Why Trump is likely to finish his term
By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: January 10, 2018
For the past week, Washington and the political world have been fixated on Michael Wolff’s gossipy account of the chaos and dysfunction within Donald Trump’s White House.
But the significance of Wolff’s disclosures has been somewhat clouded by the media focus on such corollary issues as their long-term effect on Steve Bannon’s influence, factual errors on some details, and whether the author violated disclosure rules in reporting top aides’ devastating comments about the president’s alleged shortcomings.
Unfortunately for Trump and the country, the true bottom line in Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” isn’t any of these but the way that, contrary to the president’s protestations he is a “very stable genius,” it reinforces prior doubts about Trump’s competence, knowledge and stability. That leads to a more basic question: Can the political system cope with his shortcomings as it did a generation ago with Richard Nixon’s misdeeds before he mishandles a major crisis such as a potential nuclear showdown with North Korea?
The U.S. has had incompetent or unsuitable presidents before, though not in the nuclear age. James Buchanan mismanaged the years leading up to the Civil War. Warren Harding was arguably the 20th century’s worst president, but the country survived his scandal-ridden administration until he died two-thirds through his term. Barring that unlikely circumstance, the three ways Trump’s tenure can end short of four years are impeachment, incapacity or resignation. None currently seems viable, though that could change during the next year. Here is why:
Impeachment. The Constitution says the House can impeach a president for treason, bribery or “other high crimes and misdemeanors,” but removal requires a two-thirds vote by the Senate. I still remember how Nixon’s Senate liaison, Tom Korologos, walked the Capitol’s corridors, sporting a 34 button that represented the number of senators needed to prevent Nixon’s ouster.
With both houses under GOP control, impeachment is not currently a foreseeable option. Indeed, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, which would initiate impeachment, remain more fixated on spurring legal action against Hillary Clinton than exploring allegations against Trump. Two circumstances could change this: Democratic recapture of the House in November’s election — a real possibility — and a recommendation from special counsel Robert Mueller alleging Trump committed obstruction of justice or other potentially impeachable offenses.
Even then, removal of this president would seem unlikely. Even if the Democrats win the Senate, less than a 50-50 prospect at present, the 67 votes needed for conviction would require 15 to 16 Republicans to back any impeachment resolution from a Democratic House. Korologos’ 34 votes melted away only after evidence in White House tapes convinced enough senators Nixon was guilty, as well as a political liability. Without hard evidence, such a conclusion is less likely in today’s more polarized partisan times.
Inability. The 25th Amendment provides for temporarily removing a president if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet certify he “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But if the president sends a written declaration “no inability exists,” he can resume office unless two-thirds of both houses vote he is unable to do so.
Politico reported last week that about 25 congressional Democrats and one Republican met with a Yale psychiatrist who contends Trump is dangerously unstable and “going to unravel.” Such sessions seem both politically foolish and substantively unproductive, as would be a national 2018 Democratic campaign promising Trump’s impeachment.
Absent an especially egregious act, presidential inability proceedings seem unlikely unless top Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence agree action is necessary.
So far, most congressional Republicans have put party and ideology first, refusing to place concerns about Trump on the record and content to maintain a status quo in which they can ratify conservative federal judges, back administrative actions reversing prior environmental and voting rights moves and satisfy their hard core by trashing Mueller and the Clintons.
Resignation. Many in the political community have speculated privately that, if the legal and political walls closed in, Trump might resign to protect his business empire rather than risk becoming the first president voted out of office (Nixon, facing certain conviction, resigned). But running from a fight hardly seems Donald Trump’s way.
The bottom line is that all potential actions against Trump are complicated and currently unlikely to succeed. How and when that might change is simply unforeseeable now.
During the 2016 campaign, I became convinced the winner would likely be a one-term president because the country’s partisan divisions and Washington’s political gridlock would ensure a controversial, unpopular administration. Nothing since last Jan. 20 has changed my view. Given Trump’s often outrageous and unpresidential behavior, many Americans would prefer not to wait three more years, but that still seems the likeliest outcome.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.