In dealing with President Donald Trump, The New York Times’ conservative columnist Ross Douthat wants to skip right past impeachment to the 25th Amendment.
That’s the constitutional amendment that allows the Cabinet to declare a president incapacitated and suspend him from office — a suspension that, if the president objects, must be sustained by two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress.
The amendment authorizes the suspension of a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” I always took that to envision, for example, a president who is in a coma. But Ross argues it also applies to a president with an “incapacity to really govern” of the sort demonstrated by Trump.
Ross’ idea is bad, though it is at least interestingly bad.
Trump’s capacity to govern does not seem materially different from what it appeared it would be when a sufficient number of Americans voted six months ago to make him president. Correcting voter error is not what the 25th Amendment is for, and his voters would reasonably feel their judgment had been overridden in a way that is inconsistent with American constitutional norms — the ones we hope to retain after Trump’s presidency ends.
That’s not to say Trump shouldn’t be removed from office. The obvious grounds for doing so are not incapacity but bad acts, such as obstructing justice and giving sensitive intelligence to the Russians. The process for removal on those grounds is impeachment.
One gets the sense that many Republicans in Congress would desperately like to trade Trump for Vice President Mike Pence, if only their voter base would allow them to do so. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would like “less drama” from the White House; Sen. Bob Corker notes Trump’s administration is in a “downward spiral.” Rep. Darrell Issa is so stressed out that he seems to have flipped a reporter from Politico a middle finger in a capitol complex hallway on Tuesday. (Issa denied this.)
If you squint, it’s almost possible to imagine a situation in which the roar of Trump’s scandals becomes deafening enough, and Trump’s numbers with Republican voters become soft enough, that Republicans in Congress decide it is worth ripping off the Band-Aid and getting rid of him.
In making Watergate comparisons, people have overstated the speed and frequency with which Republicans in Congress abandoned President Richard Nixon. Initially, Nixon’s support from Republicans remained strong. Only a year and a half into the scandal, when extremely specific charges had emerged and Nixon’s numbers had fallen very far, did sufficient Republican support for impeachment emerge that Nixon chose to resign.
We’re not there yet, but we could be. Except for one thing: Unlike Nixon, there is no way Trump will go quietly.
Nixon left office with a 24% job approval rating in the Gallup poll. Obviously, 24% is a dismal number, but 24% of the electorate is a lot of people. Imagine if Nixon had spent 1974 running around the country screaming that Republicans had cheated him and that voters should stay home in protest, as Trump would surely do. Imagine if Nixon had kept doing so in 1976 and 1978 and 1980.
Given Trump’s vindictiveness and total lack of ideological commitment to the Republican Party, and given the fact that he surely views the office of the presidency as one of the key tools standing in the way of the prosecution of himself and a wide variety of his associates, it is hard for me to imagine a situation Republicans in Congress are politically better off crossing him than defending him — no matter how exasperating they may come to find him, and no matter how much he may do to interfere with their legislative and political prerogatives.
You will have the presidency when you pry it from Trump’s cold, dead hands. If Republicans in Congress try to take it, they will just end up slap-fighting like two drunk SantaCon Santas until they both slide, grabbing onto one another, into a slush puddle of electoral obliteration.
This is why you don’t go to SantaCon. And it’s why you don’t become a Republican elected official.
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