The spectacle is unnerving. On vital issues, the president is at war with key members of his Cabinet.
Donald Trump threatens to abandon the Iran nuclear deal; Secretary of Defense James Mattis tells Congress we should honor the agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson supports maintaining “lines of communication” with North Korea concerning its nuclear threat; Trump tweets that the secretary is “wasting his time.” Now Tillerson is enduring disclosures that he told other senior officials that America’s president is a “moron.” Beneath this injudicious truth lies something without precedent.
President Trump’s enthusiasts imagine a “deep state” — hostile bureaucrats conspiring to thwart his will. Hardly. Our bureaucracy is far too transparent and diffuse to frustrate presidential power. Instead, several of Trump’s key appointees have formed a fragile alliance, striving to check his most damaging behaviors. “I know for a fact,” Senator Bob Corker says flatly, “that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him.”
Ominously, Vanity Fair reports that people close to the president say that he is “unstable,” “losing a step,” and “unraveling” — and that advisers “struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods.” One former official even speculates that Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly have discussed how to respond should Trump order a nuclear attack.
This is remarkable. Only once in our history have those closest to a president judged him, in effect, incapacitated. After Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, his wife Edith sequestered him from his Cabinet, Congress, and the press, screening materials sent him for review, then relaying supposed presidential decisions to which she alone was privy. In essence, she became America’s de facto leader.
Nearly 100 years later, this scenario would be impossible. The media are omnipresent. The 25th Amendment provides a process through which a vice president can assume the powers of a president unfit to exercise them. And, unlike Wilson, Trump’s presumptive disability is not physical, but involves an assertive and otherwise healthy president who may be too unstable to responsibly perform his duties.
This assessment is highly subjective; no matter how disturbing Trump’s behaviors, neither congressional Republicans or members of his cabinet are prepared to undertake it. And, with respect to any president, the institutional consequences of making such a judgment are grave. Thus, as a practical and political matter, the evidence of temperamental incapacity necessary to depose a president would likely include decisions that have already caused grievous harm. Short of that, no formal protections exist against congenital presidential misjudgment.
Given Trump, this is sobering indeed. His most responsible advisers, it seems clear, are doing their best to forestall his worst. As Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, put it put: “I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos.”
Early in his presidency, the Associated Press reports, Kelly and Mattis agreed that one of them would always remain in America to monitor directives from the White House. Kelly and the national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, have teamed up to dispatch staffers, such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, whose influence was deemed to compromise Trump’s judgment. Kelly is working to limit Trump’s access to intermeddlers and information likely to inspire impulsive statements and decisions.
Working as partners, Mattis and the less capable Tillerson seek to restrain Trump’s impulsivity and to modify actions and utterances Trump has already made. Take foreign affairs. Trump stokes a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, contrary to American interests; Tillerson strives to resolve it. Trump inveighs against the Iranian nuclear deal; Mattis, Tillerson, and McMaster advocate preserving it.
After Trump’s inflammatory comments regarding Charlottesville, Va., Tillerson asserted that the State Department articulates America’s “commitment to freedom and open [and] equal treatment of people the world over,” whereas the “president speaks for himself.” Mattis urged a group of soldiers to “hold the line until our country goes back to understanding and respecting each other.” With his obvious encouragement, five members of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff issued statements condemning racism.
Trump’s abrupt decision to ban transgender people from military service provoked a similar response. In its wake, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said that the policy allowing transgender personnel remained in force. When Trump formalized his directive, Mattis consigned it to a panel that seems likely to modify its terms.
The most striking efforts to temper Trump involve the nuclear threat from North Korea. Trump suggested that South Korea should pay for its missile defense; Mattis muted the remark. After Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” Tillerson told Americans to “have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the past few days.” When Trump said that talking to North Korea would solve nothing, Mattis observed that we “are never out of diplomatic solutions.”
But North Korea and Iran raise the ultimate existential risk: the power of an unstable president to unleash acts of war. Trump, Corker worries, may set America “on the path to World War III.”
Specifically, the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has questioned Trump’s fitness to control our nuclear arsenal. Well he might. The consensus of experts is that, as commander in chief, Trump has unfettered authority to order a nuclear attack, and that, absent mutiny, the military is bound to obey. Even if someone like Mattis questioned a first strike, nothing prevents Trump from giving a directive that bypasses the secretary of defense.
We have no institutional defense against instantaneous catastrophe. Impeachment is balky. Invoking the 25th Amendment, though swifter, must be initiated by the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet, and requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. Nuclear war takes but a moment.
Based on their behavior to date, congressional Republicans lack the courage, or even the imagination, to circumscribe a dangerously unfit president, let alone one who, feeling thwarted, may grasp for ways to demonstrate his omnipotence. Unless they do, we are left with whatever patchwork constraints those nearest to Trump can contrive — until, piqued, he fires them all. Such are the powers we gave him.Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.