Given everything that’s happened since the start of the year, it’s easy to forget that just this past week President Donald Trump was tweeting what appeared to be nuclear threats against North Korea made up of equal parts Freud and a celebration of his own big-boy underpants. That tweet initially reignited a renewed debate around the 25th Amendment option of replacing a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”—arguments that were soon propelled into the stratosphere by the blockbuster revelations in Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury.
Whatever you may think of Wolff’s dubious journalistic purity, there can be no doubt that the cumulative impact of his book has been to reconfirm everything everyone believed they already knew to be true about Trump’s mental state.
As former Bush White House official Michael Gerson offers, it’s incredibly hard to attribute a cognitive decline in President Trump that might necessitate removal from office when the bar was so low to begin with:
Trump is exhibiting a set of compulsions and delusions that have characterized his entire adult life. You can’t have declining judgment that never existed. You can’t lose a grasp on reality you never possessed. What is most striking is not Trump’s disintegration but his utter consistency.
This has always been the problem in assessing Donald Trump’s mental fitness to be president. The truth is that Americans—or a minority of them with an assist from the Electoral College—determined that this man, fully realized as a narcissist without basic skills for executive leadership, was fit for office in 2016. But as Politico reported, the daily, almost hourly manifestations of presidential instability have led to an upsurge in discussions around using the constitutional-fitness lever to oust Trump. Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter that the nuclear-button threat “alone is grounds for removal from office under the 25th Amendment. This man should not have nukes.” What followed was a spate of articles about whether questioning the president’s mental health is appropriate, likely to change anything, likely to backfire, or too costly to the political cause of saving us all from his madness?
Trump tried to smooth the waters this past weekend by reassuring us via Twitter that he is “not [merely] smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!” This message of protestation doesn’t seem to have helped anything for anyone.
Rep. Jamie Raskin actually introduced a House bill last spring seeking to address these questions legislatively. The Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity Act seeks to create a “body” that will be prepared to assess whether the president is unable to execute the duties of his office. After I emailed him following the latest wave of 25th Amendment talk, Raskin told me this:
The 25th Amendment was adopted in the nuclear age, and all Americans should be equally invested for the sake of our people in the basic physical, mental and neurological capacity of the president to do the job.
This proposed legislation, which Raskin says has the backing of 60 Democratic co-sponsors and no Republicans, does not mention President Trump by name. It calls for an independent bipartisan body made up of elder statespersons, physicians, and psychiatrists. Per the 25th Amendment itself, such a body could only make a recommendation, which would need to be approved by the vice president and two-thirds of both branches of Congress if the president were to contest it. The implication here is this: Impeachment is inescapably and overwhelmingly a political question, but presidential capacity should overwhelmingly be a medical and practical one.
It seems to me, though, that Raskin has identified the central irony of this political moment: We don’t need Wolff’s book, or even an independent commission, to identify the ways in which the president is not by temperament or character fit for office. This is all already widely known, and spoken aloud, even by his Cabinet members and Republican officeholders. The problem is in developing a process of amassing evidence to reach a conclusion that would require Congress and the Cabinet to act, in contravention of their own parochial interests and the 2016 vote. Republicans have showed no intention of acting in any way against this president. And as my colleague Jamelle Bouie notes here, that is where the system breaks down.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a similarly dispiriting column about the ways in which Robert Mueller—following a scrupulous and comprehensive investigation—might produce an airtight legal case against the president. I very reluctantly concluded:
[W]e should accept the possibility that Mueller may come to represent the highest and most binding expression of law and order in America. We also must acknowledge the reality that the highest and most binding expression of law and order in America might not matter enough, to enough people, to bring the Trump train to a stop.
It is perfectly rational to believe that Trump should currently be trapped in the pincer grip of the Mueller investigation on the one side and the mounting evidence of his unfitness on the other.
But for either of those two scenarios to play out, it will require more than merely a return to constitutional and legal norms. It will require that Republicans in the House and Senate loudly declaim what they may only whisper to their congressional aides and anxious therapists. What we have seen, instead, is the opposite. GOP senators like Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham who were once bellwethers for norm preservation are suddenly back in the president’s corner, pompoms waving wildly.
Senators like Jeff Flake who once gave eloquent speeches about good governance have slid into constitutional screen-saver mode, with cheery plans to spend more time with their families. Senators who once threatened to go all statesmanlike if the independence of Robert Mueller or Jeff Sessions were threatened now daily threaten the independence of Robert Mueller and Jeff Sessions. Whatever minimal vestiges of Never Trump once existed among Republican lawmakers in the first year of his presidency have evaporated, just as the rest of us have come to see with perfect clarity how dangerous this presidency is.
To be certain, constant talk of the 25th Amendment option, or of a successful Mueller probe potentially leading to impeachment, should in no way recede. It is more important than ever to go through the formal legal exercise of amassing evidence, building processes, and bolstering the legal and political institutions that should be brought to bear in a functioning constitutional democracy. But this is ultimately now a politics problem, not a legal one. Winning elections—answering power with power—is the only solution that can possibly guarantee the future of our democracy and our country. To count on GOP participation in that project is clearly futile: It is too late for them to course-correct and long past time we recognized that.