The GOP considered invoking the 25th Amendment when Reagan's Alzheimer's became apparent. As 'Fire and Fury' reveals, Trump is more dangerous, and so is the party enabling him.
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Michael Wolff’s new book about the Trump administration Fire and Fury has been the talk of the nation for days now. And there’s a good reason for it beyond the colorful gossip and palace intrigue. It is the first long-form look at the Trump White House to confirm that the crude, inept, unqualified president we see with our own eyes and ears is even worse behind the scenes. It’s not that we ever really doubted his persona is authentic, but it was always possible that the administration was functioning on some basic level of professional competence simply because well … it’s the presidency of the United States. By pulling back the curtain, this book leaves no doubt that there is something very wrong with Donald Trump. What Wolff does not do is give us any clue about what might be done about it.
The book makes clear that the people who work closest with Trump believe he is incompetent and temperamentally unfit. He is routinely referred to by people who work in the West Wing and know him well as a “crazy,” “idiot,” “moron” who has the attention span of a small child and is totally incapable of processing information or conducting a serious conversation.
And according to this piece in Politico by Susan Glasser, foreign leaders are equally scathing in their assessment of the capabilities of the American president. The words they use to describe him are slightly different than those used by the people close to Trump, but only because for them the stakes are so high: “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent,” and “dangerous.”
Over their year of living dangerously with Trump, foreign leaders and diplomats have learned this much: The U.S. president is ignorant, at times massively so, about the rudiments of the international system and America’s place in it, and in general about other countries. He seems to respond well to flattery and the lavish laying out of red carpets; he’s averse to conflict in person but more or less immovable from strongly held preconceptions. And given the chance, he responds well to anything that seems to offer him the opportunity to flout or overturn the policies endorsed by his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Or, as his close associates in the United States would put it, “He’s like a child.”
Whether Trump’s behavior is attributable to intellectual, personality, and character defects or is a sign of a serious clinical illness is unknown. But we do know that just since the first of the year he has taunted North Korea’s unstable leader and called for his defeated political opponents to be jailed. He threatened to use a “military option” in Venezuela. He has picked a Twitter fight with nuclear-armed Pakistan for reasons that are completely obscure. He gave an interview to The New York Times just before the first of the year that was so unhinged it sounded as though he might be drunk and he does not drink. He is getting worse.
He is also implicated in a very serious crime. The office of the Special Prosecutor is investigating evidence that this incompetent and corrupt narcissist may have been compromised by the Russian government and conspired with them to interfere with our electoral system. His former campaign manager and his top aide have already been indicted for financial crimes related to their work with allies of Vladimir Putin and two others have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in exchange for cooperating with the Special Counsel. Trump’s response to the investigation was to order members of the Department of Justice, including the FBI director, to end any investigation into his campaign. He was very angry to learn that the office of Attorney General was not there to “protect” the president and reportedly lamented, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?,” his former personal attorney and counsel to the grotesque communist witch hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy.
He is, quite simply, a danger to the republic.
There are political remedies available. Impeachment was the course the framers expected Congress to use to remove a president who had committed high crimes and misdemeanors. What constituted such behaviors? The old Gerald Ford trope “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers to be at a given moment in history” is, for all practical purposes, correct.
From what we can see of this current House of Representatives they are prepared to launch impeachment hearings tomorrow—of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton who has not held office for five years and is no longer active in electoral politics. As for Trump, they are doing everything in their power to protect him, including stonewalling any inquiries and attacking the intelligence community and the Department of Justice.
This is in marked contrast to the two recent comparable political scandals, Watergate and Whitewater/Lewinsky. In those scandals, there was plenty of defensive partisan posturing and attacks on the integrity of the independent investigators by both the White House and their defenders. That’s to be expected. But in both of those cases, Congress was in the hands of the opposition which meant that the president’s supporters might conduct PR campaigns and try to affect public opinion, but they could not control the course of the investigations.
Today, despite the fact that the current occupant of the presidency is being investigated for the most serious crime any president has ever been suspected of committing—conspiring with a foreign adversary to tilt the election in his favor and then committing obstruction of justice to cover it up—his party has made Congress an impotent tool of the executive branch. The only public testimony we’ve heard are from two fired Justice Department employees, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former FBI Director James Comey. We have seen no Kushner, no Trump Jr, no Priebus or Spicer. Would Watergate have come unraveled without John Dean and Alexander Butterfield testifying before Congress in front of the whole world?
