Here’s the Legitimate Question that Should Dominate the Impeachment Trial

Some abuses of presidential power are more easily remedied than others.

Today is the first day of the impeachment trial, and I expect that we’ll spend far too little time talking about the actual central question of the case. Also, let’s talk a bit about “moderate” Pete Buttigieg’s legal extremism. Today’s French Press:

  1. We know the material facts about impeachment; now let’s discuss their meaning.

  1. Pete Buttigieg fails the First Amendment test.

Was Donald Trump’s misconduct severe enough to merit removal?

If I had to sum up the case against Donald Trump in one sentence, it would be this: The available evidence demonstrates that the president of the United States attempted to coerce an allied nation to investigate a self-serving, debunked conspiracy theory and a prominent domestic political rival as a precondition to receiving vital American military aid. If I have another sentence to expand on the claim, I’d add that he attempted to accomplish this scheme by using his private attorney to supplement and circumvent normal diplomatic channels for the purely personal benefit of the president. 

The evidence in support of the contentions above is overwhelming, including—most importantly—the words of the president himself recorded in the memorandum of the conversation between him and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Zelensky raised the possibility of purchasing much-needed Javelin missiles to bolster Ukrainian defenses in its shooting war with Russian, of our primary geopolitical foes. Trump responded with two explicit investigation requests—an investigation seeking a (mythical) Crowdstrike server in Ukraine and an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden. 

Moreover, the impeachment inquiry uncovered evidence of extensive formal and informal diplomatic efforts dictated by the president’s personal needs. The U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine was targeted for smearing and removal based on her perceived opposition to this personal quest, and American diplomats attempted to pressure Ukrainians to announce the existence of investigations. And while the president’s team may claim there is insufficient evidence to prove those conclusions, say, beyond a reasonable doubt (though there is certainly a preponderance of evidence in support), they have also blocked access to additional testimony and evidence that could establish (or refute) additional personal presidential involvement in the scheme. 

Many of the best and most thoughtful of the president’s defenders (including my friends Erick Erickson and Andrew McCarthy) have made the defense the president himself won’t make—that his conduct was bad, but it was not impeachable. This close to an election, let the people decide.

It’s a serious position held by serious people. It’s the position I held myself in response to the Mueller investigation and in the aftermath of the Stormy Daniels scandal. Expose the president’s wrongdoing, and let it be part of the electoral calculus. It’s a powerful argument. But let me explain an aspect of the case that I believe renders the president’s misconduct especially egregious, calls into question the effectiveness of the normal checks and balances against the executive branch, and tips the scales towards a vote to convict.

First, let’s make one thing abundantly clear—Donald Trump is not the first modern American president to abuse the power of his office. Presidents have violated the Constitution, stretched their power past statutory limits, and otherwise behaved in ways that would shock the founders. But in the vast majority of those instances, there was immediately available constitutional check on the president’s conduct—a check that could rein in the executive branch without the disruption of removing the president from office.

Let’s take, for example, President Obama’s famous use of “pen and phone” to unilaterally change federal law without either congressional action or regulatory rulemaking. States and individuals had immediate access to courts to reverse the administration’s actions, and when the courts ruled against the administration, the administration complied with the rulings. Even when the administration targeted Tea Party groups for harassment, court remedies were also immediately available. We could (and did) file suit against responsible officials and could (and did) receive legal relief. I remember it well. I was part of the legal team that represented dozens of aggrieved Tea Party chapters.

The give-and-take of presidential overreach, legal challenge, and legal defeat has become part of the sad, new normal of American politics. Democrats and Republicans alike elect presidents who strain at the constitutional leash. They abuse their power. And sometimes they even seem motivated by partisan political malice. 

But President Trump’s conduct regarding Ukraine was different. Here was a president, operating at the absolute apex of his constitutional powers, steering international diplomacy for personal benefit, and not only were there no clear means of constitutional restraint, there was obvious intent to accomplish the scheme well outside the public eye. The scheme was blocked by the unlikely combination of whistleblowing and informal political pressure. Even worse, a defiant administration refuses to admit to any wrongdoing at all—even calling the key piece of evidence against the president a “perfect” call. It was essentially our good fortune (through the courage of the whistleblower) that the American people have access to partial information about the scandal so they can factor it into their electoral calculus.

What’s the constitutional check for misconduct of that kind? Citizens can’t run to court to block this particular  abuse of presidential power. We can’t even count on public knowledge for public accountability. The administration is still actively holding back material evidence.

The checks and balances of the American constitutional republic are far-reaching, and the framers—in their wisdom—established an ultimate check on the president. When no other structure of government can restrain his abuse of power, Congress can impeach him and remove him from office. When presidents promulgate unlawful rules and regulations, we can take them to court. When presidents announce unpopular policies, we can vote for their opponents. When presidents work in secret to substitute their personal priorities for the public good in a strategically vital region of the world, the conventional checks are unreliable. In that context, impeachment is the difference between punishment and permission when a president abuses his power while conducting affairs of state. 

Pete Buttigieg is radically opposed to religious liberty.

Is it possible that the most religious candidate in the Democratic primary is also the most hostile to religious liberty? If you’ve followed Pete Buttigieg at all, you know that he’s outspoken about his Christian faith. He brings Christian arguments into the public square, justifies his policy positions in part by reference to his Christian values, and has given every indication that he wants to fight hard against the idea that the Democrats are a secular party. 

On one level, this is welcome. Although I disagree with many of Buttigieg’s policy positions (and have strong theological disagreements with many aspects of his Episcopal faith), I’ve always rejected the idea that Christians should abandon faith-based arguments in political debate. 

Arguing from faith principles is honest (it’s what you really believe) and it’s quite often persuasive. Tens of millions of Americans make decisions based on religious values and principles. So let’s have the debate. When scripture asks us to care for the poor, what does that mean? What does it mean for a nation? What does it mean for individuals? 

