May 19, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, May 19, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Political game changer? DOJ appoints former FBI Dir. Robert Mueller as special counsel in Russia probe
The news has been ricocheting all over the world for the better part of the last 36 hours after the announcement from the United States Department of Justice that there would be the appointment of a new special counsel for the Russia investigation, none other than Robert S. Mueller III, a former Director of the FBI. This news came late on Wednesday, and it really is big news. We’re talking about a story that could be a complete political game changer in Washington DC and beyond.
A number of questions are implicated in this headline story. They include who and why and what; we’ll start with what. The United States government has had various ways of investigating itself over the course of the last 200 plus years, but what has become very interesting is that when you have a separation of power, there is the tendency for one branch of government to investigate the other. That’s been very common in American history going all the way back to the early years of our Republic where congressional committees would investigate the executive branch in one way or another.Show Full Transcript
But by the time you get to the second half of the 20th century, given the massive growth of the federal bureaucracy, it becomes not only often more imperative but always more complicated for the government to investigate itself. Furthermore, the moment you bring in one branch of government to investigate the other, the political stakes just get higher and higher—partisan politics, of course, never severable from all of this.
But the other thing that’s really interesting is that over the course of the last several decades, the government has come up with a way to form a special kind of insulated investigation. For decades, this was in terms of an independent counsel legislation that allowed the appointment of someone who would have broad investigative and prosecutorial powers. But the reason that statute was allowed to expire was because there was a bipartisan consensus that once those prosecutors were set loose, they often went far afield in terms of their assignment. There was almost no way to reign them in. The very process of trying to create a distance from the government when the investigation was taking place and especially from oversight either from Congress or from the executive branch meant that prosecutors were often able to go far beyond their original assignment, spending millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars, and also sometimes turning an investigation from having one direct subject to another.
As a matter of fact, some of the most memorable prosecutions in terms of the independent prosecutors have often taken place having nothing to do with the original assignment whatsoever, so Congress allowed that independent counsel legislation to expire. But, still within the purview of the Department of Justice is the creation of a so-called special counsel who is indeed independent by nature of the fact that this special counsel has the power to use the apparatus of the federal government to investigate.
The prosecutor, acting on behalf of the Department of Justice, would have subpoena power, the ability to gain information, and even to coerce testimony. And there would also be an insulation for these special prosecutors from any branch of government. But, of course, it never actually worked out that way.
But there is a deal that is struck here, and it’s important for us to understand what that deal looks like. The deal comes down to this. Other branches of government tend to back off once this kind of special counsel is named. There’s a good reason for that. The special counsel was given the assignment of supervising the entire investigation. The involvement of any other party can actually compromise that investigation. But the other part of this deal is a trade-off. The trade-off comes down to this. You are trading off time for certainty, at least that’s in theory. You are trading off the ability to conclude an investigation quickly for the confidence that the fruit of the investigation will be that which brings a great deal more confidence than had the investigation be conducted otherwise.
Of course, all of this in terms of the developments of the last couple of days plays out in terms of a very partisan environment. And so those who are the detractors of President Donald Trump sometimes, even labeling themselves the resistors, are celebrating the formation of this independent counsel, but they do have concerns. Meanwhile, the defenders of President Trump are lamenting the naming of this independent counsel by the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, the very Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein who had also given to President Trump the memorandum the President cited in terms of firing the director of the FBI, James Comey.
Regrettably, so much of our national conversation in terms of the media, especially the 24 hour cable news networks, is simply consumed with hypotheses and arguments going one way or the other. But the bottom line is that once a national issue rises to this kind of prominence, once so many questions are in play, it is almost inevitable that something like the naming of this special prosecutor will take place.
One of the things to watch in terms of what’s happened in the last couple of days is to watch how many leaders in Congress, in both houses of Congress and in both parties, are actually speaking with relief that this has actually happened. And one of the other reasons for that is that it takes Congress itself off of the front burner in terms of having to conduct this kind of investigation.
