There’s a bunch of ignominious ways in which the grand Trump experiment could come crashing down prematurely. The special counsel’s investigation could conceivably lead to the president’s indictment, or to some public revelation that isolates him and leaves him no choice but to slink away like Richard Nixon. Or I guess the president could lose Congress to the Democrats and find himself facing impeachment for obstruction of justice.
Personally, I think the more likely scenario has President Trump drawing a credible primary challenge in 2020 and finding out that he’s actually a lot less popular than his choreographed rallies lead him to believe. I could see him standing down rather than risking humiliation, just as Lyndon Johnson did under similar circumstances.
Here’s how Trump’s presidency won’t end, though: with his Cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment and declaring him mentally unfit to serve. Because the president’s most senior subordinates won’t ever call him cognitively deficient, and near as I can tell, there’s no compelling reason they should.
This whole topic surfaced after the publication of Michael Wolff’s new insider account of the administration, “Fire and Fury.” I haven’t read the book, because life is short and too full of Trump already, but apparently Wolff suggests that some of those around the president worry openly about his aptitude and stability.
Coming just after Trump’s latest boneheaded tweet to his North Korean counterpart, Wolff’s account added a burst of oxygen to a fire that’s been dimly burning in elite faculty lounges since Trump took office. A Yale medical school professor named Bandy X. Lee, a renowned expert in mental health, has been pushing this case for many months, even publishing a series of essays by 27 clinicians who have expertly diagnosed Trump’s dangerous mental deficiencies by watching CNN.
Lee briefed Democratic senators on the president’s imminent unraveling just last month, and now Republican “Never Trump” types have joined in on the suggestion that the president may have some loose bulbs up in the penthouse.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have announced plans to introduce a couple of bills that could get some traction if Democrats manage to take back the House; one, proposed by Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, would charge a new congressional commission with evaluating the president’s fitness and advising the vice president on whether to invoke the magical 25th Amendment.
That’s the amendment, added in the wake of President Kennedy’s death, that establishes specific guidelines for the transfer of power when the president is incapacitated and for the appointment of a vice president when the post is left vacant. It also empowers the vice president and Cabinet to take the keys from the president, at least temporarily, if they decide he’s in no shape to be steering the country.
Trump, as I’m sure you heard, responded to all this by trying his damnedest to confirm everyone’s worst fears. In a now famous tweet, he referred to himself as a “very stable genius,” which immediately brought to mind those old Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote was always handing his “super genius” business cards through fake doors perched on cliffs.
“Donald J. Trump, Stable Gen-i-us.”
Anyway, what’s the evidence that Trump is careening toward a breakdown? According to Lee’s research, and please note that this comes from a professional evaluation and can’t be entirely comprehended by a layman, Trump has been spreading conspiracy theories, contradicting himself a lot and tweeting crazy stuff at all hours of the night.
In other words, it’s Thursday.
Of course Trump isn’t right. Let me go out on a limb and say he’s detached, irrational, childish, narcissistic, possibly delusional, and probably deeply scarred by parents who withheld affection and left him feeling eternally unlovable. Also, his hands are small.
But we’ve known all that since the early stages of Trump’s campaign, and the voters elected him anyway, as was their right. And just by the way, if Trump’s crippling insecurity and dark countenance set him apart from other occupants of the office, then it’s mostly a question of degree.
Lyndon Johnson sometimes wouldn’t go to sleep without someone standing by, so haunted was he by loneliness. Bill Clinton raged arbitrarily and behaved in reckless, addictive ways. Richard Nixon prowled the White House mumbling about enemies and obsessing over the Kennedys. And that was just the last half-century.
Trump isn’t a fraction of the president that any of those men were, I’ll grant you. But that’s not because he’s emotionally damaged or chemically misfiring. It’s because he’s uninformed, uninterested and unserious.
Is Trump losing his mind? Rumors persist in Washington, more wishful than well sourced, that Trump is often forgetful and disoriented. Joe Scarborough, a onetime friend and current adversary of the president, aired what he said were whispers he’d been hearing for months about the president possibly suffering from early stages of dementia.
But they said the same thing about Ronald Reagan in his second term, and while that period may well have marked the beginning of his eventual decline into Alzheimer’s, which he acknowledged five years after leaving office, it may also have simply been age and stress. That line can be hard to draw.
No one’s shown me any evidence, to this point anyway, that Trump is anything other than a 71-year-old guy who never focused all that well to begin with. Or to put it another way: On the long list of reasons why America does not need another boomer president, loss of acuity and general crankiness do not rank near the top.
The larger point here is that the 25th Amendment, which has never been invoked, is a fallback reserved for cases where a president is truly incapacitated or impaired. It does not exist to negate bad decisions by the electorate. It is not there as a mechanism to remove an emotionally weak and impetuous president whom Americans elected because half of them decided they preferred emotionally weak and impetuous to the alternative.
Democracies — or republics, but let’s not get into that here — get to make bad choices and suffer the consequences. They do not get bailed out by gaggles of PhDs who know better.
And the problem with appointing some commission to pursue such an extreme course of action is that it’s likely to become just one more weapon for partisans who reflexively seek to delegitimize every election and every president. Just like articles of impeachment and special prosecutors, a remedy once considered suitable for only the most unimaginable cases is bound to become another quadrennial drama, further eroding the presidency itself.
That’s a kind of crazy we could do without.
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