But for a man who so obviously values his church and his faith, Mayor Pete is extraordinarily dismissive of religious freedom. Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson charitably called Buttigieg’s position “minimalistic.” I’d call it radical. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

On policy issues of particular concern to many evangelical Christians, Buttigieg gives little ground. His conception of religious liberty is minimalistic, making no provision for religious institutions such as colleges to admit or hire according to their traditional religious standards. “If you are talking about professional organizations that have HR departments,” he told me, “then yes, it is not enough to say religion inspires me to discriminate against you and expect government to let that go.”

Let’s briefly unpack this comment. First, the existence of an HR department or the professional character of an organization is constitutionally irrelevant to its First Amendment rights. There are churches that employ well over hundreds of employees, including pastoral employees. Christian ministries can employ thousands. Each of these organizations is centered a specific set of values and religious ideals. It’s basic, black-letter constitutional law that the First Amendment protects their religious freedom, free speech, and freedom of association.

I’d ask Mayor Pete if he disagrees with a case called Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court ruled against an Obama administration effort to apply nondiscrimination law to the school’s employment decisions regarding its ministerial employees. The court held that both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause tell the government to “let that go” even if the school is deemed to discriminate. 

Was that case 5-4, with the four Democratic appointees adopting the Mayor Pete position? Nope. It was 9-0. Mayor Pete is to the left of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. 

Moreover, what—precisely—is the state’s interest in interfering with the hiring and firing decisions of Christian organizations? Nobody is forced to work at a Christian institution. They represent only a small fraction of the American economy. Allowing Christian organizations to maintain their distinctive religious character does not materially impair the opportunities or individual liberties of any American citizen. If you don’t like the rules of a Christian school, don’t go. If you don’t want to comply with Christian sexual ethics, don’t apply to work at a Christian ministry that upholds traditional Christian teachings. 

It is exactly right to question Christians if they defend conduct in President Trump that they’d condemn (and have condemned) in other presidents. It’s exactly right to question whether Evangelicals should abandon character tests for president—after loudly proclaiming the importance of character for so many years. It’s very much worth worrying about the impact on the Christian witness when prominent Christians exhibit so much rage and fear and so prominently and blatantly change their position depending on the prevailing partisan winds. At the same time, however, exactly no one should be surprised at widespread Evangelical opposition to Democrats when even a “moderate” takes a radical stand against the First Amendment.

One last thing ... 

In the aftermath of the Titans loss in the AFC Championship, I’ve been flooded with good-natured condolences and well-wishes. But I’m not too upset. After a 2-4 start, the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream. To then make the playoffs and beat the Patriots and Ravens on the road? That was beyond our wildest dreams. To pay tribute to a great playoff ride, I’m giving the people what they want, and the people want a YouTube of Derrick Henry’s season highlights. Enjoy:

Screengrab of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presiding over impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on January 21, 2020 in Washington, DC, from Senate Television via Getty Images.

‘And No One Will Make Them Afraid’

When Jews are under violent attack for building a home in this land, it repudiates the American promise.

If you’re a regular reader of the Sunday edition, you know that I’ve focused my analysis and commentary on America’s Christian community. I’m a Christian, a lifelong Evangelical, and it’s the community and culture I know best. But today, I’m going to venture—with some trepidation—into deeply sensitive territory involving a different faith. I’m going to talk about anti-Semitism and our universal need for true home.

This is a really big country, and when you grow up in a small town in Kentucky and then attend a very conservative Christian college, you’re just not going to encounter many Jews. In fact, my ignorance was responsible for one of my (several) embarrassing moments at Harvard Law School. 

During the first week of classes our criminal law professor invited the entire class to his house for Sunday brunch. I was nervous, intimidated by my classmates, and still wondering if I belonged. 

The professor served lox and bagels. I’d never had lox and bagels. I’d never seen lox and bagels. So, with some trepidation, I watched how other people ate the meal, and copied them. The moment I put it in my mouth, I liked it. And I said the first thing that came to my mind, “Mmm, this sushi is good.” (I’d never had sushi before, either). Several classmates in earshot almost spit out their food they started laughing so hard.

“Sushi? This is smoked salmon.” 

“Oh, well, it doesn’t seem cooked.”

“Yeah, it’s smoked.” 

At that moment, a student I just met—his last name (if I remember correctly) was either “Rosen” or “Rosenburg”—asked me, “You don’t know many Jews, do you?” 

My response? “No! Do you?” 

Hilarity ensued. 

Needless to say, I’ve grown up since then. I’ve expanded my horizons. I was one of only a few non-Jewish lawyers at the Manhattan law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, where I worked during my first year of marriage. I met Benjamin Netanyahu in its halls; he was friends with one of the partners. At my last legal job before I jumped ship to the world of journalism, I even was a small part of a legal team that represented Israel’s interests at the International Criminal Court, defending its freedom of action under the international law of armed conflict. 

Throughout the almost 30 years since that embarrassing moment, I’ve accumulated a host of very dear Jewish friends, and you cannot have close Jewish friends and not be urgently alarmed at the spike in vicious and deadly anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Too many times in the past year alone, I’ve texted or DM’d a friend (including public figures under anti-Semitic threat), “I’m so sorry. Did you know the victims? Do you feel safe? What are you doing for your personal security?”

I have another set of good friends at my former employer, National Review. The editors are good-hearted people who are—like most of us—trying hard to make sense of difficult times. And so I was surprised one evening to note that good friends of mine were furious at one another, lobbing tweets and pieces back and forth over a story in National Review by a news writer named Zachary Evans, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces.

After a deadly shooting in a kosher market in Jersey City and a horrifying machete attack on a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, Evans attempted to explain the “simmering local conflicts” and “pre-existing disputes” between ultra-Orthodox Jews and local residents. 

The emphasis of the piece, however, was on the relatively routine way in which close-knit communities build a life together. He explained that the ultra-Orthodox community builds townhouses close together, so they can “live within walking distance of one another and that there are enough Jews in the area to form a prayer congregation.”

