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Thoughts on the 25th Amendment

Debating Ross Douthat's call for a cabinet coup

Ross Douthat has been taking a lot of flack for his suggestion that Vice President Pence and President Trump’s cabinet act to remove Trump from office under the 25th Amendment. Two of the best responses are by Charles C. W. Cooke and Josh Barro. The most important, which isn’t really a direct response to Douthat but which articulates the key background concern, is by our own editor, Robert W. Merry.

The common thread in all of these responses is absolutely correct: removing Trump in this manner would amount to a kind of coup. Trump’s behavior since being elected is entirely consistent with his behavior during the campaign and throughout his career, and he won anyway, substantially because of the near universal opposition (or at least abstention) of the great and good. To remove him now on the grounds of being unfit would be understood, quite properly, as a direct repudiation of the outcome of the election. One can imagine the horrible potential consequences of such a move — particularly since, if he is deposed, you can be absolutely certain that Trump will personally spend the rest of his natural life making those consequences as horrible as possible, without regard for the cost to the country.

Nonetheless, the discussion does not end there.

First of all, we may be in the middle of a quasi-coup already, in the sense that the military and the intelligence community may be preventing the President from conducting his own foreign policy (assuming that he has one, which at this point is highly doubtful). If the President continues to act in an alarmingly erratic manner, I don’t think it is far-fetched to imagine that the cordon around him will tighten further, to the point where an entire generation of senior leadership of the military and espionage services become accustomed to the notion that one of their key functions is to protect the country from its own president. This is precisely the scenario I worried about in my recent column. It is not obvious to me that four years of institutional insubordination is better for our democracy than a cabinet coup would be.

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that at least a cabinet coup would be forthright and above-board about what is going on. And, as Douthat points out, members of Trump’s own cabinet are in a better position than anyone, including the voters, to be able to say: we’ve seen the man up close, and he’s simply unable to do the job. To be clear: that’s not what the 25th Amendment was designed for — but it is a lot closer to what it is for than having Congress impeach a President who has not (yet) credibly been accused of any high crimes or misdemeanors.

(As an aside: I’m curious to learn whether the various folks debating the application of the 25th Amendment have read this little-remembered political thriller by the late Bill Safire. I encourage people to check it out; it’s not a bad read and it’s always interesting to see what well-informed observers in the past could imagine about the future.)

Second, consider the inherent limits on the precedent that would be set by a cabinet coup. The cabinet is not like Congress, independently accountable to the people. Nor is it like the military, a permanent bureaucratic interest. The cabinet is a creation of the president. So what lesson would future presidents draw from a cabinet coup against Trump? They would take care that their cabinets were stocked with people who would be unlikely to want to remove them from office and install their Vice Presidents in their stead. But that is already the normal state of affairs in a properly functioning party system. Trump is extraordinary in that he took over the GOP from the outside, and therefore brought only a handful of people into government who were part of his “movement.” How often will that situation recur?

Moreover, if the precedent were more serious, and future presidents genuinely had to worry about losing the confidence of their party and potentially being removed by their cabinet in consequence, would that be such a terrible constitutional innovation? It’s pretty much exactly what happens in parliamentary systems, where votes of no-confidence are how leaders can be deposed in between scheduled elections. Douthat has expressed his own enthusiasm for Theresa May. Perhaps he wishes we could acquire someone like her as chief executive by a similar constitutional operation.

Finally, those who worry about the political fallout from Trump’s removal, noting the powerful and justified popular fury at elite failure that powered his campaign, need to reckon with the fact that Trump’s presidency is going to do nothing whatsoever to reduce the scope of that fury. Indeed, it could well magnify it. Trump shows every sign of reneging on every significant promise he made during the campaign. He has no plans to address the economic or social problems that powered his own populist revolt. His only hope for continuance in power is to continue to stoke the resentments that put him in office in the first place. Trump is not the cause of the crisis — but neither is he any plausible part of the solution.

That solution can only come from — to coin a phrase — a “political revolution.” It doesn’t have to be Bernie Sanders’s version — it doesn’t have to be limited to one version at all. But it has to be something that involves people organizing to do politics, not putting their hopes in a comic-opera Napoleon figure. In that sense, perhaps nothing would be better than to demonstrate the manifest futility of the Trump quest, the extraordinary weakness of one angry, vain, solipsistic man pitted against the entire edifice of elite administration.

I would not go so far as to say I endorse Douthat’s proposal. But I will heartily endorse a bit more public honesty, both by those who are familiar with the actual situation inside the White House and those who so far have preferred to make their case for muddling through without reference to just how dire that situation appears to be. Those who continue to hope that Trump perseveres need to reckon with the near-total evaporation of his support, not only in the permanent bureaucracy but among his own appointees, and the reasons it has evaporated. These are the most important paragraphs in Douthat’s column:

Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.

It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him. And all this, in the fourth month of his administration.

This will not get better. It could easily get worse.

That is the problem in a nutshell. Any argument for muddling through — which is by far the preferable course for the integrity of our democratic institutions — needs to defend muddling through with that, and not some fantasy version of who one hoped Trump might have been, or might yet transform into.



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