, the situation just gets all the more historically conflicted because in this case we are talking about a former President, but we’re also talking about Donald Trump, who is assuredly the Republican nominee for the office of President of the United States, as we are looking at the November election. And so we are looking at a very strange, but as Christians understand, a very important moment in American history.

And before we go any further, we just need to recognize this as a national tragedy. Any way you look at it, we are looking at this date as a tragedy. If someone has a spirit of celebration about what took place in that courtroom in Manhattan yesterday, it is misplaced. There is a difference between having a disagreement in moral terms and believing that somehow this is good for the United States of America. It is not. It is a dark day, but we’re also looking at a situation that is extremely controversial. And in order to understand this, we need to step back for a moment and say we have to look at the process. We have to look at the charges. We have to look at the course of the trial. We have to look at the verdict. We have to look at the political context. We have to look at the larger issues here at stake. And I assure you there are very large issues that are at stake.

So the first aspect of the news coming yesterday was surprise, surprise that the verdict had come so quickly and then there was the reading of the jury’s verdicts, 34 counts, eventually 34 declarations of guilty as charged. And that was quite a surprise. It was a surprise in terms of the timing. And advocates for the former President knew that the longer the jury deliberated, the better were his chances of an acquittal, an acquittal on some of the charges, or a hung jury on at least some, if not all of the charges. When a jury looks at a situation this complex and at a trial that took this long to conduct and comes back with a verdict that fast, it raises some very interesting questions.

On the one hand, it can tell you that the evidence was so strong, the case was so strong, the government had made its case so convincingly, that there really wasn’t the need for much deliberation. But this was a complex case and it was quite a contested prosecution. And so in this situation, you look at it and you say, “It looks like this jury had made up its mind before it even received the instructions given by the judge.” Even the time it takes just procedurally to go through 34 counts, that would amount to most of the time that the jury spent after it was sent to do its work. But we also have to see here very big issues related to the rule of law. And so we are looking at the brute fact, the sad fact, the tragic fact that for the first time in American history, a President or in this case, former President of the United States, has been convicted on criminal charges.

I’m going to come back to this at the end, but this is not only without precedent in the United States, it now puts the United States in some very strange and awkward political company. Because looking at the political process and seeing it end not in an election but a trial. And then, by the way, not to end because there’s an election coming in just a matter of weeks. We really are talking about an unprecedented situation, and any way you look at it, this is not a good thing for this country. So before we go any further, we just need to understand that the moral implications of this verdict are massive. The historical consequence of what took place there in Manhattan yesterday, simply massive. We need for a moment to let the moral of the national tragedy settle on us. We need to recognize that what took place yesterday is in one sense a turning point in American history and we’ll have to think about that a bit further as well.

But we also understand this is a very dangerous political moment in the United States. It’s dangerous for a number of reasons. Number one, because there are people who may respond to this verdict either way, in ways that are not only inappropriate, but potentially damaging or weakening to our entire political culture. We are now facing a dangerous political moment. There are constitutional dangers, there are legal complexities, and these are now being tossed around as weapons of political warfare. You put all that into the context and I think it’s hard to argue that we are overestimating the tinderbox before us, the danger of the challenge before us.

Part II

Immense Political Pressure, a Zombie Case, and an Unprecedented Legal Argument: The Politics Behind the Trump Trial in Manhattan

At this point, I also simply want to get to the trial itself, I want to get to the verdict, and I want to say some things that I believe are morally necessary. The first thing is that as you look at this particular prosecution, in this jurisdiction, by this District Attorney, we are looking at a problem in America’s culture of the rule of law. We’re looking at violations of historical precedence here that are very important. For one thing, when you look at American history, there have been numerous occasions and numerous reasons why a President who is, of course, the head of the executive branch, and that means in control of the prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice. Ultimately the attorney general answers to the President of the United States. Heretofore successive administrations have not sicked the Feds on the administration before, much less in a situation in which there was a contested Presidential election and it is the losing candidate who is the subject of prosecutorial interest by the winning candidate.

