All honor to those bold public spirits – notably, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and the former CIA chief, James Clapper – who dare say what many millions think: Donald Trump’s fitness as president is very much in question.
Trump’s “stability and competence” and his grasp of the national character are doubtful, said Corker. Clapper finds Trump’s access to the nuclear deterrent “pretty damned scary,” a worry underscored by his shoving match with Kim Jong Un, the juvenile president of North Korea. Trump, in the 2016 campaign, showed a stark ignorance of the deterrent purposes of nuclear weapons. His subsequent remarks as keeper of the nuclear arsenal suggest no learning curve and obliviousness to the probable purposes of Un, who, like a spoiled child, is seeking exactly the parental attention Trump gives him.
The president’s clumsy intervention in the complex dilemma of childhood immigrants is only the latest example of an egotistical tendency to convert chronic public headaches into crises.
The issue of presidential fitness was recently overshadowed by a Texas storm enabling Trump to play at “being presidential.” But attention will return to Trump’s presidential deficiencies and delinquencies – not least his showy pardon of a rogue Arizona sheriff. Presidential pardons aren’t always justified; but it is highly unusual to interrupt an incomplete judicial process, and justify it with mean-minded references to his predecessors. Trump’s latest venture in contempt of court is, however, consistent with his previous slander of “so-called judges” who interfere with his shady business dealings and executive orders.
Then there was Trump’s demarche on Afghanistan. He journeyed to Fort Meyer for a dressy speech, advertised as a turn in policy. When the dust settled, the only visible change, a slight one, was an increase in the number of U.S. advisers – a move that will make little difference given a decade and a half of incompetence of the Afghan regime. Even worse than the military showboating was Tump’s offhand comment on Afghan natural resources. What greater gift could an American president give Taliban propagandists than the suggestion that the U.S. is in Afghanistan for oil?
Above all else attention needs to be paid to what Clapper and Corker have said regarding Trump’s fitness. His rhetorical slanging match with a petty Asian tyrant is chilling. He has hinted at nuclear war, but his deficiencies flow not only from rash habits of speech but from inexperience and impetuousness. His erratic egotism, reinforced by ineptitude, is more than sufficient to warrant action. If a prime minister in a parliamentary system behaved as Trump has behaved he would have been dismissed and relegated to the back benches. But our presidential-primary system, empowering right and left extremists at the expense of moderates, deprives the presidential nominating process of peer judgment and renders it the play-toy of inept eccentrics and political tyros. The potential is now apparent.
The worst of it is that this system of presidential nomination, of which Trump is the ultimate example, leaves no balancing mechanism for the lawful removal of unfit presidents. Impeachment has been limited, and possibly distorted, by its history. For a century and a half conventional wisdom held that the narrow acquittal of Andrew Johnson in 1867-68 in an impeachment based on a manifestly unconstitutional intrusion on executive powers was a good thing, inasmuch as it discredited impeachment as a “partisan” weapon. Otherwise, impeachment might have become a common weapon of assault on the presidency, disabling it against the other political branches of government. The silly partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton, its only sequel, speaks for itself.
Such was the conventional wisdom before Trump. But the downside is that there remains no constitutional mechanism for the repair of gross political mistakes. Impeachment is or should be a useable “political” instrument but isn’t. So we lean on the weak reed of “special prosecutors” who have demonstrated their wandering focus. The problem now is a White House incumbent who should be restrained or deposed before he perpetrates a calamity. But with a few distinguished exceptions, Trump’s party ignores its duty and the clear call of its better spirits. It will deserve the results. The rest of us won’t.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.