The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ‘stable genius’ isn’t even functioning as president

President Trump walks on the South Lawn as he leaves the White House on Jan. 5. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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Like clockwork, on Saturday around 7 a.m., no doubt feeling the sting of widespread discussion that he is — as his own advisers described to Michael Wolff for his book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” — a dope, a moron, a man-child, a semi-illiterate, President Trump confirmed it all with a tweet. How perfect. A tweet. “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star.” Later in the day he railed at the notion of free speech. “It’s a disgrace that he can do something like this,” he said at a brief news conference at Camp David. “Libel laws are very weak in this country. If they were stronger, hopefully, you would not have something like that happen.” Both his desire to prevent criticism and his ridiculous “cease and desist” letters sent by his lawyers to Wolff and his publisher betray his contempt for the First Amendment and his inability to take himself out of the equation and recognize the pillars of democracy, a democracy he took an oath to defend.

Trump’s emotional and mental limitations should debunk a number of rationalizations from his devoted cultists, who insisted he was the best choice in 2016, cheered his first year in office and continue to pretend he’s fit for office. He’s sounding presidential. No, he’s reading off a teleprompter, likely with very little comprehension. He’s playing four-dimensional chess with Kim Jong Un. No, he’s impulsively lashing out, with the risk of provoking a deadly clash. He’s a master manipulator when he shifts from position to position, sometimes in the same sentence. No, he likely doesn’t realize what contradicts what or remember what he originally said. His use of alternative facts is a brilliant scheme to control the press narrative. No, he’s incapable of processing real information and driven by an insatiable need for praise and reaffirmation.

Washington Post opinion writer Jennifer Rubin explains the probability of impeachment or enacting the 25th Amendment in the Trump era. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Seen in the context of his intellectual and emotional limitations, some decisions should set off alarm bells. Take the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Bad. Obama’s deal. Worst ever. Get rid of it. People will love me if I get rid of it.” That is very likely the sum total of his “thinking” on the subject. He’s not considering the next step, the reaction of allies, the implication for America’s standing in the world, the available evidence of Iranian compliance or any other data point that would go into a rational consideration of  United States’ policy. Policy isn’t being made or even understood by the president. What comes from his fears and impulses is whatever aides are able to piece together that might satisfy his emotional spasm of the moment without endangering the country. (The compromise was to “decertify” the deal, freaking out our allies but leaving the deal in place — for now.)

Anyone who listens to him speak off the cuff about health care or tax legislation knows he will not raise any specifics or make a logical argument for this or that provision. It’s all “great,” “fabulous,” “the biggest,” etc. It’s not a sophisticated marketing ploy; it’s evidence of a total lack of understanding or concern about what is in any given piece of legislation. There is serious question whether he knows what is in the Affordable Care Act, how Medicaid works or specifically how the GOP health-care bills would have worked.

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Unfortunately, interviewers tend to shy away from asking questions that will provoke a dreaded word salad. (In the case of Fox News, its Trump enablers know to stay away from anything hard that could prompt him to humiliate himself.) Recall that he told the New York Times: “We’ve created associations, millions of people are joining associations. Millions. That were formerly in Obamacare or didn’t have insurance. Or didn’t have health care. Millions of people.” Too bad he wasn’t asked to explain in coherent sentences what all that free word association meant.

To defend his continued occupancy of the office or to insist he’s “better than Hillary” is to reject the notion of democracy. We cannot accept, let alone applaud, courtiers scurrying around to create the appearance of a functioning government. He, not they, is the chief executive and commander in chief. We have a vice president elected specifically to take over if the president is incapable of serving; the 25th Amendment does not say “but in a pinch, let the secretaries of defense and treasury run the show.” What we have is a type of coup in which the great leader is disabled. He is propped up, sent out to read lines written by others and kept safely away from disastrous situations. This is not how our system works, however.

We’re playing with fire, counting on the ability of others to restrain him from, say, launching a nuclear war and, nearly as bad, jettisoning our representative democracy. Vice President Pence, the Cabinet and Congress have a moral and constitutional obligation to bring this to a stop.