Evans also explained how ultra-Orthodox communities can enhance local political power through bloc voting and writes that “many of the men either don’t work or make low salaries, choosing instead to devote their time to studying religious texts.” The story includes this explosive paragraph:

“Many in the community look at the Hasidim as locusts, who go from community to community . . . just stripping all the resources out of it,” said a Jewish, but not ultra-Orthodox, resident of upstate New York. The resident, who vociferously objects to ultra-Orthodox development and asked not to be named for fear of retribution by the ultra-Orthodox community, added that “nobody here doesn’t like them because they’re Jews. People don’t like them because of what they do. Rural, hardworking people also want to live our lives too.”

Wait. Locusts? Now, obviously, those are not Zachary Evans’s words. He does not agree with the sentiment—he’s reporting its existence. And while many people were outraged to see that sentiment in the pages of National Review, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his editors are not anti-Semites. But it’s extraordinarily jarring to read those words. We overuse the term “dehumanizing” in modern discourse, but a person comparing people to insects is the very definition of dehumanizing. And over what? Zoning disputes? Local elections? Job choices? 

Moreover, there’s another key sentence in the article: “There is no indication that [the Jersey City and Monsey attackers] attacked Jewish targets for reasons related to outmigration from New York City to the surrounding region.” So why the extensive focus on the thing that doesn’t seem material to the attacks?

In fact, to the extent that we know the attackers’ motivations, their hatreds ran very, very deep. The Monsey attacker searched the question “Why did Hitler hate the Jews?” One of the Jersey City attackers followed “Black Hebrew Israelite theology,” a fringe belief that, as Evans writes, holds that “African Americans are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites and that Jews are essentially pretenders to the faith.” 

As I read Evans’s piece, I had a singular thought: He’s waving away the mountain and focusing on a pebble. He’s missing the ocean for the puddle. People do not launch machete attacks over zoning disputes. They don’t open fire in kosher supermarkets because their new neighbors don’t make good salaries. There might be “simmering local conflicts” over zoning (welcome to America; there are always “simmering local conflicts” over zoning), but none of that is truly relevant to deadly violence. 

No, the unpleasant truth is that when populations of new and different people (especially religious or racial minorities) move to new and different towns, they all too often encounter vicious bigots. They don’t create vicious bigots. We understand this clearly in the race context. Spend five seconds searching on the web, and you can see truly shocking video from the 1970s of racist white crowds chanting vile insults in residential neighborhoods in New York. When their new neighborhoods integrated, they encountered vicious racists. They didn’t create vicious racists. 

My own family had a terrible encounter with racism during the political rise of Donald Trump. As I wrote more critically of Trump and eventually declared that I would never vote for him, my youngest daughter was subject to a torrent of horrific, racist abuse. 

Naomi is African-American, adopted from Ethiopia, and as many readers know, alt-right bigots sent us pictures of her then 7-year-old face photoshopped in gas chambers, with a smiling photoshopped Donald Trump poised to push the button to kill her. Bigots filled the comments section of my wife’s blog with horrific pictures and videos of dead and dying African-Americans. Threats spilled into the “real world.” Even now, my family feels periodically under siege, with threats to our house and home. 

Now, why did that happen? Why was that race-hatred unleashed on my daughter? Was it because we opposed Donald Trump? At best that was mere pretext. Our opposition to the GOP nominee didn’t make anyone racist. Instead, our opposition to Trump was merely the immediate rationalization and justification of a much deeper and darker hatred. The pretext is so thin that it reveals the pure evil beneath.

But there was something else about Evans’s piece that struck me—it hit me right between the eyes. I’m not sure if this was his intent, but when he described the way that ultra-Orthodox build their houses close together, how they vote together to protect their interests, and how they devote their time to religious studies, one word came to my mind—home. That’s the story of a people building a home. 

Indeed, it’s not only the most American of stories—of people welcome nowhere else coming to a land that promised them liberty, it’s a story of unique resonance to American Jews dating back to our nation’s founding. As New York Times editor and writer Bari Weiss relates in her outstanding and moving book, How To Fight Anti-Semitism, George Washington wrote to a Rhode Island Hebrew congregation all the way back in 1790 that American Jews “possess alike liberties of conscience and immunities of censorship.” 

America is Israel’s closest ally. America is the home of the second-largest population of Jewish people in the world, behind only Israel. And now, in communities where Jews have lived and thrived for generations, they don’t know if they’re safe. They don’t know if they’ll be victimized by random, vicious attacks. Even worse, those attacks aren’t coming from a single movement that can be identified, isolated, and defeated. They come from radical left and radical right. They come from Americans black and white. The ancient hatreds have re-emerged to such an extent that I’ve heard more than one friend question whether this land can truly remain their home. 

In fact, one of the central political, cultural, and spiritual challenges of our time is reassuring Americans increasingly divided by religion and still divided by race that this nation is, indeed, home. 

That’s America’s 400-year challenge with an African-American population that endured 246 years of slavery, 99 years of widespread legal discrimination following Appomattox, and has lived only 56 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 

That’s America’s challenge as increasing diversity is accompanied by increasing cultural clashes, and the omnipresent human will to power prefers victory and domination over pluralism and accommodation. 

I never thought I’d see the day when dear friends plotted ways to be less “visibly Jewish” before walking onto a subway car, going to the grocery store, or just playing in the park. I never thought I’d see the day when random street attacks on Jews were so common that activists and journalists could create security camera compilations of Jews being beaten in the streets. This is a grave breach of the American promise. It’s a grave assault on America’s most fundamental values. 

It also represents an important challenge to people of faith. We are so often trapped in our own interest groups and focused on our own challenge that we forget our neighbor’s much greater duress. Say what you want about the (very real) challenges to Christian religious liberty, and I’m sadly aware of the terrifying shootings in American churches, but I don’t talk to many Evangelicals who are afraid to walk the streets of their own hometowns. 

