One of the secondary consequences of the Trump presidency is insomnia. I lay awake at two a.m. last night obsessed by daydreams of magical powers that enabled me, anonymously and instantaneously, to make Mar a Lago, Trump Tower, and every other object associated with Trump disappear suddenly and permanently, causing Trump excruciating psychic pain [I have an active fantasy life.] After a while, my thoughts migrated naturally to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. By now fully awake, I turned the matter over in my mind and concluded that it would be both unwise and unnecessary to try to remove Trump from office by that constitutional device.
Since this may take a while, let me begin by reproducing the text of the Amendment:
“Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Section 4. 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.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days 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. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.”
The principal purpose of the amendment is to handle situations in which the President is temporarily or permanently physically incapable of performing the duties of the office. This could be because he or she was to undergo general anaesthesia. [Interesting side note: When I was growing up in a small row house in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, there was an alley behind the house that separated our row from the next street over and gave access to tiny garages. In the house behind us lived a big kid, Eric Goldstein, who grew up to change his name to Eric Cassell and have a distinguished career as a professor of medicine. Eric did some fascinating research using the theories of child cognitive development of the great Child Psychologist Jean Piaget, showing that adult patients recovering from general anaesthesia took a long time to regain an adult level of cognitive abilities, as measured by Piaget’s tests. Eric helped me make a splendid layout for the model trains I bought with the hundred dollars my parents gave me as a substitute for a bar mitzvah.] The Amendment also deals with cases of permanent but not fatal incapacitation, brilliantly lampooned in that great old Kevin Kline/Sigourney Weaver movie Dave, with Frank Langella in an over the top performance as the evil Special Assistant to the President.
Trump’s erratic and despicable behavior and the widespread desperation anent his presidency has sparked discussions of invoking the 25th Amendment on the grounds that Trump is unfit mentally to hold the office of President. Let me address first the issue of Trump’s malign effect on America’s domestic life, and then discuss separately the cataclysmic threat his presidency poses to the very survival of modern civilization, thanks to his access to and control of America’s nuclear arsenal.
I begin by reminding us all that just short of sixty-three million Americans voted for Trump, despite, or perhaps because of, having available to them everything anyone could ask for in the way of information about his character and behavior. Is he a racist? Of course he is, as evidenced by his embrace of the birther myth. Is he a sexist predator on women? On the Access Hollywood tape, he tells us himself that he is. Is he a xenophobe? His announcement speech declares as much. Is he a trash-talking bully? His debate performance settled the question. Is he a crook, a cheat, and a deadbeat? The evidence was public and overwhelming before the election. And yet, sixty-three million Americans voted for him.
If we are to take seriously the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, we must distinguish these characteristics from the quite separate question of mental incapacitation, of early stage dementia. Now, moving into a Continuing Care Retirement Community has given me, as a layman, a new insight into the issue of dementia and associated incapacities of old age. Dementia and its precursors are a regular part of life in a CCRC. Indeed, in the Assisted Living section of the community, there is a wing devoted to dementia patients in which thoughtful and kind care is given to residents who have reached that stage in the deterioration of their cognitive faculties.
What are the evidences of a decline in cognitive faculties? Well, one sign is scattered memory loss – senior moments as they have come to be called, although I like to say that we old people have trouble remembering things simply because we know so much more than young folks. Losing your keys repeatedly, struggling to recall what day it is, putting something on the stove to boil and then forgetting about it, so that the water boils away and the pan is scalded – all of these are or can be signs. But judging from my layman’s observation, a man or woman who suffers the onset of dementia does not suddenly go from being a pleasant, moderately progressive, somewhat garrulous codger to being a flaming racist or warmonger or narcissistic bully.
Trump may be ignorant, a braggart, incapable of focusing for more than a moment on anything but himself, but it would appear that he has always been that way. After all, he was in full possession of such cognitive faculties as he ever had when he called newspapers, posing as his own publicist, to tout his success with women.
If you re-read the 25th Amendment, reproduced above, you will see how high a bar would have to be cleared politically to invoke that Amendment successfully. But what worries me most about the 25th Amendment route is the certainty that once it had been used to oust Trump, it would be used by conservatives, moderates, and most supposed progressives if we ever succeeded in electing a President committed to real collective-ownership-of-the-means-of-production democratic socialism. Would such a commitment be taken as evidence of diminished cognitive capacity? Well, it is so taken now in most of America’s university Economics Departments.
I conclude that so far as domestic affairs are concerned, the response to a Trump is a wave mid-term election.
Which brings me to the matter of nuclear war. Readers of this blog will know that I am genuinely terrified by the danger that Trump, either in a fit of pique or to divert attention from the onslaught of the Mueller investigation, will launch a nuclear attack. Literally anything that can stop this from happening is worth doing. But the 25th Amendment is a slow, unwieldy political process, quite incapable of interrupting a catastrophic Trumpian action. Read the Amendment. By the time its requirements were met, the bombs would have done their damage.
What then can we do? I think there is an answer. It would require a greater degree of bi-partisan cooperation than seems remotely conceivable, but less than the degree of bipartisan cooperation required by the 25th Amendment. The present control system of nuclear weapons was designed at a time when it was believed that there was a serious threat of a nuclear first strike from the Soviet Union that would so completely disrupt American governmental and military communications that the normal chain of command would be shattered. So it was arranged that the President could circumvent that chain of command and order the use of nuclear weapons directly within minutes of news of an in-coming missile attack.
It would be perfectly possible – and infinitely to be desired – for the Congress to pass a law restoring the normal chain of command for the use of nuclear weapons. This would require a smaller majority than is called for by the 25th Amendment, and it would permanently reverse a policy for which there is no longer a justification.
Will this happen? Alas, no. Hence we are forced to hope that we survive while we work to regain control of the House of Representatives.