Prediction: Trump Is Out by Yearend 2018

18Feb17

Consistent with the just-for-fun spirit of this blog, my most recent bet was that, assuming Donald Trump remains in office, he will give the Republicans some but not all of what they want, by the time of the congressional midterm elections in 2018. It becomes increasingly likely, however, that he will not remain.

The American Prospect (Kuttner, 2017) observes that, aside from assassination, there are two ways of removing a president from office. One is through impeachment under U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 4. According to the Heritage Foundation, grounds for impeachment may include “not only the defined crimes of treason and bribery, but also other criminal or even noncriminal behavior amounting to a serious dereliction of duty” — but impeachment is generally considered an option “only in the most extreme situations.”

The other constitutional procedure for removing a president is provided by the 25th Amendment, Section 4, which became law after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. That 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.

Vox (Prokop, 2017) emphasizes that the transfer of power under the 25th Amendment would be immediate, as soon as the vice president (VP) and eight Cabinet officers convey their conclusion to the Senate and the House. If the removed president disputes his removal, it will take two-thirds of each house of Congress to keep him out. The Amendment treats that as a potentially temporary solution — a response to, say, an emergent medical condition — but once Congress removed Donald Trump, it is unlikely that it would allow him to return.

There is now much speculation on the possibility of using that Amendment against Trump. Kuttner argues that Trump is becoming increasingly unhinged, and MSNBC (Benen, 2017) quotes a journalist’s impression that he is “barking mad.” Benen also quotes Republican commentator David Brooks of the New York Times (2017):

I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.

That said, even Benen feels that “the odds of Trump’s own team [i.e., “a majority of the principal officers” of his Cabinet] feeling compelled to remove the president from power are poor.” Prokop explains why:

[I]f a sitting president were to be removed from power by his VP and Cabinet despite his objections, it would sure feel like a coup to a whole lot of people, regardless of the technical legality. And key actors close to the president could well respond like they’re facing a coup. For instance, what would the Secret Service do in this situation? The military?

It might feel like less of a coup if a majority in Congress took the other route provided by the Amendment: create some “other body” to review the matter. Agreement by the VP and that body, as to Trump’s unsuitability, would still need a two-thirds vote in Congress to survive Trump’s challenge. Fusion (Joyce, 2016) observes that this option, too, was unlikely, until Trump came along.

The coup feeling would be reduced if Vice President Mike Pence made his move after Trump had become thoroughly discredited, even among his core supporters. That would seemingly require either one very major faux pas (e.g., an irresponsible use of nuclear weapons) or a series of substantial missteps.

So that establishes Pence’s mission, as portrayed in this cartoon from the 2016 election:

mrz100716-color_orig

Pence needs to position himself, wherever possible, as the adult in the room; become increasingly perceived as the responsible leader; and await the time when people on the right and the left alike view him as the only realistic alternative to a completely unacceptable Trump presidency.

Pence’s cause gains as he becomes a more visible statesman — most recently, traveling to Europe to reassure allies unsettled by Trump’s latest remarks. His cause will also advance if Republicans in Congress consider Trump a liability for their own reelection prospects. It helps that Pence is perceived as “not looking for recognition,” “just quietly going about his job of being vice president, building on his relationships with Capitol Hill,” and being “considered an honest broker” (The Hill, Stanage, 2017).

On this basis, my bet is that, by Christmas 2018, Donald Trump will no longer be president. Contrary to my own earlier speculations, there can no longer be a serious hunch that he is crazy like a fox, behaving in a seemingly unpredictable manner that nonetheless leads toward cleverly preconceived objectives. Notwithstanding the ethical constraints on armchair psychiatry directed at Trump, as a practical matter his unsuitability is palpable. There will be very major missteps. He will frighten people.

Or, to put it another way, if two years of this man’s presidency are not enough to turn the large majority of Americans against him, nothing ever will. If the constitutional means of removing Trump are not sufficient, it will not be surprising if certain Republicans come up with a fake terrorist attack against him, or if certain Democrats arrange for a gun lover to take him out.

In a previous post, I suggested that one could almost justify a vote for Trump in order to inoculate the U.S. against an increasingly imperial presidency. The idea was that, by electing such an unqualified individual, we might put ourselves in the position of desiring stronger limits on presidential power. In that sense, we may have rolled the dice by electing him. Attempts to remove Donald Trump through either impeachment or the 25th Amendment would be a high-stakes gamble. If it succeeded, there would be precedent for removal of future presidents who sufficiently displease Congress. But if it failed, it would send a message that, for practical purposes, presidents cannot be removed even if they display significant and worrisome mental issues, practice blatant corruption, and provide extremely poor national leadership.

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