Looking to the next several months and, frankly, you could stretch far beyond the next several months—that’s one of the dangers in this kind of process—what you can anticipate is that we will know very little, but what we do know may come out step-by-step. For example, we will know something when it becomes clear in public what kind of information this new prosecutor is requesting. The other thing that will become known is a witness list that is going to be drawn in terms of this unfolding investigation.
The other thing for us to note is that personal leadership credibility, once again, rises to the fore here not only in terms of the office of President of the United States and, for that matter, the leaders in Congress, but also in terms of the kind of individual to whom a Deputy Attorney General would turn in order to give credibility to this kind of investigation. And that point goes directly to Robert S. Mueller III who was for 12 years the Director of the FBI. That offers him an almost impeccable credibility not only as a lawyer and as a veteran prosecutor, he was also at one point head of the criminal division of the Department of Justice, but also bipartisan respect, members of Congress in both houses and in both parties, once again, have been accustomed to hearing direct testimony from Robert Mueller when he was the Director of the FBI.
There’s another factor here that is of importance in terms of credibility. Robert Mueller was appointed as director of the FBI by President George W Bush. His 10 year term of appointment to that office ran out during the term of President Barack Obama. Congress put a limit of 10 years upon the Director of the FBI so that there would not be a continued concentration of unhealthy power in that single office. That would be a reaction to the long—many would say far too long—directorship of J Edgar Hoover.
But what we need to understand here is that when President Barack Obama had his first opportunity to appoint a new Director of the FBI, he chose instead to get Congress to authorize an additional two year term for Robert Mueller as the FBI director. That represents a very rare bipartisan moment in the United States. At least a part of the background was that President Obama had good reason to believe that he would face a great deal of opposition if he tried to make a new appointment as FBI Director, which of course he eventually did in terms of the appointing of James Comey, whom President Trump recently fired.
From a Christian worldview perspective, one of the things we need to note is that when you inject this kind of chaos and uncertainty, disequilibrium into a political process, what just about everybody wants, whether they will acknowledge it or not, is for a grown up to arrive on the scene who can help to establish order, determine what’s really going on, and at least create a stable platform from which future decisions can be made.
Whether or not Americans believe that now was the right time to name this kind of special counsel, and arguments can be and will be made on both sides, the reality is that it has happened. And now that it has happened, at least we know this. An adult has shown up in the room. What difference that makes, only time will tell. But it will take some time. And that’s where Americans are now going to have to understand that most of the chatter taking place in our national media on this issue from this point forward until we hear something from this new special counsel is likely to be mostly speculation. What we all yearn for is something far more than mere speculation.
Roger Ailes, Fox News founder who toppled the liberal media monopoly, dies at 77
Next, we turn to another story that’s been ringing throughout the headlines. It has to do with the unexpected death of Roger Ailes who had been the main force behind the creation of the Fox News Network. Now of course when you’re look at the headlines in terms of the announcement was made by his wife early yesterday, what you will notice for instance the headline in the New York Times,
“Roger Ailes, who built Fox News into an empire, dies at age 77.”
Or similarly, you have the headline in yesterday’s edition Los Angeles Times.
“Roger Ailes, Fox News founder forced out by scandal, dies at 77.”
Now, of course, all of that is abundantly true. You are talking about a man who died at age 77. You are talking about a man who was the major force behind the establishment of Fox News Network. You are talking about a man who even in recent months was forced out in terms of a sexual scandal at the very media empire that he had created. This is an almost Shakespearean story, categorized it in terms of the Shakespearean canon as a tragedy. You’re looking here at a man who rose to the very top of the profession that he loved so much. We’re talking here about a man whose biography tells at least in large part the history of television in the United States going back a matter of decades to the 1960s. He held a minor role in the television program that was known then as the Mike Douglas Show. One of the guests on that program was a man who had run in 1960 for the office of President of the United States, Richard Milhouse Nixon. And it was to Nixon that Roger Ailes made the suggestion that if he did not make television his friend, he would not become the next President of the United States. That stuck with Richard Nixon who many believe lost the 1960 election precisely because of the first national televised debate, in that case, of course, with his Democratic adversary John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Richard Nixon took that advice to heart and eventually actually took the advisor as well, hiring Roger Ailes in terms of media advice and that was a practice that was followed by many Republican presidents and presidential candidates thereafter. This was traced especially through the Reagan years when Roger Ailes was known to be a major part of Reagan’s media outreach and strategy. And it continued all the way through the 2016 presidential election, when Roger Ailes was a stand-in representing Hillary Clinton in terms of the mock debates for the training of Donald Trump in that 2016 campaign. All that before, of course, even as rumors had circulated for years, he was eventually forced out because of the cumulative weight of sex scandals that have built up over his long years at the Fox News Network.
