Chaos in the White House and the Twenty-fifth Amendment

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Bob Woodward’s newest book, Fear: Trump in the White House, will soon hit bookshelves everywhere. Unlike previous offerings on the reported inner-workings of the Trump presidency—some easily discredited based on the reputation of their authors—this book carries with it the clout of its author, one of America’s preeminent and universally-lauded journalists.

Now, the focus of this piece isn’t to foist a sales pitch upon readers, nor herald the distinguished career of Mr. Woodward. No, the purpose of this piece is to examine some of the frightening assertions made by Woodward, and a growing chorus of political actors. The point is to evaluate a portrait that is nearly complete, that something is wrong, that the foundations of catastrophe may well be festering.

For what seems like ages, we’ve seen one insider account after another, one media report after another, allege that the president is unfit to exercise the duties of the presidency. Yet time-and-again, these scattered revelations were dismissed, aggressively denied, or buried. But now, nearly two years of recorded history has been married to robust insights, providing for the discernment of a startling pattern.

In excerpts released by The Washington Post, Woodward chronicles a number of concerning events which speak to the particularly low level of confidence the president’s lieutenants place in him. Woodward reported that Trump’s former chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, referred to the president as a “professional liar”. Chief-of-Staff John Kelly is alleged to have called Trump an “idiot” who had gone “off the rails”. Even his former lawyer, John Dowd, is alleged to have confided in Robert Mueller that Trump, ostensibly, was dimwitted.

However, labels related to personality have been trotted-out for months. What’s particularly striking is the context provided by Woodward, specific exchanges and actions which indicate the fears administration officials harbor about Trump’s poise, his very ability to faithfully-discharge the duties of his office.

During a National Security Council meeting about the American presence on the Korean Peninsula, Trump is alleged to have asked why the United States had assets in the region, to which Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, apparently exasperated, replied “in order to prevent World War III”. Mattis is said to have told associates that Trump had the understanding of a “fifth- or sixth-grader”. On a different occasion, Trump is reported to have impulsively pushed for the assassination of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, an endeavor which Mattis allegedly said he’d undertake, before telling an aide that “We’re not doing any of that.” On the domestic front, Cohn is argued to have removed papers from the president’s desk to keep him from mindlessly blowing-up NAFTA.

And then, when it seemed like a grim and worrisome picture couldn’t get any darker, The New York Times published a groundbreaking op-ed by an unnamed senior White House official. Wasting little time, the piece’s “hook” read as follows, “I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” Unfortunately, things only get more unnerving, with the anonymous author opining,

But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.

That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.

The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making….

In addition to his mass-marketing of the notion that the press is the “enemy of the people,” President Trump’s impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic….

From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.

Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back….

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.

Indeed, the whole of our society has long been inundated with tales in substantive lock-step with the assertions levied by Woodward’s reporting and the testimony of an unnamed insider. Tales which appear to constitute a wide foothold for supporting the argument that the president may be unfit.

Bolstering concerns over Trump’s intellectual fitness, we’ve already received reports that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “moron”. We’ve even encountered reports alleging that former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster privately referred to the president as a “dope” with the intelligence of a “kindergartener”. Omarosa Manigault-Newman has asserted that Trump is in the throes of mental decline, a sentiment previously espoused by some political commentators.

Demonstrating what appears to be instability, we often see the president issue frenzied and chaotic twitter rants possessing little in the way of cogency. On numerous occasions, including at the G7 Summit, he’s reportedly burst into almost childish fits of anger. There have even been reports that Trump has angrily screamed at television sets over Russia probe coverage. However, his rage-filled outbursts don’t always occur in a harmless policy vacuum. For example, anger about unrelated political issues allegedly motivated the president to unilaterally impose injurious tariffs on steel and aluminum.

Worse yet, we’ve seen a sitting president exhibit  a level of ethical decrepitude entirely irreconcilable with the behavior required of his position as the head of the executive branch. We’ve seen him herald a congressman who assaulted a journalist. We’ve seen him praise a convicted fraudster before stating that “flipping almost ought to be illegal“. We’ve seen him arguably admit to obstructing justice by firing an FBI director over his dissatisfaction with the Russia probe. We’ve seen him call on the DOJ to end a lawful investigation which extends into his noticeably corrupt orbit. And we’ve seen him attempt to pressure his attorney general into investigating his political opponents.

In terms of stamina or even capability, we’ve seen numerous reports which may well indicate that the president is either withering under stress, or harbors an abject disinterest in fulfilling the terms contained within his oath of office. So far, he’s spent about 25 percent of his time in office on vacation at one of his properties. According to reports, the duration of his “work day” is shrinking, as he now spends only about seven hours in the Oval Office on a given day. We have heard that he seldom reads his daily intelligence brief, and it appears that he generally eschews reading anything more detailed than a brief synopsis.

For virtually the whole of Trump’s presidency, each downpour in the unmitigated flood of worrying White House revelations centered on fitness were publicly downplayed by those within the Republican Party. Those within the administration who have apparently been serving as a “guardrail”, and those in Congress who have refused to exercise their oversight responsibilities. Yet all the while, they knew as fact, what we merely suspected.

In a September 7th interview with Hugh Hewitt, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) commented on both Woodward’s reporting and the anonymous op-ed, stating,

I think the real question is does transparency and sunlight on things that are broken help or hurt, and I think the answer is it depends. It depends on who’s doing it. So I don’t know Bob Woodward, but I mean, he’s got an unbelievable reputation because of the way he does his sourcing. And so I tend to think that Woodward’s books are, have stood the test of time and will stand the test of time for good reasons. So I think that that kind of journalism is really, really important in the long term. That’s quite different, in my view, from the anonymous op-ed, which as you and I talked about a little bit yesterday, the things that are detailed in that op-ed are similar to what a number of us in the Senate hear from senior people in the White House on a regular basis. But that’s different than, I question the morality of the act of publishing that anonymous op-ed, because if the person’s point is to try to tamp down paranoia and lead to more rational decision making, I think the inevitable effect of this is to cause more paranoia. But I mean, at some point, you’ve got to look at why is there so much soap opera drama every day and every week coming out of this White House. And it’s not because of one op-ed, and it’s not because of the Woodward book. It’s because there is this kind of drama actually in the White House.

So here we are, nearly two years into Trump’s tenure, and the alarm has been loudly sounded. Not by the American populace whose concerns were consistently brushed-off as either the symptoms of an overactive imagination or the duplicitous machinations of dissenters hell-bent on demolishing a political foe, but by the president’s own allies, the very people who—through silence or overt advocacy—long peddled the myth that everything was alright.

Now we know that everything isn’t alright. Now we hear that Trump’s own appointees gave serious thought to invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment to remove a president they viewed as unfit for office. However, thus far they have refrained for fear of igniting a constitutional crisis.

The reality is that we’re already in a two-level constitutional crisis. On one level, we have unelected federal employees admitting to undermining the duly-elected president by erecting a “two-track” presidency. And on the second level, we have a Republican-controlled Congress which has abandoned its constitutional responsibility to provide executive oversight.

To be very clear, the Twenty-fifth Amendment should be a last resort, used only when demonstrable nation-imperiling presidential unfitness exists. However, the fear should not be sparking a constitutional crisis by utilizing the Constitution’s own remedy in the face of credible displays of inadequacy, but rather, the fear should be simultaneously feeding two Constitution-eroding crises with no guarantee of avoiding the visitation of systemic catastrophe.


(Featured image “Joint Resolution Proposing the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Page 1“, by an unidentified photographer, as this image is the work of a federal employee it is within the public domain/image cropped from the original.)