As we continue forward in this great American experiment, it’s time for people of faith to remember one of the most poignant and powerful of biblical aspirations. Bari brought it back to my mind in her book, George Washington referenced it almost 50 times in his writings (including to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island), and it properly made it into the wildly popular Hamilton musical. The words are Micah’s and they represent a clarion call challenge for a nation that sometimes feels as if it’s coming apart—“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

One last thing ... 

I’m not attaching a song this week but rather a short video clip that beautifully captures the marvelous, miraculous mystery of grace. Watch these words from Phan Thị Kim Phúc. “My enemies list became my prayer list.” She forgave the people who dropped a napalm bomb on her, and we live in an era when we struggle to forgive even such a small thing as an errant tweet.

Photograph of Satmar rebbe David Niederman attending a press conference with mayor Bill de Blasio to denounce the hate crime attack in Jersey City, December 12, 2019, by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

New Evidence Reaffirms: Donald Trump Fails the Fitness Test

His back-channel diplomats to Ukraine were a virtual traveling Mos Eisley cantina.

On the eve of Trump’s impeachment trial, there’s a pile of new evidence. Lev Parnas, a man who looks like he stepped off the set of The Sopranos, is dropping dimes on former Mafia prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. What does it all mean? Also, do you ever wonder how reasonable people become snarling radicals? Let’s sort out the very human way in which people lose perspective. Today’s French Press:

  1. New impeachment evidence reaffirms everything we already suspected.

  1. How public apathy feeds political polarization.

New evidence chips away at Trump’s already-weak factual defense.

One consequence of the House Democrats’ decision to move quickly to vote on articles of impeachment is that it was almost certain that new impeachment evidence would emerge before, during, and potentially even after the Senate impeachment trial. On the one hand, the evidence of the basic substantive charge against Trump—that he tried to coerce a desperate, dependent ally into investigating a domestic political opponent and a bizarre conspiracy theory—was so overwhelming that the Democrats could feel confident in their basic factual case even without all the evidence. 

On the other hand, they were obviously going to the Senate without the best evidence and the best case they could make. Events this week made that reality plain. 

Let’s first talk about Lev Parnas. Since the first days after this scandal broke, I’ve been shouting from the mountaintops that the Ukraine affair isn’t just about corruption, it’s about fitness. The president of the United States was conducting diplomacy in one of the most sensitive and volatile regions of the world in part motivated by an utterly baseless, frequently debunked conspiracy theory—namely that there exists an (entirely mythical) Crowdstrike server in Ukraine that could debunk the entire narrative of Russian interference in the 2016 election. While there are aspects of Ukrainian involvement in 2016 that are worthy of investigation and inquiry, Trump’s belief is faked-moon-landing level nonsense, and he explicitly linked it to military aid in his conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky.

That is not the action of a man who has a grasp on facts or a grasp on the responsibilities of his office.  

But fitness questions are about more than Trump’s obsession with conspiracy theories. There are additional questions about his basic judgment. Rudy and his “team” (including Lev Parnas) were a virtual traveling Mos Eisley cantina of crooks, grifters, and amateurs. They were broadcasting to anyone who would listen that they were operating on behalf of the actual president of the United States, and they were interacting with an ally locked in a shooting war with arguably our nation’s chief geopolitical foe. 

Parnas’s documents don’t just provide additional evidentiary support for the narrative that Trump was focused on pushing Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden (one of Parnas’s notes helpfully states, “Get Zelensky to announce that the Biden case will be investigated), they also paint the picture of an utterly slapdash clown-car version of international diplomacy. For example, a WhatsApp exchange with a Republican activist and congressional candidate named Robert Hyde implies that Hyde was tracking the movements of then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. But Parnas himself says he doesn’t believe this was true. Why? Because Hyde was “drunk all the time.”

America, meet your back-channel diplomats. 

In addition to raising the fitness question once again, the documents undermine a key Trump substantive defense. Trump’s advocates have maintained that there is no real, direct link between the president himself and the real-world multi-pronged effort to coerce Zelensky to announce an investigation of the Bidens. A key part of Parnas’s document dump includes  what appears to be a copy of a signed letter from Rudy Giuliani to President Zelensky. Giuliani requests a meeting with Zelensky and states that he is not only acting as Trump’s personal attorney, he’s also acting “with his knowledge and consent.” Was Rudy going rogue? Not according to Rudy.

Ordinarily, an assertion from counsel that he’s acting with his client’s knowledge and consent would be virtual slam-dunk evidence that his client was aware of and directing his lawyer’s actions. But Rudy is no ordinary lawyer, and his behavior is erratic enough for Trump’s defenders to cling to a shred of hope that Rudy had gone rogue. Except, of course, let’s remember Trump’s own words in his “perfect” call with President Zelensky. After Zelensky promises to look into Trump’s Crowdstrike conspiracy theory, Trump says this:

Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that's really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what's happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great. The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that. The other thing, There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me. (Emphasis added.)

So, Rudy says he is acting with his client’s knowledge and consent. His client tells Zelensky to talk to Rudy about his requested investigations. It’s growing harder and harder to argue that Rudy went Rogue. 

But that’s not all the new, relevant evidence. Today the Government Accountability Office issued a finding that the Trump administration violated the law when it temporarily withheld security assistance from Ukraine:

In the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld from obligation funds appropriated to the Department of Defense (DOD) for security assistance to Ukraine. In order to withhold the funds, OMB issued a series of nine apportionment schedules with footnotes that made all unobligated balances unavailable for obligation. 

Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA.

The GAO’s conclusion undermines the Trump team’s assertion that Trump did “nothing illegal.” Multiple politicians and journalists have floated the idea that Trump had violated a number of potentially relevant statutes, but the GAO is an independent, nonpartisan congressional agency, not a partisan politician or an outside expert. Its words carry special weight. . Its ruling is not dispositive (the GAO is not the last word on federal law), nor do violations of the ICA carry criminal penalties, but it inserts an explicit legal element into the president’s overall misconduct. .. 

