First, albeit in an emergency situation, we have invested extraordinary power in two ex-generals (Jim Mattis at Defense and John F. Kelly as chief of staff) and one current general, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. It’s a serious departure from absolute civilian control of the military. In Corker’s words, the Constitution does not envision the military babysitting the president.
David Frum remarks, “Thank you and congratulations to those officials struggling to protect American security, the Western alliance, and world peace against Donald Trump. But the constitutional order is becoming the casualty of these struggles.” He acknowledges the debt owed to Mattis and others but observes that many Americans “would prefer a Mattis presidency to a Trump presidency. But to stealthily endow Secretary Mattis with the powers of the presidency as a work-around of Trump’s abuse of them? That’s a crisis, too, and one sinister for the future.” Once Trump is in the rear-view mirror, it behooves Congress to extend and secure the prohibition on active military operating in civilian roles (as McMaster does) and to consider more stringent restrictions on ex-military in Cabinet roles. (Yes, Congress waived the existing one but a series of disincentives such as loss of pension can add to the barriers the next military person might face if tempted to seek civilian office.)
Second, understand that not only Democrats but also a significant subset of Republicans are banking on Mattis and others to act in extra-constitutional ways so the president does not irreparably harm the country. If that is what they are banking on — Trump’s power being thwarted, ignored, delayed, etc. — then they must consider foreshortening his term. We have argued that Congress does not and should not need the go-ahead from the special prosecutor to commence discussion of impeachment; impeachment is the province of the Congress.
If the president in the eyes of Congress has attempted to thwart the Russia investigation, lied repeatedly about his ties to Russia, threatened the attorney general for complying with his obligation to recuse himself, enriched himself by virtue of government service, etc., it can and should proceed. The potential that the president may be a menace, a threat to national security, should add a sense of urgency to that undertaking.
These things must be looked at in their totality — Trump’s inability to carry out his oath, his refusal to take seriously and protect the country against Russia interference with our elections, and his concrete actions to thwart law enforcement. Trump’s temperamental inability to perform his job should not be ignored in determining whether he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. (Politico reports that “interviews with ten current and former administration officials, advisers, longtime business associates and others close to Trump describe a process where they try to install guardrails for a president who goes on gut feeling – and many days are spent managing the president, just as Corker said.” So if tomorrow, Mattis, Kelly and McMasters were fired or quit would GOP members of Congress think the country would be at risk?)
Remember, overt refusal to perform the job would surely be impeachable. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that willful refusal to learn aspects of the job and mental inability to grasp how enormously his words impact events could be part of the totality of factors Congress considers for impeachment. As a backstop, yes, should Trump’s mental state and self-control breakdown entirely, the 25th Amendment remains an option.
Third, impeachment is very, very unlikely to occur with a GOP House, but the 2018 midterms should put the issue front and center. It may be the closest thing to a mandate we can have for limiting Trump’s power or ending it entirely. Democrats should not shy from the issue; Republicans should be pressed to say whether they agree with Corker that Trump cannot perform the job absent extraordinary assistance. Voters and Republican candidates alike must consider if their refusal to prevent the president from endangering the country is a violation of these Republicans’ oath of office. Do they not have the responsibility to safeguard our democracy, not merely hope Kelly stays around to coax Trump away from danger? The power of impeachment cannot be interpreted so narrowly as to prevent Congress from guaranteeing the country’s survival.
Fourth, Trump’s limited abilities must in a practical sense affect our policy choices. Yes, we go to war and not to war with the president we have but as a practical matter, a policy that rests on delicate, disciplined negotiation by the president himself is not workable in this situation. It’s a factor — just like public support, allies’ support and military readiness — that must be factored into decisions such as scrapping the JCPOA. Congress by all means should attempt to formalize the process for launch of nuclear weapons so as to empower other officials to at least be part of the decision-making process.
Fifth, it is essential that if Corker and other Republicans honestly believe Trump is unfit that they prepare to primary him. That’s their moral obligation, as it would be the obligation of citizens of all political beliefs to vote in the GOP primary in order to dislodge Trump.
Sixth, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves office, as he inevitably must in the next few weeks or months, it will be incumbent upon him to advise Congress and the American people as to Trump’s mental and intellectual status. (This is one reason for Tillerson to leave quickly and of his own volition.) Congress should in fact interview, behind closed doors and by subpoena if necessary, all high-level national security officials who can speak to the president’s fitness. It’s only when public figures speak frankly and openly about the president’s stability that we can figure out how and when to right the ship of state.