Trump staff can’t avert existing crisis
By TIMOTHY L. O’BRIEN | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: September 6, 2018
The New York Times published an extraordinary column Wednesday afternoon by an anonymous contributor identified as a “senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.” (In a tweet, and perhaps in error, the Times also described its op-ed columnist as a man.)
It’s readily apparent why the writer’s job would be threatened. His column describes a White House mired in subterfuge and scheming because President Donald Trump isn’t able or fit to carry out his duties. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the columnist observes. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”
Confronted with that reality, Trump’s own White House staff has apparently gone rogue. “Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” notes the columnist. “We believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”
The writer said he shares Trump’s goals of building a strong military, cutting taxes and doing away with federal regulations — successes he says Team Trump has been able to pull off despite the president’s dangerous ineptitude. To achieve their goals, they work around Trump and walk back — or simply thwart — “Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”
“Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,” the writer adds. “But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.”
There is some good intent here. A group of people is trying to adhere to principle and make the executive branch function in a mature and responsible way — because Trump, the man elected to do just that, can’t. They are so concerned about things going haywire that they ponder making use of an amendment to the Constitution that allows for replacing the president when he or she is “unable to discharge the powers and duties” of the office.
Unless Vice President Mike Pence is involved with that decision, however, it’s not up to White House officials to “invoke” the 25th Amendment by themselves. The amendment requires vice presidential participation if it is invoked within the White House. And if Pence is involved with the group the Times columnist describes, well, the plot thickens. But all of that is an argument for another day.
What seems more pointed to me is that the columnist says his troupe sought to avert a constitutional crisis. Think about that: White House officials were so concerned about Trump’s lack of fitness that they considered dire measures, which they then dismissed to avoid a crisis. So these same unelected and unknown officials, all appointed by a president they see as unfit, are now running the country without oversight and accountability? If that’s not a crisis, what is?
The U.S. government is not supposed to function this way. A vibrant democracy rides on the back of voting, transparency and the rule of law. When unelected officials act unilaterally and in secrecy because they work for an inept executive who doesn’t respect the law, then you have yourself a crisis. (Trump, always a model of probity, zipped out a video on Twitter on Wednesday evening slagging the Times as “gutless” for publishing the anonymous column.)
Similar things have happened before. In 1919, for example, President Woodrow Wilson became paralyzed and partially blind following a stroke. Wilson’s doctor and his wife, Edith, covered up the president’s condition and Edith administered his executive powers while keeping Wilson’s Cabinet and the Congress ill-informed and at a distance. Edith continued her stealth presidency until Wilson’s term ended in 1921.
It wasn’t until the 25th Amendment was passed in 1967, 48 years after Wilson’s stroke and four years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, that a clear procedure for replacing an incapacitated or dead president was put into place.
Trump, of course, is neither incapacitated nor dead. He is merely tragicomically out of his depth (as Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, and Trump’s own history, have substantiated).
As Woodward’s reporting makes clear, some White House officials, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have occasionally been able to ward off some of Trump’s most perilous instincts. But Mattis, and the Times’ anonymous columnist, haven’t warded off a crisis. They’re living in one.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”