Memo to Pence: Prepare to Be Gerald Ford
If you want to be Trump's successor after his impeachment or resignation, these are the steps you have to take right now.
Dear Vice President Mike Pence:
A betting man might place odds that, sometime in the next three and a half years, and maybe a lot sooner than that, you will become president of the United States. The present situation in the White House is unsustainable. The time has come for you to consider the possibility that, as a result, it will not be sustained and that you, as a consequence, have a date with history at some point on your calendar.
True, your boss’s impeachment and removal remains a low-probability event. A Republican-controlled Congress has already allowed the president to cross thresholds that would surely have led to the removal of prior commanders in chief. While this may reflect little more than base political calculations, impeachment is an exceptionally grave act before which one should naturally hesitate. The preeminent legal scholar Charles Black opened his book on impeachment by arguing that “[e]veryone must shrink from this most drastic of measures.” Writing in Lawfare, Jane Chong notes: “Acknowledging his own status as a longtime political opponent of then-President Richard Nixon, Black nonetheless expresses ‘a very strong sense of the dreadfulness of the step of removal.’ Impeachment must be treated like high-risk surgery, he insists, ‘to be resorted to only when the rightness of diagnosis and treatment is sure.’” So it may take time, and your appointment with history may never come.
But consider, at this stage, the odds that President Trump will be removed from office early are certainly not lower than the odds of his election in the first instance. Only last week, a Republican senator spoke the words: “the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.” Your boss is completely out of control. You know this, probably better than we do. You know that he is incapable of controlling his behavior and could lash out at any moment in a fashion that could be ruinous. You know that’s true even if there’s nothing to all those Russian allegations. And you know that all those denials — including the ones to your face — have proved false. You know, in other words, that it could happen. And if it does, you will face the monumental task of leading a fractured country forward out of the wreckage. The time to begin preparing for that moment is now.
You occupy an unusual position in our constitutional structure. Because you, like the president himself, were elected by the people, you are the only member of the executive branch whom Donald Trump cannot fire. This gives you unusual power in a White House more closely modeled on Lord of the Flies than Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals. You do not, as White House staffers are so fond of reminding one another, serve at the pleasure of the president. He’s stuck with you. He can marginalize you, but he can’t get rid of you entirely.
It is critical that you recognize the distinction between yourself and the courtiers who jockey for his favor. You do not merely serve Donald Trump. You have an independent relationship with the American people, and Trump’s fall — whenever it eventually comes to pass — will be your rise. It’s time for you to stop acting like one of the courtiers and start acting like a potential successor, a viable one. The strength and nature of your independent relationship with the people may well have profound consequences for a post-Trump America. So risk his displeasure and start cultivating that relationship now.
Embrace marginalization. It’s your protection, the one thing that may allow you to emerge as a leader not hopelessly tainted by your origin story. Work on that marginalization. Pray for it. Don’t try to come in from the cold. Run out into the cold — and stay there.
The first step is putting meaningful distance between yourself and Trump. You do not have to publicly condemn his shocking conduct — though it’d be nice if you did. But enough with the insincere fawning and the over-the-top efforts to remain in his good graces. Do not allow yourself to be sullied by the swirling insanity overtaking 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Your foreign trip was a good idea. Do more of that. Go to funerals. Make speeches on important unifying themes. Someone in this administration needs to act with the deliberation and integrity and dignity of a president. And it should be you because, unlike the many sycophants surrounding Trump, you may need to wake up tomorrow and actually be the president. The more time you spend with Trump, the less plausible you’ll be in his role.
Second, it is critical that you have some credibility. Your association with Trump has already deprived you of most of it for many Americans. But, hey, you go to war with the vice president you have, not the vice president you wish you had. So please, be careful not to ever allow an administration unrivaled in its mendacity to once again make a liar out of you. Simply refuse to make any factual representations to the American people that you have not independently verified and are not prepared to personally stand behind. Claiming the White House lied to you just isn’t going to cut it.
Third, reaffirm, wherever possible, your commitment to and faith in all of our three branches of government. We have seen President Trump assault the integrity and independence of the other branches — and his own, for that matter. Remember that he is poisoning the well for you, too. Do you want to become president having never stood up for the men and women of the Justice Department? Do you want your administration to have to litigate before courts for whose integrity you couldn’t muster a word? Remember that the people whose abuse you tolerate today may have to work for you tomorrow. How do you want them to see you?
Finally, study and study again the example of Gerald Ford, who became president with the resignation of Richard Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974. In the days leading up to Nixon’s resignation, Ford was not certain of the outcome. He did, however, make decisions that proved critical in his ability to lead the country out from Watergate. His example is instructive.
A vice president staring down the barrel of his boss’s impeachment would be well advised to consider and care about historical perceptions. Ford, for example, elected to have credible witnesses in the room for significant meetings. His own chief of staff, Robert Hartmann, accompanied him to a meeting with Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, wherein Haig informed the vice president of the soon-to-be revealed tapes that would end Nixon’s presidency.
In that meeting, Haig laid out a series of options regarding Nixon’s future, including that Nixon resign and Ford issue a pardon. Ford declined to comment on that option — or on the issue of pardons at all — deeming himself an interested party in the matter. He assiduously conducted himself so as to ensure that when accusations of a quid pro quo — that he pardoned Nixon in exchange for becoming president — inevitably surfaced, he was able to counter them honestly. Are you conducting yourself in a fashion that you will comfortably answer questions about your comportment when the time comes?
Ford was determined to not take any steps that could be perceived as attempting to secure the presidency for himself. He did not encourage the president to resign, though his doing so would obviously trigger Ford’s own elevation, and he gave no indication of any willingness to pardon Nixon if he did resign. But, critically, neither did he suck up to Nixon nor erode his own credibility so as to make himself less of a viable leader if he had to lead. In short, part of Ford’s great service to the nation was not just his uncheerful willingness to assume the office, but his ability to do so under conditions in which members of both parties could speak to his honesty and integrity. Those are conditions you are going to need to cultivate.
After Ford took office, he addressed the nation, saying: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.”
It’s a good line. You might consider jotting it down somewhere — and practicing it a few times.
Photo credit: AARON P. BERNSTEIN/Getty Images
Susan Hennessey is managing editor of Lawfare.