You’ll note that my analysis did not include any real discussion of Parnas’s allegations in his interview last night with Rachel Maddow. I don’t actively disbelieve Parnas when he speaks, but I don’t believe him, either. Some of his comments seem sound, others stretch credulity (like his contention that William Barr was in the loop). Long years of legal experience have taught me to credit contemporaneously -created documents far more than unsworn interview answers when there are strong incentives to tell the audience what it wants to hear. 

But independently of Parnas’s words, his documents (combined with the GAO opinion) help further paint the picture of an unfit, rogue president abusing his power and (likely) breaking the law. 

How public apathy helps makes the reasonable man radical.

I speak and write quite a bit about American political polarization. I’m alarmed by the extent of mutual partisan loathing and enmity. It’s terrible, it’s getting worse, and I’m convinced that—unchecked—it’s a threat to our national existence. There is no law of nature that says that a diverse, continent-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy will always remain united. 

To understand the reality of our political polarization, I highly recommend diving into More in Common’s outstanding research on America’s “hidden tribes.” They dive deep into American political attitudes and find that much of America’s polarization is driven by roughly one-third of the population—the “devoted conservatives” and “traditional conservatives” on the right, and the “progressive activists” on the left.  “Traditional conservatives” (16 percent of the population) are defined as people who are religious, patriotic, and highly moralistic. They also “believe deeply in personal responsibility and self-reliance.” The “devoted conservatives” (6 percent) are “deeply engaged with politics” and tend to “perceive themselves as the last defenders of traditional values that are under threat. “Progressive Activists” are “deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America's direction today. They “tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.”

The devoted devoted conservatives and progressive activists in particular are people with a disproportionate amount of wealth and who spend a disproportionate amount of time on politics as a hobby. They have resources, they’re engaged, and they’re angry. They’re a minority, but they tend to dominate public discourse—even as an “exhausted majority” retreats from political engagement and longs for an alternative. 

The rage of the “wings” is well-known. We can see it every day on social media. We can see and hear the fury at many political rallies and events. The reasons for that rage are complex, but let me advance an under-appreciated reason why red-pilled Uncle Karl and his woke niece Alice hate each other so darn much. 

The story starts with public apathy.

I haven’t been a writer all my life. I spent most of my professional career (21 years!) as a litigator, and for most of that time I worked for public-interest law firms. My practice focused on the First Amendment, and it required that I focus not just on the court of law, but also on the court of public opinion. I wasn’t just a lawyer, I was a legal activist, and I saw firsthand how hard it was to motivate the public to actually care about important constitutional concerns. 

If you try to raise awareness (much less money) from people with busy lives and multiple family responsibilities, the first thing you learn is that it is extraordinarily difficult to break through to the public with a proportionate, measured message.  If your message implies, “I’m working on something important, but there is no true emergency.” Or, “I’m concerned, but there’s no crisis,” then prepare to face indifference. 

No, the tried and true activist message is simple—“The threat is dire, and we’re the last line of defense.”

None of this is new. “Scare grandma with direct mail” has funded much of the conservative movement for a generation (or more). But technology has made the experience much, much more intense. Sign one online petition, and you magically find yourself on a dozen new mailing lists. Start clicking on alarmist social media posts, and you start to tell the algorithm that’s what you want to see. It’s hard to merely put your toe in the water politically. Test the temperature with a small donation, and within days, five scam PACs, nine breathless email messages, and four Facebook ads are deluging you with some variation of the same message, “They hate you! They want to destroy you! Only I can save you!”

There are Americans who recoil from this like they’ve touched a boiling cauldron. “Just stop,” they say, and they furiously unsubscribe, ignore political posts, and go back to talking about the Tennessee Titans, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the utter dominance of SEC football (ideally, anyway). But there are millions of other Americans who have a very different reaction.

“I had no idea things were so terrible!” 

As the messages flood your inbox, and the posts flood your feeds, concern grows to alarm, and alarm turns into rage. And if you’re looking for things to be angry about, there’s always a fresh outrage, somewhere. The immediate nationalization of every volatile local event means that a politically engaged American can know within hours (sometimes minutes) after someone punches a kid wearing a MAGA hat in Des Moines, or if a busybody white woman calls the cops on black kids who are innocently grilling in a Sacramento park.  

Instantly, each incident becomes emblematic of the other side’s perfidy. It’s as if the scales fall from the eyes, and you see the world anew. You’re “woke.” You’re “red-pilled.” You’re not simply “Jane” anymore. You’re “Deplorable Jane,” and it’s your mission in life to own the libs.

But the strange thing is that this new life doesn’t actually awaken you to  reality, it deceives you. It distorts the truth. One of the most fascinating aspects of the hidden tribes research is its finding that Americans on the “wings” have the most twisted views of the other side. The wings are far more likely to believe that political opponents are more extreme than they really are. In crucial ways their political engagement is increasing not just their political extremism, but also their political ignorance. They consistently accept opposing extremism as the norm, when it is not. 

There’s no simple solution to this problem. I routinely tell people that the two types of pieces I write that cause the most dramatic negative reaction either 1) criticize Donald Trump; or 2) argue that a particular problem is a concern and not a crisis. It’s as if an argument that a problem isn’t an emergency is viewed as detrimental to the cause of public mobilization and public activism. And they’re probably right. When was the last time 10,000 people flooded the streets of a state capital chanting, “We’re concerned! We’re concerned!”? 

Leadership does matter, however. And partisans respond to winning politicians. If someone can turn down the temperature and win while doing it, perhaps we can chip away at the culture of permanent outrage.

One last thing ... 

My Grizzlies are in the midst of a six-game winning streak, sit in the last playoff slot in the West, and they’re now officially and inarguably the most exciting young team in the NBA. Ja Morant is a bad, bad man. Enjoy:

Photograph of Lev Parnas and his wife Svetlana Parnas arriving at the Southern District of New York Courthouse on December 2, 2019 in New York City by Scott Heins/Getty Images.

Bernie Sanders Will Never Get the Revolution He Wants

Also, is California a stronghold of traditional family values?

