President Trump woke up at his private club in Florida on Monday and watched just enough Fox News to lift up a quote making an unfounded allegation that someone had attempted a coup against him.
Then he went to play golf for the third day in a row.
As with the national emergency Trump announced Friday, his actions in response to the “coup” don’t really convey the sense of urgency that you might expect from his declarations. Were there are actual, active coup attempt against a president, one might expect a serious effort to address the situation. As Trump probably realizes, though, there is now and never was any such effort.
The allegation made by Fox News Channel regular Dan Bongino derives from a story included in a soon-to-be-released book by former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. In it, McCabe alleges that after Trump fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein raised the prospect of removing Trump from office using a mechanism outlined in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. This, in the eyes of Bongino and other Fox News pundits in recent days, was an attempted coup.
First of all, removing a president from office using systems included in the Constitution is, by definition, not a coup. Removing Trump from office by following the guidelines of the 25th Amendment would no more be a coup than removing him from office through impeachment or, really, than voting for another candidate in 2020. It’s part of the system.
But, second, it’s not as though Rosenstein could simply have stepped up to a microphone and announced that the president was no longer president, any more than Michael Scott’s declaration of bankruptcy in “The Office” was sufficient for that task.
We’ve outlined this before. For a president to be removed from office under the mechanism included in the amendment, one of two things has to happen.
- A majority of the Cabinet and Vice President Pence must agree that Trump is unfit for office, or
- Pence and a commission established by Congress (which doesn’t currently exist) would have to reach a similar agreement.
If such an agreement is met, a letter is sent to Congress and Trump is out.
That, by itself, gives the lie to Bongino’s lazy allegation. If Rosenstein asked half the Cabinet and Pence to oust Trump and they agreed, it’s hard to see how the culpable party was Rosenstein. These are people chosen by Trump! His removal would be on their hands.
But what’s more, Trump would have a mechanism to respond. He could simply send a letter to Congress saying that he is fit for office, and he is then reinstated. Some coup.
If, however, Pence and the Cabinet members still think Trump is unfit, the question would go to Congress, where two-thirds majorities in each chamber would have to agree. So that’s half the Cabinet, the vice president and scores of lawmakers who would ultimately need to declare that Trump should be removed from office before it could happen. (At the time of Comey’s firing, that hurdle was much higher, with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress.)
(The images above are taken from our explanation about the amendment where steps 2 and 3 are also visualized.)
In other words, the 25th Amendment, like the other mechanisms in the Constitution, includes checks and balances that make it difficult to remove a president from office. It’s designed for removal to be a not-so-easy process in which a president who is demonstrably unfit — if he has fallen into a coma, for example — to transfer power.
The additional irony here, of course, is that Trump invested a great deal of time in painting McCabe as a liar in other contexts, but here he and his allies take McCabe’s words as gospel truth. We see this in other ways, too, as when Trump cites reporting from mainstream news outlets that suits his purposes while otherwise generally disparaging them as “fake news.”
That Trump would lift up Bongino’s statement in a tweet sent to tens of millions of people is shocking in any context except that of Trump’s Twitter feed. For Trump (and for Bongino), it’s the strongest possible way to allege that the system is working against him, that dark mechanisms within the government are seeking his ouster. It, like his other unusual declaration about the border with Mexico, is rooted more firmly in politics than reality.