But that’s not the major story here. The major story actually is the change in the nation’s media ecology since Roger Ailes did establish the Fox News Network with Rupert Murdoch back in the year 1996. Let’s place that for just a moment. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States. Just about all conservatives in America looked back at the media environment as it stood at least even through 1992 and understood that the three major television networks were overwhelmingly liberal.
Furthermore, CNN, then largely directly controlled by businessman Ted Turner, was also understood to have a basically mainstream, more liberal perspective. Roger Ailes sold Rupert Murdoch, the very head of a media empire, on the idea that the time was right for the creation of an alternative voice in terms of the cable news networks. And of course, that was what became the Fox News Network. It began fairly small but it exploded in the political context of the late 1990s.
By the time you get to the first decade of the 21st century, the Fox News Network had become a catalyst for the explosion of alternatives in terms of the media that we now take for granted. Now remember that 1996 was on the far side of the digital revolution. So when the Fox News Network was created, it was one more in terms of the cable options that Americans had in terms of what was then almost 24 hour news coverage.
We take for granted now on the other side of that digital revolution that we have almost immediate access to news. What we need to think about in terms of the impact of Roger Ailes and Fox News is that he brought conservative voices an alternative voice outside the control of the captains of the mainstream media into the access of Americans. And that fundamentally changed America politically and culturally as well.
So even going back to our previous story, which deservedly is in first place in terms of the presidential politics in America at present, one of the things we need to understand is that this current national conversation, at once so energetic and often so speculative, is nonetheless a far broader conversation that it would have been three decades ago.
The liberal monopoly in terms of the news media was broken by the first decade of the 21st century even though many of the most liberal institutions and the media continued to have outsized influence and prestige. But the reality is that millions and millions of Americans now are not only looking at an option from the mainstream media, they, in many cases, give their little attention to the mainstream media.
When I met Roger Ailes back in the early 1990s, he had just written a book entitled, “You Are the Message.” And that’s exactly the point he wanted to get across. At all times, leaders are messaging, and at the very center of that message is the leader. And, of course, at the very end of his life, Roger Ailes became a parable of his own point, but at the end of the day, fundamentally changing the media ecology of an entire nation was no small achievement. The shattering of the mainstream media monopoly is a fundamental change that will not, we can now be assured, be reversed.
Lay off the avocado toast: Why is financial prudence a controversial message these days?
Next, we shift from the United States to Australia. Here’s a headline for you:
“Millionaire to millennials: Lay off the avocado toast if you want a house.”
This is one of the stories that, oddly enough, has engendered a good deal of conversation not only in Australia but elsewhere. The man at the center of the story is Tim Gurner. He’s a 35-year-old developer and multimillionaire there in Australia. He was appearing on television there on a program much like 60 minutes on CBS here, and he happened to be asked a question that he answered. And that question was, “Why are there so many millennials who do not own property or homes?” And he said it was largely because they’re eating avocado toast and drinking four four-dollar coffee drinks a day. As CNN reported in the United States, Gurner, who’s worth an estimated $460 million according to the Australian financial review said,
“Wasteful spending is preventing young people from becoming homeowners.”
Now, what’s really interesting about this story is not so much that the interview was granted and that Mr. Gurner answered as he did, pointing to avocado toast and expensive coffees consumed by millennials, what’s really revealing is the controversy over what the man said. The controversy came almost immediately. Some of the immediate response that was directed back towards him is that there are structural economic reasons why millennials find themselves often in terms of comparison with their parents to be economically disadvantaged.