I think three things at the same time. First, no one should discount Bernie’s chance to win the Democratic nomination, or the presidency. Second, even if Bernie wins, he won’t get his revolution. And third, we should still be concerned about Bernie’s potential effect on the country. In other news,, a new study highlights an interesting fact about progressive California. Is it the family values state? Today’s French Press:

  1. The real Bernie Sanders problem.

  1. Blue California: radical politics, traditional values.

The polarizing rage of a frustrated revolutionary.

When I speak to concerned voters about 2020, I tend to get one of two responses from Bernie’s opponents. Republicans say, “He’ll make America socialist.” Democrats say, “He can’t beat Trump.” I think they’re both wrong. 

Let’s take the Democratic objection first. Look, I know we’re not supposed to believe polls anymore, but to the extent polls matter, Bernie performs consistently pretty well against Trump. He did in 2016, and he does now. The RCP average has him up three points on Trump as of today. Moreover, he does better than anyone except Joe Biden in the all-important battleground polls. And after Trump, shouldn’t we be done with “he can never win” punditry? Sanders draws some of the same working-class voters that gave Trump the presidency in 2016.

As for the Republican objection, be not afraid. A President Sanders will not bring us Medicare for All, free college, or any of his bank-breaking, nation-changing socialist reforms. He’ll try, to be sure, but he simply can’t do it unless the Democrats win a truly historic victory, top-to-bottom, in 2020. He doesn’t just need to prevail in a presidential election, he needs for Republicans to be truly routed in the Senate. Otherwise, he simply has no plan for Mitch McConnell. Pay close attention to his response to the New York Times editorial board when they asked for his plan to deal with Cocaine Mitch:

That’s a really ambitious agenda. What of that legislation do you think could pass a Mitch McConnell Senate? 

I think, and thank you for asking that, I need a minute on this one, O.K.? Because I want to just convey to you that I look at the world maybe a little differently than you do, and I say that in due respect. When I talk about a political revolution, it means being an administration unprecedented, certainly in the modern history of this country, maybe going back to F.D.R Maybe even beyond F.D.R. So to me, what my administration is about is not sitting with Mitch in the Oval Office or wherever it is, negotiating something. It is rallying the American people around an agenda that they already support. All right? This is, I think, what makes me a little bit different than other candidates, and that is not only will I be commander in chief, I will be organizer in chief. 

And I think the agenda that we have brought out in almost every respect is supported by the American people. So one of my first stops, by the way, will be in Kentucky, a state that is struggling very hard. One of the poorest. I love the people in Kentucky. I’ve been there and we, you know, and I will be back ...

First, I love the use of “with all due respect.” Second, let me translate that wall of text. Sanders is saying, “I got nothing.” He cannot “organize” his way through senators who were elected in large part to block the Democratic agenda. 

A visit to Kentucky won’t change the election results for Mitch McConnell or Rand Paul. Absent an Obama-scale victory, he can’t even promise the relatively modest Obama-scale results. Even if the Democrats win a slight Senate majority, don’t think for a minute that vulnerable Democrats from purple states would either discard the legislative filibuster or ram through the largest and most consequential government expansion in the nations’ history on a bare majority vote. 

That’s not to say that a Sanders win would be inconsequential from a policy perspective. There’s a lot of room between “ineffective” and “socialist.” He’d expand the regulatory state. He’d nominate progressive judges. He’d likely cut the defense budget. He’d probably have a less interventionist and more isolationist foreign policy than Trump. All of those things matter. None of those things represent socialism.

But here’s my real concern—modern American elections are more likely to present a polarization problem than a policy problem. We’re too deeply divided—and our system contains too many checks and balances—for any given president to enact fundamentally transformative legislation absent overwhelming majority support. Barack Obama swept into office in the biggest landslide in a generation, and eight years later key provisions of his single signal legislative achievement have been repealed or gutted.

As we approach the end of Trump’s first term, what’s his prime legislative accomplishment? A conventional (and temporary) Republican tax cut. 

And so we continue the familiar pattern of overpromising and underdelivering. Why does this matter? For the simple reason that we are teaching a generation of polarized, angry activists that politics does not work. They’re being raised to believe that the system is fundamentally broken. They cannot vote their way into the policies they prefer. 

In fact, in key ways it’s working exactly as intended—to prevent an immense, diverse nation from being lurched from divisive extreme to divisive extreme. But if you’re electing a revolutionary, and revolution under the current system is impossible, frustration builds. Republicans experienced this with the Tea Party “revolution” of the Obama years. Candidates across the nation stoked angry ferment with extravagant promises, and then—when they failed to deliver the impossible—a decisive number of Republican primary voters turned to the most disruptive candidate of all to finally “drain the swamp.”

The swamp remains undrained.

If Sanders wins the presidency, it will be hard to overstate the exuberance of the Very Online Left. And make no mistake, they’d have reason to celebrate. Elevating a once-obscure socialist from Vermont to the most powerful office in the world would be a signal achievement. The revolution, however, will quickly run into a brick wall. Bernie’s promises won’t be kept. But will they blame Bernie for promising what he can’t deliver? 

No, it will be the evil Republicans’ fault. They’ll be thwarting the “will of the people.” They’ll be cast not as individuals who won their own elections and who represent the interests of their own constituents, but rather as enemies of justice. And while policy will remain relatively stable, polarization will continue to build. An extremely divided America cannot enact its competing, increasingly divergent policy goals. A Bernie win would exacerbate those divisions. I truly hope the Democrats do not choose that path. 

Wait. Is California the traditional values state? 

Ever since Charles Murray’s indispensable book Coming Apart, we’ve known about an interesting phenomenon—America’s progressive, college-educated communities as a rule live quite conservative, traditional lives. In spite of a high degree of public tolerance for the changing values of the sexual revolution, in their own families they tend to complete their educations, get married, have children, and stay married. Their daily reality is far less “drag queen story hour” and far more Leave It to Beaver.