But let’s be clear, this particular trial is not about federal charges. This particular trial was not brought by the United States Department of Justice. That’s a precedent that is a very bad and ominous sign, because those prosecutions are out there and those trials are likely to happen. This particular trial was brought by Alvin Bragg, the District Attorney there in Manhattan. It was brought on the basis of New York law. Now, New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. New York City, let’s just state the obvious, is overwhelmingly Democratic and it’s hard to even come up with the right word to use there. As you are looking at the area from which the jurors were chosen, incredible preponderance of Democrats, and not only of Democrats, but of fairly liberal Democrats, at least by the voting traditions and the patterns there in Manhattan.

Furthermore, Alvin Bragg ran for that office as an identified enemy of Donald Trump, someone who wanted to bring legal action against Donald Trump, and basically promised the voters he would do so if he had the opportunity. This reminds us of something else. The Manhattan District Attorney had the evidence concerning what became the charges against Donald Trump in this case and did not act on them, did not decide to proceed with prosecution for two reasons. Number one, you are looking at an unprecedented set of claims by the prosecution. You are looking at a situation in which in order to bundle them up into a felony level, they basically had to make arguments that were based upon what amounts to a conspiracy in the context of the 2016 Presidential election. That hadn’t been done before. It had never been done before in this light. Furthermore, this was a case that in legal terms was known as a zombie case, which is to say: it was still there, a prosecutor could pick it up, but no one really expected that it was going to live again.

But under Alvin Bragg and under incredible pressure, and I want to be clear about this, public pressure, media pressure, political pressure, Alvin Bragg brought the prosecution and he did so with people admitting at the time, that this was not the strongest case that could be brought. There were arguments against even framing the prosecution the way that he did. But as we found out yesterday, the District Attorney, well, he was right when he assumed that this could lead to a guilty verdict. That’s exactly what happened. But I think a lot of Americans would recognize this case would only be brought in New York City, in Manhattan. This jury could only be seated in New York City, in Manhattan. And this guilty verdict, indeed, all of these guilty verdicts raised to the level of felonies, none of this is likely to have happened anywhere else.

And that leads to another problem. Let’s just put it on the table. Here we have a former President of the United States, who is almost assuredly his party’s nominee for the Office of President in November, and here we have a state prosecution of a case that was acknowledged to be a zombie case based upon unprecedented legal arguments, whether the District Attorney prevailed or not, and he did, at least at this point. The reality is, that this was a political decision, as much as it was a legal decision, if not more so. Another issue, of course, was the conduct of the trial. Judge Juan Merchan in this case made many questionable calls. Now, as you’re looking at a case like this with so much national attention, frankly, it can be charged that any number of judges made any number of right or wrong calls because given a case of this complexity, judges are going to have to make a lot of calls.

But in this case, this wasn’t just any judge. And he had been involved in cases like this before, and there were people even on the political and legal left who were acknowledging that some of the calls he made had set up the situation, if there were a conviction, and there was, for the former President to come back with what many people think would be very strong grounds for an appeal. But politically, you realize that appeal is going to come long after the 2024 Presidential election, and that sets up an incredibly difficult situation, an incredibly dangerous situation for the United States. This was pointed out recently by a columnist at the New York Times. Let’s just consider this. What happens now that Donald Trump has been convicted? What happens when the election takes place and that fact is used against him, and then an appellate court reverses that conviction?

Just imagine what the electoral base of Donald Trump is going to think about that. And you’re looking very clearly at the fact that an awful lot of people, including most of the elected leadership in the Republican Party, in Congress, they’re very clear about the fact that this was a wrongfully brought case, and that it was framed on flimsy grounds. And the big point is here that, that would be arguable about just about any case, just about any defendant, just about any time. What’s unprecedented here is that we’re talking about the man who’s going to be the Republican nominee for the office of President of the United States. It’s hard to make the argument that this can’t have anything to do with political revenge or the 2024 elections, especially since so many people on the left, and so many people in the mainstream media have been complaining about the fact that so many of these trials have been delayed so that they will not impact the election.

