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Trump’s tantrums won’t cost him the presidency – yet

September 8th, 2018

But the NYT article will drive him deeper into the bunker

Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to describe the White House. The high level of turnover among staff, the erratic decision-making, the presidential public streams-of-consciousness made with zero empathy for their subjects, the failure to actually deliver on key policies like The Wall: we knew all this and have done pretty much since Day 1, if not before. What we didn’t know before the sensational New York Times article[1] was the extent to which members of his own administration don’t trust him and are resorting to extraordinary measures to thwart his worst inclinations.

These revelations have, unsurprisingly, gone down explosively badly in the Oval Office for two reasons above all.

Firstly, Trump does not really run a presidential administration. The best way to think of him is not as a politician but as a paranoid mafia boss. Results matter, because results bring respect and a failure to deliver results brings contempt, and it’s all about respect with him (which we’ll come back to); but at an even higher level, it’s all about loyalty to him. Not to the constitution; not to the law; not to the office; not to the United States; not to Republican Party – certainly not to the Republican Party. To him, personally. So the sense of betrayal at such a personal level is a deadly breach of the omerta he expects and demands of his underlings irrespective of his actions (which are, in any case, by definition right because they’re his).

The second reason is his internal psychology, which is a toxic mix of an inferiority complex – the prompt to both his absurd boastfulness and his constant desire to demean any perceived rival – and a craving for approval and respect from the very people he hates. For the world to be told that he needs child-minding by the “adults” in the administration is the ultimate insult, on so many levels. And the article uses that very word – adults – with all it implies. No wonder he’s throwing a tantrum.

Despite that, and despite the ever-more closed-off bunker it will drive him into, his position might just have got stronger, for now.

The most dramatic claim in the article was that members of the cabinet discussed invoking the 25th amendment, which enables a president to be removed from office on grounds of health – but these thoughts were put aside.

Removing a president who doesn’t want to go is a difficult task. It requires the approval of the Vice President, a majority of the cabinet and two-thirds of the members of both Houses of Congress. Unlike impeachment though, whereas those proceedings are almost certain to start with the president’s opponents in the House, an invocation of the 25th amendment would start with his own party colleagues in the Executive. For that reason, despite the congressional bar being even higher than for impeachment (which only requires a simple majority in the House), Congress would be more likely to ratify the removal due to the lead that the Vice President and cabinet had already given. It would not be a partisan action.

However, if you come for the king, you best not miss, as the saying goes. In this case, even though the claim is that discussions were set aside at an early stage, the fact that they’ve still been made public makes it harder to act later.

Also, despite the brutal analysis and comment, there’s precious little by way of evidence in the article. It’s easy to write of “meetings that veer off topic and off the rails”, or of a “leadership style which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” but these are not grounds for considering the president ‘incapacitated’. While the removal (or non-removal) of a president is always a political act, the US is not a parliamentary democracy and there does need to be at some strong legal or medical hook to hang a case on. The NYT article conspicuously fails to provide one. For that reason, Trump’s position in office has actually been marginally strengthened.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that he could throw that fractional gain away by doing something stupid – and if he does retreat further into the bunker and if the NYT claims are true, then it’ll be harder for his staff to stop him. But that would be a political loss, not one that represents an existential threat to his presidency. On that level, I think we should put aside talk of the constitutional coup that the 25th amendment represents (the risk of impeachment is another matter but will need not just a smoking gun but a bullet and a body if it’s going to persuade Republicans). Trump is erratic, impulsive and unorthodox but these were known character traits when he was elected. As such, they’re not grounds to go over the electorate’s head.

David Herdson

p.s. The 25th Amendment devolves significant power on the Vice President, should the president be incapable of carrying out his duties. In doing so, it assumes that there is a Vice President: there is no provision for what should happen if there is a vacancy in the Vice Presidency and then then President becomes incapacitated. Equally, there is no timeframe on how long a president might take to nominate a replacement (which Congress might reject anyway). One reason why I don’t think that the NYT article came from Pence’s office is because if it had, Pence would be almost obliged to resign if his authorship became known, as would be likely. If a Vice President held such views, he should either act or, if action was likely to be futile, say nothing, or quit.