How entrenched is this reality? Very. Earlier today my friends at the Institute for Family Studies released a fascinating study showing that California is in some key ways more traditional than the average American state:

It is striking, then, that this Institute for Family Studies (IFS) report finds that California—despite being a global force for cultural liberalism—actually has a higher share of stable, married families than the nation as a whole. About 67% of California parents are in intact marriages, compared to 63% of American parents, according to an IFS analysis of the Census data. Likewise, 65% of children ages 0-17 in California reside with their married, biological parents, compared to 62% of children in the United States. In other words, family life in the Golden State is more stable than in the country as a whole.

This remains true even in the culturally progressive strongholds of San Francisco and Hollywood. I found this section of the report fascinating:

In Southern California, three neighborhoods with single parenthood rates of essentially 0% can be found in the heart of Hollywood. Take a trip through Whitley Heights Historic District, below the Hollywood Sign, and nestled among the lavish former residences of Francis X. Bushman and Judy Garland, you will find residents who voted for Clinton by a rate of about 86% in 2016. You will also find virtually no single parents in this Hollywood Hills neighborhood.

What’s going on? California’s college-educated families are just as traditional as college-educated families nationwide, but California has far more immigrants than the average American state, and California’s immigrant population—led by its Asian immigrants—embraces more “familistic” values than its native-born citizens. Education plus immigration means that “California values” are family values at a scale that its cultural products would not suggest. 

It’s fair to ask why these culturally traditionalist political progressives do not more loudly preach what they practice. One can certainly be tolerant of dissenting lifestyles while advocating for the enduring value of one’s own choices. As an engine of childhood development, economic advancement, and personal happiness (or, more importantly, virtuous purpose), marriage simply works. It is not judgmental or intolerant to evangelize a lifestyle that is so obviously rich with personal, cultural, and spiritual rewards. 

Conservatives, on their part, often look at places like Hollywood as strange and alien. And indeed, the ideas espoused by its inhabitants are often diametrically opposed to the thoughts and ideas expressed in, say, churchgoing Franklin, Tennessee. The daily rhythms of life, by contrast, are often nearly identical. 

Not long ago, I was invited to a progressive gathering on the West Coast. I was the sole conservative on a panel speaking about masculinity. In the middle of the event, a progressive friend of mine made an interesting observation. “Really,” he said, “this whole conference is quite conservative.” Given that he said this while noon yoga was in progress in the courtyard, I was a bit surprised. “Think about it,” he continued, “Every single person here is married. They’re totally obsessed with their kids. No one is hooking up. Nothing wild is happening. By 10 o’clock the bar is empty. These are the most traditional people you’ll ever meet.”

He was right. As the conference ended, you saw the attendees playing with their kids in the pool. The lobby bar emptied out by 9. A month later I was speaking in a Baptist conference in Dallas, and we stayed out later than my secular progressive friends. (Though give a Baptist pastor a Diet Coke and a theological conversation about Calvinism, and he can go to 10:30, or possibly even 11 p.m., easily.) 

What are the takeaways? American ideas are far from homogenous. The American educated class’s lifestyles are remarkably similar. May we unite in becoming evangelists for the keys to our familial success. And to the extent that we wish to maintain the traditional American family, it turns out that immigrants may well play a key role. 

One last thing ... 

You knew it had to be LSU football. Last night the SEC reasserted its natural dominance, LSU made its case that it’s the greatest college football team of this generation. And Joe Burrow? He had arguably the greatest college football season of all time. Geaux Tigers!

Photograph of Bernie Sanders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in December by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

‘It Is Not Good That the Man Should Be Alone’

It’s time to shift paradigm on personal responsibility.

This Friday I was at a small gathering of Christian men and women and heard a story that stopped me short. One of the attendees was a Christian businessman who employed mainly working-class young men. When he had spoken to his workers about their holiday plans, a full fourth of the men he talked to didn’t have any plans at all. Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s Day was just another day. They’d go home, watch television, play video games, and drink—all alone. 

As soon as he said those words, I thought of a chart. I know that sounds strange, but stay with me. It’s from 2017, and it comes from Sen. Mike Lee’s invaluable Social Capital Project. It should transform the way you think about America’s epidemic of “deaths of despair.” It represents the demographics of overdoses:

As the slides progress, you notice a few things immediately—men overdose far more than women, single men overdose more than married men, and single men with only a high school education or GED overdose at a simply staggering rate. That rate is horrifying regardless of whether a person was single and never married or single and divorced (though, interestingly, the overdose rate for a widowed person was substantially lower).

Speaking of stories that will stop you short, after I heard my new friend tell his story, I read a wrenching essay by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Called “Who Killed the Knapp Family,” it’s adapted from their new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. The essay takes the deaths-of-despair crisis and personalizes it, describing how it impacts specific families in a town that Kristof knows well. It begins:

Chaos reigned daily on the No. 6 school bus, with working-class boys and girls flirting and gossiping and dreaming, brimming with mischief, bravado and optimism. Nick rode it every day in the 1970s with neighbors here in rural Oregon, neighbors like Farlan, Zealan, Rogena, Nathan and Keylan Knapp.

They were bright, rambunctious, upwardly mobile youngsters whose father had a good job installing pipes. The Knapps were thrilled to have just bought their own home, and everyone oohed and aahed when Farlan received a Ford Mustang for his 16th birthday.

Yet today about one-quarter of the children on that No. 6 bus are dead, mostly from drugs, suicide, alcohol or reckless accidents. Of the five Knapp kids who had once been so cheery, Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.

That’s a story of unimaginable pain and tragedy. It breaks your heart. 

I’ve been writing about deaths of despair since evidence of the phenomenon emerged on the national stage. Going back to college, I’ve been involved in ministries targeting exactly the young men most at-risk for alcoholism, drug overdoses, and suicide. And I’m convinced that the more we politicize the crisis rather than personalize it and spiritualize it, the more we’ll miss the mark.

