In a mere five months, the never-ending 24/7 news cycle has come perilously close to destroying the Trump presidency. Richard Nixon, the worst and most corrupt president in U.S. history, took five years to get to this point. We live in a different era, one in which everything is accelerated, including the rise and fall of presidents. Now our “interesting times” may get even more interesting.
The spectacle of the presidency imploding has become the greatest domestic entertainment event ever staged—if unintentionally—by one of the greatest entertainers in the world. Trump on a daily basis creates a new chapter in his own drama, and we in the audience cannot help but be mesmerized. More than one Trump ally has pointed out that he—rather than Democrats or investigators in the the FBI and Congress—is primarily responsible for the legal morass into which he has sunk. He really has his own words and deeds to blame.
A lot of observers are interpreting Trump’s self-destructive tendencies in a more disturbing light. After one of his nine conversations with Trump, then-FBI Director James Comey said Trump was acting “crazy” and “outside the realm of normal.”
So far as I know, neither Trump nor any of his spokesmen or surrogates has specifically objected to that characterization by Comey, One spokesman shrugged off a question about whether the president was “crazy” by simply calling the question “insulting,” which it clearly was intended to be.
After Trump again attacked the appearance of a female TV host, Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska responded, “This isn’t normal.” During the campaign Trump had implied that another female TV reporter shouldn’t question him because she was having her period.
A number of psychologists and psychiatrists have written supposed diagnoses of Trump’s mental problems, some describing him as psychotic. The pastime became so ubiquitous that a professional association reaffirmed an old prohibition on diagnosing celebrities without actually interviewing them. Carried a step further, such diagnoses, and more importantly the behavior that provokes them, could have serious consequences for Trump.
There’s been a lot of speculation about whether Trump could be criminally indicted for obstruction of justice (it is unclear if a sitting president can be tried for a crime and the Republican-dominated Supreme Court would have to rule) or impeached and removed by Congress for “high crimes and misdemeanors” (requiring a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate). Perhaps it is more plausible to look at whether Trump would do something so outrageous or dangerous—for example, stumbling into war with North Korea or China—that his Cabinet and Vice President would meet, invoke the 25th Amendment on the grounds that Trump is mentally incapacitated and remove him.
The amendment states: “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”
(House Democrats are drafting a bill to create an “Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity” under the 25th Amendment. Unlike impeachment, the bill would require only a simple majority, which the Democrats might achieve next year.)
What are the chances of his own appointees uniting to defenestrate the president? They may be better than you would imagine. Instances of fundamental disagreement between Trump and the most senior members of his administration are legion. Here are a few examples.
In the first disaster of the Trump administration, the national security advisor, Mike Flynn, told Pence he had had no contact with Russian officials The attorney general, however, told the White House that overheard phone conversations proved otherwise. Trump was informed not only that Flynn lied to Pence but that he was vulnerable to blackmail by Russia.
Trump did nothing. He did nothing for 18 days. Finally somebody leaked the incriminating information to the Washington Post. It was only through the newspaper story that Pence found out Flynn had been lying to him. The vice president took his ire directly to Trump, and the next day Trump fired Flynn.
It’s obvious the president acted unwillingly and probably only because Pence threatened to resign. Since the firing, Trump has repeatedly tried to squelch the multiple criminal and national security investigations of Flynn, and the president continues to refer to Flynn as “a good guy.”
While Pence has repeatedly stood up for Trump and proven himself a loyal ally, he also showed in this episode that he has a streak of independence and is willing to call out Trump when he feels it necessary.
Then there is Trump’s Cabinet, a majority of which could vote to discharge him from his presidential duties. Trump often contradicts his own administration, including the secretaries of state and defense, the attorney general, the national security advisor, a battery of generals and ambassadors, and even his own spokesmen and lawyers.
In one of the most remarkable—if little remarked—incidents in American history, the secretaries of defense and state called a press conference to announce that when Trump said in a tweet that morning that he had given up on Chinese efforts to influence North Korea, he “was speaking for the American people” rather than for the American government.
The difference is not a mere matter of words but of war and peace. Plan A of the American government is to use Chinese influence to force North Korea to get rid of nuclear weapons. The administration has also said it cannot tolerate North Korea’s continued nuclear development. But short of war it has no Plan B to make the North Koreans do something they don’t want to do. When Trump tweeted that he had given up on Plan A, it was tantamount to a declaration of war—nuclear war.
Earlier, when the entire government had agreed on a statement Trump was to give in Brussels endorsing the NATO mutual security guarantee, Trump refused to deliver it.
Trump criticized his Justice Department’s explanation of his Muslim travel ban before the Supreme Court, as if the attorney general reported to some other president than him.
One morning, Trump attacked Qatar and lauded the Arab blockade against it. Within hours, the State Department defended the emirate, and the Defense Department praised its hosting a U.S. military base housing more than 10,000 U.S. troops. The State Department implied Saudi demands were unreasonable and offered to mediate, while Trump praised himself as having generated the Saudi blockade when he visited Saudi Arabia. After his administration collaborated with the House of Representatives to pass a sweeping health bill, Trump denounced the bill as “mean.”
When the Ukrainian president visited Washington a few days ago, the Pentagon promised the U.S. would defend Ukraine against Russia while Trump refused to say so.
The U.S. continues to be the main financier and ally of the Colombian government’s drive to make peace with FARC guerrillas, but when Trump met with the Colombian president, he pointedly refused to support the peace process.
All 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have said repeatedly they have proof Russia interfered with the presidential election with the goal of electing Trump, but Trump continues to denounce all the investigations of the election as a “witch hunt.”
And only a few days after Trump outlined plans to impose tariffs on imports of steel, aluminum and other goods, the Guardian reported, “At one point, Trump was told almost his entire cabinet thought this was a bad idea.”
It is as if we have two administrations in Washington—Donald Trump and everybody else. How long that can continue is anybody’s guess.