Donald Trump may cease to be President of the United States in six ways:
1. Expiry of his term of office.
2. Death in office.
4. Incapacity declared by himself.
5. Incapacity, physical or mental, declared against his will.
Paddy Power currently gives the odds of Trump leaving office in 2020 or later at 52%. This looks optimistic to me, but let’s take it as a working hypothesis. We can’t rule out any of the five risks making up the 48% path to an early exit. Here are some notes on the basics.
1. Expiry of his four- or eight-year term of office.
This is the normal case established by Article II.1.1 of the US Constitution. The President is replaced by a newly elected successor.
2. Death in office.
Text: US Constitution, Article II.1.6 and Amendment 20. Succeeded by Vice-President.
Trump is like me over 70, but also overweight, eats junk food, takes little exercise, and takes unconfirmed medications for cholesterol and hair loss. He has an extremely choleric and aggressive personality and political style, magnifying the inherently very high stresses of the job. He is not a good insurance risk. A crisis in his physical health could lead to his death, preceded or not by incapacity (see below). The concealment of his medical condition makes it impossible for outsiders to assess the risk correctly. However, the Republican establishment could insist on getting full information as a precondition for continued support.
Text: US Constitution, Article II.1.6. Succeeded by Vice-President.
Trump might resign as a result of ill-health, see above, for example if a stroke leaves him an invalid. He might also resign because he is fed up with the job. This blends in with the involuntary removal under 5 or 6. Nixon resigned before he was impeached. Trump might respond to similar or lesser pressures by digging in his heels, or flouncing out. I see no way of predicting this.
4. Incapacity declared by himself.
Texts: US Constitution, Article II.1.6, 25th Amendment. Succeeded by Vice-President. Self-declared permanent incapacity would be equivalent to resignation. Self-declared mental incapacity would be a nice Epimenidean paradox, but it won’t happen. Temporary incapacity (an infectious illness or operation) is not Trexit. Forget about this.
5. Incapacity declared against his will.
Text: US Constitution, Article II.1.6, 25th Amendment. Succeeded by Vice-President.
The Amendment lays down the complicated procedure. Basically it needs a certificate by the Vice-President and a majority of ”either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” – it hasn’t. On signing the declaration, “the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.” The president can challenge the certificate, but is temporarily out of office until the Congress adjudicates. In this case, [updated, see comments], his removal requires a two-thirds majority vote of both houses of Congress.
There is a small risk of a conflict over physical incapacity.
: a Woodrow Wilson scenario in which Trump is paralysed but conscious, and Jared and Ivanka insist he can take decisions while Pence and the Cabinet say not. [Update: commenter wscholine has convinced me that the 25th Amendment rules this out.] But mental incapacity is by far the more likely scenario. Another minor twist is that if the VP goes mad or falls under the mind control of aliens at the same time and says he’s fine, impeachment of both is the only way out.
Texts: US Constitution, Articles I.2.5 for the House, I.3.6 for the Senate, and II.4 for the President and Vice-President. The House acts as prosecutor, with procedures laid down by precedent not law, in practice voting by a simple majority. The Senate acts as the tribunal, the impeachment requiring a 2/3 majority of Senators present. The VP has no role in the process and is replaced in the chair of the Senate by the Chief Justice. The VP succeeds automatically, unless impeached or resigns at the same time.
The fun cases to speculate about are 5 and 6: involuntary incapacity and impeachment. By constitutional design, the President cannot be removed either way by a narrow partisan majority. With the current Congress, either path requires a decision by a substantial number of Republicans that they have no alternative. The Democrats will presumably go along.
Which path would it be? To review the issues with the 45th President:
– terrible policies
– erratic decisions.
The terrible policies are the reason the Democrats want him gone, but they suit the Republicans just fine. In fact the policies are theirs. Trump has more or less abandoned those that set him apart from GOP orthodoxy during the campaign: trade wars, the Wall, protecting the welfare state. However, the terrible GOP policies (AHCA, tax cuts for the rich, rolling back civil and reproductive rights, neglect of unemployed and precarious workers, environmental and banking deregulation) are deeply unpopular. They drag down Trump’s popularity even more than theirs. So they provide the political backdrop to the drama over the other flaws.
The Congressional GOP will only decide to remove Trump if the polls – their reelection polls – are not just bad but catastrophic. There is a good chance of this. The Democrats can’t do much about the impeachment or 25th Amemdment processes in the Capitol and should concentrate on beating the drum in the boondocks about the terrible policies.
Sleaze is the rationale for impeachment, while erratic behaviour and possible dementia provide the rationale for a 25th Amendment declaration of mental incapacity. In formal terms, they are both bad enough already, and both likely to get worse. It is possible that events will dictate either impeachment (a Russian smoking gun) or a 25th Amendment declaration (something to do with nuclear weapons perhaps).
If the Republicans have a choice they will go with the 25th Amendment. There are three considerable pluses:
- it works fast, and does not leave a furious Trump alone in the White House for weeks or months like Nixon with the nuclear football by his side;
- it creates a narrative that puts the blame for his failed Presidency all on Trump the deranged outsider person and not on the GOP that enabled him and made him its Presidential candidate;
- it ensures Pence takes over spotlessly as courageous man of the hour, while impeachment could easily taint him of involvement in a cover-up.
Either way, Trump’s redneck base will be white-hot furious with the betrayal. And many of them have guns. It’s not just bad polls and losing their seats that Republican congresspeople have to be scared of.
Corrections welcome. I’ll be be glad to update.
Update – stop press
The Justice Department – presumably Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who perhaps realizes he was played and then betrayed in the Comey firing – has appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to pursue the Russian investigation. This increases the likelihood of impeachment and not the other early Trexit paths, right? Not so fast. As in the Nixon case, impending impeachment can lead to resignation. Second, impeachment pressure may make Trump’s behaviour even more erratic. Third, if evidence piles up warranting impeachment, establishment Republicans may still pick the 25th Amendment to avoid it. You need to keep watching both hands, the top hat, the girl in sequins, and the rabbit.