Trump isn’t even President yet and people are already talking about a Constitutional crisis. He’s still just Tweeter-in-Chief, people! Enjoy this relatively tranquil period before things really hit the fan. January 20 will be a living nightmare. And from then on his twitchy little fingers will have the Red Button to toy with at 3 am instead of just his mobile phone. Every day will be a tweet-storm of bad decisions, lies, threats, bombast and violations of law. If Trump serves out his first term this will go on, day in day out, for 208 weeks, 1,461 days.
Not only is this an ugly prospect, it’s literally incredible. Our democracy and our society will be subject to continuing chaotic stress. I simply can’t imaging this going on for so long. Instead, something else has to happen.
Something will break. But what? Here are some possibilities.
- Impeachment. The House can impeach Trump and if the Senate convicts we’d have President Pence for the remainder of the term. This strikes me as the most likely end to Trump’s presidency, even though there is almost no sign of this yet. The Emoluments Clause seems a slender reed, even though it would be perfectly legitimate legal grounds for impeachment. Real evidence of treason would do the trick, but what we have at this writing is unsubstantiated at best and “fake news” at worst. I have every confidence, however, that Trump will provide ample grounds for impeachment after just weeks of misgovernment. The Republicans are happy to use Trump to rubber stamp their plutocratic agenda for now but if he becomes an embarrassment they would even happier with Pence. I yield to no one in my dislike of Pence’s policies but I would sleep much more soundly with him in the White House. Update Feb. 13, 2017: While there is no indication that the Republican Congress is moving in the direction of impeachment I propose a possible scenario: the Joint Chiefs of Staff schedule an off-the-record meeting with McConnell and Ryan, at which the Chiefs state that the greatest security threat to the republic is the President himself. That might get the ball rolling. Update August 16, 2017: Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn racist neo-Nazi’s triggered coordinated statements from four of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They can’t be any happier about Trump’s off-the-cuff threats of nuclear war against North Korea. While it’s taken far longer than I expected, the private meeting with Congressional leadership is looking ever more likely. Some smoking gun would be necessary for impeachment, but this might well emerge from the Mueller investigation or from disgruntled former staffers or many other sources.
- Removal by the Cabinet. Keith Olbermann (yes he’s back) points out that Amendment XXV, Section 4 provides that the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet can temporarily take away the President’s powers if they declare him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” This becomes permanent only after a 2/3 vote by each house of Congress, but the standard seems less stringent than the “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” required for impeachment. While it’s easy to imagine Trump’s behavior justifying removal under this clause it’s unlikely that the ragtag cabinet he’s assembled would have the guts to invoke it. I think straight-up impeachment is more likely. Update Feb. 13, 2017: I’m still skeptical about this scenario but it now seems more plausible that Trump might go frankly and unambiguously insane.
- Resignation. So far Trump seems to be having fun, but he might find the Presidency itself burdensome and annoying. Pressure to resign could come from many places; while his first instinct would certainly be fight back I can imagine circumstances in which he would prefer to resign and take up the reins again of his yuge real estate empire.
- Death. I’m not an expert, but Trump’s health doesn’t look all that great to me. He’s overweight and his constant sniffling during the debates suggests at best a sinus condition and at worst a serious cocaine addiction. He will be the oldest President in American history, and as his own doctor has noted, “if something happens to him, then it happens to him.” He might also die by unnatural means. The Kennedy assassination occurred while I was in high school and Reagan was shot and seriously wounded in 1981. In all, four U.S. Presidents have been assassinated. I was pleasantly surprised that there were no serious threats to President Obama, but the possibility that someone might kill Trump cannot be excluded.
- Military Coup. The U.S. military, while overwhelmingly Republican, takes quite seriously its responsibility to protect the country from harm. And it’s obvious to any thinking person that the single greatest threat to the United States of America is Donald J. Trump. The military also takes quite seriously its duty to follow the lawful commands of its Commander in Chief, so it would take quite a lot of provocation before it would step in. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this might happen.
I don’t list “revolution” because it really isn’t possible in 2017; so long as the military is loyal it can put down any sort of insurrection. Public disorder could certainly be part of the equation, but I think it would lead to one of the outcomes listed above rather than itself becoming an outcome.
Martial law and personal rule by President-for-Life Trump are also possibilities, of course. All of the institutions of our democracy might break before he does. That’s the elephant in the room.
Update May 14, 2017: Ross Douthat argues in this morning’s New York Times that the idea of removing DT before 2020 is “just noise.” I have to admit that there continues to be no sign that the Republican leadership is moving towards either impeachment or Article XXV removal for unfitness; they have even less character and integrity than I supposed. But I continue to think that our system cannot stand four years of this level of stress, not to mention the possibility of a truly apocolyptic disaster like nuclear war with North Korea. I still think “something will break” before 2020.