For example, there is a fundamental change in the economy especially in the absence of high-paying blue-collar jobs. Check. There is also the reality of escalating student debt and other economic concerns that are limiting at least some of the opportunities in the present for young adults in America and Australia. Check.
But the other thing to note is the moral resistance to the fact that it just might be someone’s responsibility that they find themselves in a relatively disadvantaged economic position. In other words, the most interesting pushback to this article is that there could be more than merely structural reasons why many young adults now find themselves in such a situation especially renting rather than home owning.
And furthermore, as is also revealed in terms of the economic statistics, there are many young adults who aren’t making much progress at all towards homeownership, if that’s even a goal. One of the things that’s really interesting is that Tim Gurner clearly stepped on a nerve when he said it’s impossible for young people who after all are starting out in terms of their economic lives to do two things simultaneously. One is spend an enormous amount of money on something that isn’t necessary, in his case it was avocado toast. That’s evidently a thing among some millennials, and according to CNN, the average cost is about $19 for the appetizer.
And of course many others have noted that there are many—and this is not just an age-related factor, although there are some age-related patterns here—who appear to have no ability to save money partly because they are buying several expensive coffee drinks just as one example during a single day.
But finally one other observation is that some of the people have been arguing that this is structural and not moral failed to acknowledge that some of these so-called structural problems are also based upon personal decisions and then the taking on the personal responsibility. Student debt is a big part of that factor. Student debt doesn’t just happen to someone, it is assumed by individuals.
Again, the really interesting thing in this story doesn’t have anything to do with avocado toast but rather the pushback when the argument was made that at least much of our economic life is due to decisions that we make and that those decisions are inherently and unavoidably moral.
Friday Book Recommendation: "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World" by Peter Frankopan
Finally today, I want to introduce a new feature on The Briefing. Every week on Friday, I’m going to introduce and recommend a book to help us to understand the world. This week’s recommendation is “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan.
This is a very important book. It was recently a Sunday Times bestseller in the United Kingdom, and it is a book that helps us to understand so many of the headlines in the world coming from the Middle East and even for that entire region historically known as the Silk Roads all the way from China to the eastern boundaries of Europe. You’re talking about one of the oldest commercialized roads in world history, and you are talking about in many ways the cradle of human civilization.
One of the things we learn from this book is that you can’t possibly understand and take account of the headlines we see today apart from understanding the history of these regions of the world. And that’s one of the great benefits of this book. Peter Frankopan writes being fascinated by a map of the world when he was a young boy. And then on his 14th birthday, he was given by his parents a book by the anthropologist Eric Wolf. He said, “It really lit the tender.”
He said this,
“The accepted and lazy history of civilization is one where ancient Greece begat Rome; Rome begat Christian Europe; Christian Europe begat the Renaissance; the Renaissance begat the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. He goes on to say that that is the received way history has been taught. And it’s not so much that it’s just wrong, it’s that it misses so much of the world.
Frankopan helps us understand for example the fact that Christianity in the first century spread far further to the east than it did to the West. That raises an interesting question. Why did Christianity become preponderant Western? That includes, by the way, the so-called Eastern Orthodox Churches still in terms of a global perspective in the West rather than in the east and in particular in the Far East.
Why, he asks, did Christianity in the East take on a nature that was considered to be heretical by the historic churches in the West? There are an abundance of other questions that are asked here, but they all point to the reality that so much of what we now talk about in the world, so much of the conflict and so much economic energy is and has been all the way back to ancient times directed at the Silk Roads.
Frankopan helps us to understand the rise of Islam. He helps us to understand the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He takes us through the two world wars and brings us into the Cold War where Americans learned to talk about nations such as Iran and Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in a whole new way. And then he takes us to the very present moment when so many are talking about the shift of energy in terms of civilizations from the West to the East. As he concludes his book, the Silk Roads are rising again.
The best books are the books that help us to understand the world past, present, and future, and all three of those come alive in the Silk Roads.