That leaves the 25th Amendment, which provides for the president to be removed if he is found by the VP and a majority of the cabinet to be unable to discharge his duties. This provision was presumed to have been enacted in the case of a physically disabled president, although it includes a process of appeal so one presumes that there was some concern this could be a usurpation of the office by the VP and a group of cronies.
According to Michael Wolff, the 25th Amendment is being discussed on a regular basis by insiders and the press has begun to take the topic seriously as various professional observers and White House intimates express concerns about the president’s mental health and possible disability.
We know that Trump has a serious personality disorder. His narcissism and pathological dishonesty are right out in the open. He came into the presidency saying that he reaches decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I already had.” He doesn’t read. He is temperamentally unstable, angry, hostile, mercurial, and juvenile. All of these characteristics make him unfit and dangerous as a leader of a nuclear superpower. But shocking as that may be, he was elected with all of that right out in the open. Indeed, it’s what his supporters like about him.
However, Wolff describes some worrisome memory glitches, moments in which Trump repeats himself constantly word for word within a very short time span, which would indicate he may not remember that he just said something. Senators are meeting with psychiatrists for insights into his behavior. Neurologists are weighing in with deep concern about what seems to be his deteriorating mental acuity and, at times, even his motor skills.
The president isn’t taking it well. He is very insecure about his intelligence, feeling it necessary to proclaim himself a genius and brag to the world that he’s “like, smart” and “has a good brain” over and over again as recently as last week. But he seems less attuned to the criticism that he might be “losing it” as Wolff quoted Bannon proclaiming in the book. He tweeted this out after the book came out:
“Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
“I’ve had to put up with the Fake News from the first day I announced that I would be running for President. Now I have to put up with a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author. Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2018
It would seem he doesn’t “remember” that Reagan had Alzheimer’s and that he showed obvious signs of it in his last years. In 1988, Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus published Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-88, which covered Reagan’s second term. The book reported that in 1987, Howard Baker, who had been called in as the new chief of staff after Don Regan abruptly resigned, sent a couple of his long-time aides into the White House to assess what was being said about extreme internal disorder in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal.
The two aides reported that what they found was “chaos … there was no order in the place. The staff system had just broken down. It had just evaporated.”
The LA Times reported that according to Mayer and McManus: “They told stories about how inattentive and inept the president was. He was lazy; he wasn’t interested in the job. They said he wouldn’t read the papers they gave him—even short position papers and documents. They said he wouldn’t come over to work—all he wanted to do was to watch movies and television at the residence.”
They interviewed 15 to 20 officials, including senior aides, and “the overwhelming majority” agreed that this was an accurate description of the president. They were so disturbed that they recommended that Baker consider applying the 25th Amendment.
Baker protected the president and the party. He pretended to be concerned, gathered his aides together to observe Reagan and it happened that he was having a good day so the matter was dropped. He knew it was true, of course. Everyone in the White House knew. Reagan carried on for another year and the Republican Party immediately set about covering it all up and making plans to put him on Mt. Rushmore.
That description of Reagan’s White House in 1987 sounds a lot like the Trump White House in 2018. Donald Trump has no attention span. He refuses to read briefing papers. He’s lazy—he’s golfed and vacationed more than any president in history in his first year and they’ve recently reduced his schedule to a bare minimum. He’s not interested in the job, he’s interested in himself.
Trump and Reagan both became famous as performers and had a strong connection to their supporters.The difference between them is in the temperament of the two presidents. Reagan may not have been anyone’s idea of an intellectual but he was an affable man with considerable political experience and a strong set of political principles and goals that guided his professional staff. And it still fell apart when Reagan started to fade.
Trump, on the other hand, has serious intellectual deficits and is a mean, vengeful narcissist without even the slightest idea of the job description much less the experience or capability to fulfill the duties of the office. He is immoral and corrupt and he hired an astonishing group of misfits to staff his campaign and White House, many of which have already resigned in disgrace and four of which are under criminal indictment. The president himself has been under a counter-intelligence and corruption investigation since before he was inaugurated.
More alarming is that where Reagan withdrew into his own world in the twilight of his presidency, Trump wants to bring the world into his unstable and dangerous one. He’s wild and unruly and looking for a fight. But once again, the Republican Party has circled the wagons around yet another corrupt and incapacitated president. This time that president won’t be controlled and they are all complicit in the fallout.
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