So don’t tell us it’s not about the election. You’ve just told us the opposite. The news media gave this, and I guess at this point it’s understandable, gave it nearly 24 hour coverage and the debates just went on and on. The talking heads just talked on and on, and most of them I think were quite surprised actually when the verdict came in on Thursday afternoon. But the situation was pretty clearly communicated by the media. Here you have the Republican candidate for office of President of the United States. He was tied down in this trial. He had to be there when the trial was in session. He had to be there during the time even that the deliberations were going on. He wasn’t on the campaign trail. Now, politically, I think the former President is going to use this to his advantage. He’s going to argue to his base, “Hey, they just did this to me. You’re next unless you elect me President.”

This is going to be a very, very dangerous political season for the United States, made all the more dangerous in constitutional terms and in terms of our political culture by what took place in that New York courtroom. And you can track that back to the criminal indictment that was handed down with all those counts and you can track it just about every day during the trial. And now it’s a very volatile situation in the United States.

Part III

Conservative Christians Face a Difficult Political Moment: The Sobering Political Reality of A Trump v. Biden Rematch in 2024

Those of us who are trying to think as Christians biblically about this, it’s one thing to see the political manipulation, it’s one thing to see the media manipulation, and those things need to be called out, but we also just have to look at this in moral terms. And legally, one of the confusing issues, the mainstream media kept talking about this as the Trump hush money trial.

So hush money is money that is paid to someone to shut them up, to make them hush. And the interesting thing here is that no one is arguing that, that money wasn’t paid and that it wasn’t paid directly or indirectly, as is alleged, to a porn actress. And there is no doubt, at least according to photographic evidence, that Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump were in a room, in public photographed. Whether or not there was more to it, I don’t know. And frankly, that became an issue of consideration in the trial because the judge allowed some of that testimony to go forward in a way that actually wasn’t necessarily germane to the case at all. But as Christians, we need to recognize that if you are in a position where you’re acknowledging you paid hush money, well, you’re in a morally dubious situation. But this isn’t a shocking situation when it comes to Donald Trump.

You go back to 2016, the Access Hollywood tape. You go back to how he presented himself when he was just, if you can say just, a major New York celebrity, a television star, you go back to the lifestyle, including the casinos and so many other things that were pretty flagrantly sexualized, you look at this and you realize, we are unsurprised when it comes to Donald Trump and this kind of allegation against him. That just needs to be honestly said. And that means that for Christians, the hush money issue here in moral terms is a more foundational issue than it was or could have been in this trial, because we are talking about underlying behavior that is alleged to have been grossly immoral. And it’s something that clearly violates God’s law, God’s commandment, God’s purpose for sexuality, the sanctity of marriage, you can just go down the list.

Now, at this point, it doesn’t work to make the argument, well, other Presidents have done the same, but it does work in one sense to make the argument that the American people aren’t as surprised by some of this, given previous Presidential behavior that might’ve been the case. We understand as Christians, you can’t make the argument, if he did it, well, this person can do it too. But you know, can observe the fact that over time Americans become less and less concerned about some of these issues. And the explanation is, there are other issues that have arisen that take preeminence. And so I think it’s fair to say that if you go back to the 1980s or the 1990s, not to mention the 1930s or the 1960s, it’s virtually impossible to imagine conservative Christians voting for someone like Donald Trump. And yet they did in 2016. Overwhelmingly, they did again in 2020, and I think it’s probably safe to say they will do it again in 2024.

