America Is Stuck With a Broken President
Trump is unfit for office. But the system has no answers.
For decades, the official verdict on the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon was that, as his successor Gerald Ford said on assuming office, “Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.” By that measure, Donald Trump’s presidency poses a special threat: The man who leads the country is demonstrably unfit, but there is no feasible way for the laws to remove him. That situation poses a uniquely grave threat to U.S. national interests.
The president’s sudden decision over the objections of his military advisors to endorse a Turkish invasion of Kurdish redoubts in northern Syria provides the most recent example of his erratic handling of foreign policy. Shock at the announcement was compounded by dismay at a presidential tweet on Monday morning justifying his decision in which he wrote that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
The political scientist Brendan Nyhan said on Twitter, “We’re heading toward mad king territory here, folks.” The grimmer truth is that we have been in mad king territory for some time. And U.S. institutions offer no solution because a combination of partisan politics and institutional dysfunction means there is no way to fix an imperial presidency if the president is not up to the task of running it.
Trump’s Twitter account has been speaking for the president for so long that by now the novelty of presidential dictates-by-tweet has long since worn off. After all, Monday’s incident wasn’t the first incident of tweetboat diplomacy. In April 2018, for instance, he warned Russia by tweet not to “be partners with a Gas Killing Animal” and that U.S. missiles would be coming “nice and new and ‘smart!’” In July 2018, he tweeted—in all-caps—to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” And in September 2017, he responded to a United Nations speech by North Korea’s foreign minister with the tweet: “If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”
Tweets like these should be viewed as a symptom more than a cause, one backed up by numerous other Trumpian statements. The president either does not understand the responsibilities of his job or he is unfit to discharge them. In either case, he cannot be trusted to fulfill his constitutional obligation to “faithfully execute” the duties of his office.
That condition collides with the reality that decades of congressional incapacity and inaction have left the presidency even stronger than when Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote The Imperial Presidency. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force continues to be cited by the executive branch as granting practical carte blanche to wage war, even against Iran. Similarly, long-standing traditions about the responsible use of national security clauses in statutes regulating foreign trade and investment have been blown away as Trump has used them to conduct politically motivated trade wars with China and other countries, including in Europe. Despite occasional congressional criticism and even votes, both economic and security powers remain firmly in the grasp of the president’s hands.
With checks and balances having weakened so far, the importance of a stable, competent president has only increased. Instead, the United States has someone who seriously pursued buying Greenland.
In theory, the U.S. Constitution offers a fix to this problem through the 25th Amendment. Adopted in the wake of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s heart attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the amendment specifies that the vice president and a majority of the cabinet (or another body specified by Congress) may declare the president unable to discharge the duties of the office, leaving the vice president in charge.
The amendment was meant to resolve a long-standing question of what would happen if the president were not dead or clearly impeachable but merely incapacitated. The original text merely stated that the powers of the president would devolve to the vice president in case of “inability.” Even in the Philadelphia Convention itself, the delegate John Dickinson remarked that it was too vague and it was unclear who would judge that disability. The convention, however, never resolved those questions, inadvertently producing a terrifying tradition in which American government could not manage the challenges of a president physically incapable of office.
Two incidents demonstrate the problem of being unable to respond to presidential incapacity. On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield, four months into his term, was shot by Charles Guiteau at a train station. The president took 79 agonizing days to die, during which time the United States essentially lacked a president. Amazingly, almost the same situation recurred when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919; his wife and staff refused entreaties to have his vice president temporarily assume the president’s powers, and at the climax of the fight over the League of Nations the United States again lacked a clear president. There are claims that other presidents had debilitating conditions, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s hypertension or Ronald Reagan’s cognitive decline, that might have risen to the level of presidential impairment.
The 25th Amendment was meant to provide a respectful means for legislators and others to deal with those sorts of illnesses or temporary disabilities without resorting to impeachment. But Trump is not ill in the way Wilson or Roosevelt was, and whatever drives him to engage in such flagrantly reckless behavior is not temporary. And although the amendment may have answered Dickinson’s question about who would judge the president to be unable to fulfill his duty, leaving the choice of determining presidential incapacity to the vice president and cabinet made the process inescapably political.
Politics also would probably prevent Congress from exercising its ability under the amendment to transfer the cabinet’s ability to declare the president unfit to some other body—as one doctor has suggested, to a board of doctors and psychologists who would provide independent examinations. (That suggestion, made in 1994, uncomfortably foreshadowed Trump’s transparent dishonesty about providing his health records.)
And impeachment, too, seems to be off the table. Leaving aside the question of what it would take to convince Republican senators to convict, House majority leaders seem to have concluded that the president’s public doings do not rise to impeachable offenses. In response to the disclosure of the formerly secret memo summarizing the president’s July conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives was rebranding its investigations into the president as an impeachment inquiry. Yet despite being even more blatant, none of what the president has done in public, from his erratic diplomacy to his operating a hotel soliciting business from foreign governments, triggered such a reaction.
It is ironic that the United States finds itself in the predicament of living under an executive unfit to rule but unable to be removed. After all, the country was born in an independence struggle against a British government headed by King George III. That king had what may have been a profound mental illness, which eventually led Parliament to declare his son regent. The benefits of an unwritten constitution meant that Parliament had great flexibility in dealing with the challenge.
The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, aimed to temper the possibility of abuse of the laws by either a rogue executive or a legislature. The Framers aimed to ensure that political tussles would not end with bloodshed: Impeachment carries the penalty of conviction, not beheading, and the president cannot order legislators imprisoned on their way to sessions of Congress.
Ford invoked that aspiration of a rational, orderly frame of government when he assured Americans on replacing Nixon that “our long national nightmare is over.” Nine hundred and ninety-two days into the Trump administration, it seems, the nightmare is really only beginning.
Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.