No, I don’t mean to say that policy doesn’t matter. Economic opportunity matters. Prison reform matters. Quality health care matters. But I’ve also seen well-intentioned policies backfire, and I’ve seen governments spend vast sums to no effect. 

When it comes to young men who not only never had a father, they never had a single positive male role model in their entire life—or spent any time with a functioning family—how do they possibly know how to sustain a healthy, loving relationship with a young woman?

When it comes to young men without male role models, you’re speaking of young men who not only don’t know how to build a family, they don’t know how to build a career. I’ve written about this before, but many years ago my wife and I were involved in a young adult ministry that—by God’s grace—enjoyed great success in reaching the unchurched kids from the trailer parks in our rural Kentucky community. 

One thing I learned was that lives were changed through a sustained, dedicated, loving community. A functioning community doesn’t just provide love and resources. Indeed, if your ministry was defined by hugs and handouts, it would be ripe for exploitation. People would smile and accept both, but their lives wouldn’t fundamentally change. A functioning community includes elements of discipline and instruction as well.

The love has to be persistent. When a kid didn’t show up at church after he’d been attending for a while, we’d sometimes dash out between Sunday school and worship services and head straight to their homes, knock on their doors and ask if they were okay. We’d offer them a ride to worship and invite them to lunch after services. We jokingly called our car the “soul repo van.” But the goal was simple—let them know that they were not alone. They were part of a community.

And the instruction has to be real. People do not magically become diligent students or productive workers simply because someone loved them. Opportunity isn’t always easy in this country, but opportunity exists. A person has to be taught how to seize it, and they have to practice the basic life habits necessary to follow through. 

Partisan politics is terrible at love. Parties are centered around their coalitions and focus on meeting their coalition’s needs. The Democrats are a party of single women. Republicans are increasingly a party of working-class men. Remember the Obama campaign slides chronicling the “Julia” “showing all the ways Obama’s policy would help Julia (and her son Zachary) from the cradle to the grave? But where was Zachary’s father? He doesn’t figure in the story at all. He’s the invisible man. 

Partisan politics is often terrible at policy—providing a festival of overreactions that can do as much (or more) harm than good and providing false promises that eventually serve only to embitter a disappointed populace. For example, the desire to better treat pain led the Veterans Health Administration to launch a “pain is the 5th vital sign” initiative in the late 1990s, and other government agencies incentivized aggressive pain management—acts that led to countless unnecessary opioid prescriptions. We hear a lot about the role of big pharma in the opioid crisis. How much do we hear about the role of big government? 

The modern populist outcry against the government—“this is happening because they didn’t care about you”—is often exactly wrong. Sometimes social ills are exacerbated because they did care. They just cared in a destructive way. 

I find myself in frequent disagreement with those who argue that government policy should be the central focus of the battle against deaths of despair. Kristof writes movingly about the incredibly deep-seated pain and dysfunction in the families he highlights, then turns to government solutions like government-provided preschool, job retraining, and large-scale drug treatment programs. 

Yet the evidence for the benefits of programs like Head Start is mixed, we’ve tried worker retraining programs for years, and they’ve largely failed. And while more and better (public and private) drug treatment is necessary—and perhaps holds out the best immediate hope at decreasing drug deaths—it doesn’t come close to addressing the larger social and cultural pathologies that have spawned such widespread loneliness and despair. 

It’s fashionable to scorn personal responsibility as a solution to challenges that are so profound and deep. And there is certainly something perverse about saying that the solution to the challenges of fatherlessness is for young men who’ve been deprived of male role models to collectively act with a level of grit, character, and determination that they’ve never seen modeled by any man before. Individually, yes. Collectively, no.

But there’s a different kind of personal responsibility. That’s the responsibility of the privileged, of the faithful, and it was articulated by Jesus in Matthew 25:

I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

America is full of tens of millions of affluent believers—and certainly not just Christians. Perhaps it’s time to shift the paradigm on personal responsibility. Instead of focusing on the personal responsibility of the hurting and the vulnerable, let’s look at the personal responsibility of the rich and the powerful. 

I felt convicted after my Friday meeting. I went home and told my wife the story of struggling men, alone on the holidays. Her response was immediate. “What can we do?” I realized that as my life got busy, as we had kids and our careers flourished, that our engagement with the most vulnerable members of our community had diminished. The “soul repo van” languished in the garage. 

That’s on me. Life can’t get too busy to obey God. And while the verse in Genesis that titles this piece refers to Adam and Eve, it still speaks a truth beyond husband and wife. It speaks to the truth of friendship and community. It is not good for a man to be alone.

The true story of the religious freedom culture war.

Over on The Dispatch home page, I’ve got a launch-week longread about the modern history of the fight for religious freedom. It’s not quite what you might think. Here’s the start of the piece: 

I’m going to tell you a counterintuitive modern history of American religious liberty. In this true story, Bill Clinton emerges as an underappreciated hero and Antonin Scalia as an unfortunate  partial villain. In this true story, conservative Christians have never been more legally free from state censorship, yet they have never felt more isolated and culturally vulnerable. And in this true story, all of the cultural and political dynamics are set in place to make Christians feel more isolated and vulnerable even if they continue to win cases at the Supreme Court.

To understand where we are, it’s necessary to know where we’ve been, and the post-World War II history of religious liberty isn’t so much a story of freedom lost as power lost. The American Protestant church—a church that often proved quite willing to suppress the religious freedom of rival factions (including Catholics)—lost power but gained liberty, and it’s not only deeply unhappy at the outcome but sometimes seems fundamentally unprepared to live in this more-perilous new world. 

I’d invite you to read the rest and join the (very lively) discussion in the comments. 

One last thing ... 

I’ve heard a ton of good feedback from readers about our church’s marvelous worship band. Here’s their latest release, a lovely song, beautifully sung.If there is a hymn or a song that has touched you, readers, please send it my way!

Photo credit: Gabriella Santamaria, 9, holds up a picture of her uncle who died from a heroin overdose during a candlelight vigil for victims of drug addiction on August 24, 2017, Staten Island. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

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