And there are a lot of reasons that are likely playing a role behind this. But one of them, perhaps the main issue here is that Donald Trump has simply said, enough of the nonsense when it comes to our government and when it comes to much of the nonsense, these are issues in which conservative Christians are also very, very concerned. When it came to the sanctity of human life, Donald Trump in 2016 said he would appoint justices to the United States Supreme Court who would read the Constitution in terms of a strict construction or an original intent, an originalist understanding, that would lead to an understanding that there is no way that abortion is a guaranteed constitutional right. He said he would do it, and he did. Three justices of the Supreme Court, very crucial in the 2022 reversal of abortion, reversal of Roe V. Wade, in the Dobbs decision.

And you’re looking at other issues in terms of executive orders, on issues of sexuality and many dimensions of religious liberty. And you look at the threats that conservative Christians understand in the culture around us, when we have a government that is increasingly threatening to tell our sons that they can be girls, and our daughters that they can be boys. Well, in this kind of situation, the political rules are off. Now, many people on the evangelical left say, “Well, that’s illegitimate. That’s just making a political deal.” Well, politics is making a deal and we need to be very honest about it, and we need to understand that this is a very difficult political moment for conservative Christians in this country.

But here’s the thing, the conviction of Donald Trump in this Manhattan courtroom isn’t fundamentally in moral terms a game changer. For conservative evangelical Christians who feel deeply about issues of religious liberty and of the integrity of marriage, of resistance to the gender and sexual revolution, to push back against the administrative state and the understanding that the federal government wants to basically intrude upon our lives, take over the role, and take the responsibilities and rights of parents in so many cases, when you’re looking at issue after issue, we are really in a very difficult position, particularly when there are character issues everywhere you look. And so we have to say that not only are there character issues with Donald Trump, which simply are unprecedented and so large, honestly, they’re hard to describe, we’re also looking at character issues with the current President of the United States, Joe Biden.

And there is simply no way to say on the one hand, well, they’re exactly the same thing. Obviously, they’re not. But it’s also impossible I think to make the argument with any moral credibility that somehow Joe Biden is the morally superior candidate, not when you look at the effect of his policies, not when you look at the intentional confusion on the gender and sexuality issues, not when you look at his ruthlessness now in basically being a doddering tool of the ideological left, to push that agenda and to make promises he would do the same, to become now a champion of abortion when he said he had been for decades personally opposed to it. Now he is its avid defender, and frankly, there are admissions in the Democratic Party and in the mainstream media that the Democrats are hoping that abortion will push them over the line to victory.

You are looking at a situation in which, honestly, there is no good place, safe place, easy place for the Christian to go in good Christian conscience. But as I said, this gives Donald Trump actually a lot of credibility to say to his political base, “Look, they came for me. They’re going to come for you.” And an awful lot of Americans feel that’s pretty much the way it is. Not on the same issues, but when it comes to the disposition of government.

Part IV

As Christians, We Need Pray for Our Country and Seek To Be Found Biblically Faithful, Even in the Political Process, in the Days and Months Ahead

Now, how exactly this plays out over the next several weeks and months, we don’t know that yet. We need to admit that. We’re in a fluid situation. But the big question is being asked across the political spectrum, how does this impact the 2024 Presidential election? And the fact that, that impact is not yet clear should tell you a whole lot about how millions of Americans have considered the importance of this trial and its verdicts. That can change. We shall see. Crucial weeks, days, and months ahead of us.

But as we look at this, we also need to recognize this is about what we know right now. There may be future developments. There will be future developments. We’ll take those into account when they happen. At this point, we need to recognize that what happened yesterday was important. This will be a day that will live in American history. It comes to us with great historical consequence. We’re not even sure right now what all those consequences are, but we do know as Christians we have a special responsibility to try our very best to think biblically and Christianly about these issues and to do so honestly.

I wish today we’ve been able to get to some of your questions, but you know what? Sometimes history intrudes in such a way as we just experienced in the last few hours. And so let’s pray for our country. Let’s pray for all concerned. Let’s pray for both righteousness and justice to prevail. Let’s pray for wisdom to know how to think through these things. And in coming days, no doubt we’ll have to return to some of these issues again.

This one has been hard, so thanks for listening to The Briefing. 

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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