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Trump’s unhinged behaviour won’t invoke the 25th

October 12th, 2019

His mental health is too difficult to assess and there are other, better routes

When Donald Trump was merely the cartoon boss on the Apprentice, he hammed up his performance with the very successful catchphrase “You’re fired” – although it turned out he really was playing himself all along.

Trump’s administration has been a revolving door of appointments amid laudatory comments, followed by resignations and sackings and associated Trumpian bad-mouthing of his former colleagues. In around three years, Trump has got through any number of underlings. While his personal political staff has had most turnover, his cabinet-level appointments have had unusual turnover: of the 15 positions (excluding VP), eight have seen at least one sacking or resignation. That compares with just two at the same point in Obama’s presidency (and neither of those was contentious).

Trump hires and fires at will; it’s part of his god complex. One question we therefore really ought to be asking is whether, if he is renominated by the Republicans for the presidency, he will stick by Mike Pence as his running mate.

Pence has, as far as we can tell, been a loyal deputy: no easy task with such an erratic boss. All the same, his personal ratings are nothing to write home about, hovering in high negative single figures. Granted, that’s a little better than Trump’s scores but not much and Pence doesn’t obviously add much to the ticket. In 2016, he was a clear signal to the Republicans’ evangelical support but Trump has a record in office now and can point to his judicial nominations – far more important than the Vice Presidency – in how he’s delivered for that support. He doesn’t really need Pence now. It is true that Trump has said that Pence will be on the ticket but then Trump says a lot of things that don’t always turn out to be good guides to the future.

There is one complication we should think about though. Trump has never been a model of consistency but his behaviour these last couple of months – now that impeachment is getting serious – has been worse than usual. His tweet simultaneously threatening to destroy Turkey’s economy while boasting of his “great and unmatched wisdom” was merely the most notable example but here’s another.

These incidents have once again raised chatter about the 25th Amendment: the means by which a US president can be removed from effective office on health grounds (note – an important betting consideration here is that the president does not lose office, only the powers of the office, which become vested in the Vice President.

The barriers to invoking Section 4 are, however, formidable. It requires the Vice President and a majority of the 15 cabinet members – all Trump appointees, obviously – to declare “that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. The Vice President’s veto here is one of the few places within the US constitution where he has genuine independent personal power (the Senate casting vote being the only other of note). If those two conditions are met, then it also requires two-thirds majorities in both Houses of Congress for the action to stick – which is to say, a substantial amount of Republican congressmen and senators, although if a majority of the Executive and the VP are on board, chances are many in Congress would regard that as a sufficient green light.

I don’t think this is a realistic outcome unless Trump clearly has a clear, major and sustained mental breakdown – which is to say something well beyond his usual nasty, unempathetic and narcissistic state. I’d imagine that his opponents would rather see where the impeachment hearings go than let him off the hook – and of course the two-thirds provision also means that the Democrats have a blocking vote if senior Republicans tried to use the Amendment to by-pass impeachment; likewise, the prospect of a flawed and failing opponent in next year’s election must cross the more cynical Democrat minds. And if he is re-elected? Well, the 25th Amendment will still be there if necessary.

But that comes back to Pence playing ball, along with many others. Would he? Clearly he would have much to gain personally but I just don’t see it as a political move – it’s too hard and too risky if it goes wrong.

Would that change if Trump dropped him from the ticket? I don’t think so. That decision will be made (or will be made public) very late in the campaign – only three months or so before polling day. By that point, the form of the election will have been set. Besides, not only would it look like serious sour grapes from Pence but it doesn’t answer how the other necessary votes would be gained.

Assessing mental health is extremely difficult: all the more so if the subject doesn’t want to cooperate. For all the talk about removing Trump on health grounds before the election, I don’t see it as anything below a 20/1 shot, probably more – and that’s considering that he’s an obese septuagenarian. The political challenges are too hard.

David Herdson