The Incapacitated President

Trump’s own aides don’t trust him to lead the country. Meanwhile, the only people who can stop this crisis pretend it doesn’t exist.

Donald Trump.
U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Aug. 27. Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Ratified in 1967, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution allows the vice president and a majority of sitting Cabinet secretaries to remove the president if they decide he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Crafted in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it’s been cited recently in response to President Donald Trump and mounting evidence that he’s not equipped to handle the office of the presidency. Excerpts from a new book on the Trump administration don’t just bolster that view; they suggest a White House where officials have all but invoked an informal version of that provision, stymieing presidential decision making and cutting Trump out of the policymaking and other affairs of state. The White House may be divided by competing loyalties and self-interest, but it is united in its belief that the president cannot be allowed to act unencumbered, lest he plunge the federal government—and the United States—into chaos.

In Fear: Trump in the White House, veteran reporter Bob Woodward portrays an administration where Trump’s own high-ranking advisers hold him in contempt and disdain, scorning him as ignorant and dangerously irresponsible. In the first months of his presidency, Trump is said to have asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for plans for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, told Defense Secretary James Mattis that he wanted Bashar al-Assad assassinated, and brought the White House to a standstill with his anger over the appointment of Robert Mueller as special prosecutor.

Aides like Mattis and Gary Cohn, the president’s former top economic adviser, were so concerned about his behavior that they took steps against his will to stop him from acting. When Trump demanded a plan for assassinating Assad—“Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them”—Mattis said he would look into it before telling a senior aide to disregard the request. To stop Trump from breaking a trade agreement with South Korea, Cohn removed the executive order in question from the president’s desk. Trump didn’t notice. He advised another aide, Rob Porter, to do the same when the president wanted to withdraw from NAFTA.

Woodward isn’t the first observer to allege a “breakdown” in the White House; in Michael Wolff’s now-infamous Fire and Fury, Trump is described as “semi-literate” and unable to “process information in any conventional sense.” Writing about her time in the administration, former adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman ties the dysfunction of the administration to a president who is in the grip of mental decline. “Something real and serious was going on in Donald’s brain,” she wrote. “Donald rambled. He spoke gibberish. He contradicted himself from one sentence to the next.”

Questions of credibility surround both Wolff’s and Manigault Newman’s accounts. But more traditional reporting, including that from Woodward, seems to bolster their claims that the White House is consumed by turmoil, all of it induced by Donald Trump, his compulsions, impulses, and appetites. Together, all of these accounts paint a clear picture: Unable to execute his duties for reasons of temperament, ignorance, and mental decline, President Trump has been sidelined by his aides, who work to mitigate his behavior and keep him from steering the country into catastrophe.

The basic dynamic—a staff taking over for an incapacitated president—isn’t entirely unprecedented. After Woodrow Wilson was bedridden by a stroke and serious illness, his wife Edith Wilson took the reins of his administration, acting as a “steward” who filtered critical information for her husband. A recent book, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson, argues Edith Wilson all but ran the executive branch for the final 18 months of Woodrow Wilson’s term, conducting presidential business with government officers, advising Cabinet officials, and determining the daily agenda of the office of the president.

In the final months and weeks of his presidency, Richard Nixon had sunk into a deep, intractable depression, medicating himself with alcohol and sleeping pills. “Nixon’s inability to efficiently or appropriately wield executive power had dwindled so far that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger urged General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to not take military orders directly from the President,” wrote historian Anthony Bergen in a chronicle of those last days, adding that “the military chain-of-command took the extra-constitutional step of removing the President from the loop.”

The debilitation of Wilson and deterioration of Nixon were behind closed doors. Neither Congress nor the larger public had a full sense of the turmoil in the White House. Details would emerge later, and the nation would not learn the full extent of presidential incapacitation until well after the fact. Trump is far from transparent, and yet with reported work and inside accounts, we have a remarkably full picture of the “breakdown” in and around the president. And if anything described by Wolff, Manigault, or Woodward is true, then the United States is currently in the midst of an acute political crisis, beset with a functionally incapacitated president and a government branch run on an ad hoc basis.

Indeed, much of Washington seems to know and accept this—even members of the majority party. “He concerns me,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee in an interview with the New York Times last October. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.” Corker, who leaves office at the end of the year, said Trump was treating the presidency like “a reality show,” with reckless threats that could put the United States “on the path to World War III.” Peter Wehner, a veteran of the last three Republican presidential administrations, has written of private conversations with unnamed Republican lawmakers, who disparage Trump as a “child king,” “incompetent,” and “unfit” for the office.

Another vocal critic of the president, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, told graduating students at Harvard Law School that “our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division. And only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works.” Each of these criticisms is rooted in an assessment of President Trump’s competence, or lack thereof. And to that point, some Democratic lawmakers (and one Republican) were concerned enough about the president’s mental state late last year to invite a Yale University psychiatry professor to brief them on his behavior and possible implications.

Washington may understand and acknowledge the fundamental dysfunction of the Trump White House, but the relevant power brokers—congressional Republicans and their allies—have shown no desire to act upon this slow-motion collapse of the executive branch. Their reasons are narrowly self-interested: Trump may be incapable of effectively carrying out the duties of the presidency, but there is enough of a working policymaking apparatus to accomplish key goals like crippling the regulatory state and building a durable conservative majority on the federal judiciary.

Jeff Flake (and fellow Trump critic Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska) may see the president as a danger to the very stability of American constitutional government, but their commitment to conservative ideology means they will likely confirm the president’s second nominee for the Supreme Court, even if that nominee rejects legal accountability for presidential lawbreaking, thus jeopardizing their own efforts to defend the Constitution.

More than the public nature of President Trump’s deterioration, it’s the inaction and complicity of the majority party that truly differentiates the present situation from those of Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon. Like them, Trump has a cadre of aides and advisers essentially acting in his stead as president, working around him and circumventing his worst impulses. But unlike those presidents, Trump is also insulated by a political movement that ranks pursuit of its ideological goals above all else, including the integrity of the presidency.

Beneath the text of the 25th Amendment—or the Constitution’s impeachment clause, for that matter—is an assumption about the behavior of key institutional actors. Both assume that in the event of presidential incapacitation or wrongdoing, the independent Congress or quasi-independent executive branch officers will act to end the crisis, understood as a threat to the system itself. They assume that most of these actors possess a basic allegiance to the preservation of the political order.

You see this assumption in Federalist 65, where Alexander Hamilton gives the rationale for making impeachment proceedings a duty of the Senate. Hamilton acknowledges that the prosecution of “high crimes and misdemeanors” may divide the community into parties determined by loyalty and political sympathies, who “will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other.” But, Hamilton argues, the Senate is separate enough from the day to day of politics and committed enough to the integrity of the government itself to “preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an individual accused, and the representatives of the people, his accusers.”

Trapped in an unprecedented situation of a crisis that’s broadly known but presently unresolvable, we’re experiencing the extent to which Hamilton was simply too optimistic. The ability to deal with wrongdoing and complete dysfunction in the executive branch is, as he feared, entirely “regulated … by the comparative strength of the parties.” And one of those parties is unconcerned with the potential consequences of a dysfunctional White House and a seemingly unhinged president. Donald Trump cannot do his job, and as long as the Republican Party holds power in Washington, there’s nothing to be done about it.

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