Hours after Donald Trump’s Inauguration, a post appeared on the official White House petitions page, demanding that he release his tax returns. In only a few days, it gathered more signatures than any previous White House petition. The success of the Women’s March had shown that themed protests could both mobilize huge numbers of people and hit a nerve with the President. On Easter weekend, roughly a hundred and twenty thousand people protested in two hundred cities, calling for him to release his tax returns and sell his businesses. On Capitol Hill, protesters chanted “Impeach Forty-five!” In West Palm Beach, a motorcade ferrying him from the Trump International Golf Club to Mar-a-Lago had to take a circuitous route to avoid demonstrators. The White House does all it can to keep the President away from protests, but the next day Trump tweeted, “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday. The election is over!”
On Tax Day itself, Trump travelled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he would be among his supporters again, giving a speech at Snap-on, a manufacturer of high-end power tools and other gear. Wisconsin has emerged as one of Trump’s favorite states. He is the first Republican Presidential candidate to win there since 1984. He included the state in a post-election “thank-you tour.” Another visit was planned for shortly after the Inauguration, but it was cancelled once it became clear that it would attract protests.
By this point in George W. Bush’s term, Bush had travelled to twenty-three states and a foreign country. Trump has visited just nine states and has never stayed the night. He inhabits a closed world that one adviser recently described to me as “Fortress Trump.” Rarely venturing beyond the White House and Mar-a-Lago, he measures his fortunes through reports from friends, staff, and a feast of television coverage of himself. Media is Trump’s “drug of choice,” Sam Nunberg, an adviser on his campaign, told me recently. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t do drugs. His drug is himself.”
Trump’s Tax Day itinerary enabled him to avoid the exposure of a motorcade; instead, he flew on Marine One directly to Snap-on’s headquarters. Several hundred protesters were outside chanting and holding signs. But the event’s organizers had created a wall of tractor-trailers around the spot where Trump would land, blocking protesters from seeing Trump and him from seeing them.
Snap-on’s headquarters, a gleaming expanse of stainless steel, chrome, and enamel, provided a fine backdrop for muscular American manufacturing, though in fact the firm closed its Kenosha factory more than a decade ago. Nick Pinchuk, the C.E.O., led Trump past displays of Snap-on products, showing him a car hooked up to state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment (“It’s a different world!” Trump mused), and a table of Snap-on souvenirs, including small, colorful metal boxes that Pinchuk said some customers buy to hold ashes after a cremation. “That’s kind of depressing,” Trump said.
An auditorium was packed with local dignitaries and Snap-on employees. As “Hail to the Chief” played on the sound system, Trump stepped onto the stage. He stood in front of a sculpture of an American flag rippling in the wind, made from hundreds of Snap-on wrenches. Behind him was a banner: “buy american—hire american.” For a moment, the President, wearing a red tie, leaning on the lectern, looked as if he were back on the campaign trail. “These are great, great people,” he began. “And these are real workers. I love the workers.”
“We don’t have a level playing field,” he said. It was a treasured campaign line, to which he now added a vow of imminent progress: “You’re gonna have one very soon.” After Republicans abandoned their first effort to enact health-care reform, and courts blocked two executive orders designed to curb immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, he was determined to dispel any sense that his Administration had been weakened. “Our tax reform and tax plan is coming along very well,” he assured the crowd. “It’s going to be out very soon. We’re working on health care and we’re going to get that done, too.”
Trump’s approval rating is forty per cent—the lowest of any newly elected President since Gallup started measuring it. Even before Trump entered the White House, the F.B.I. and four congressional committees were investigating potential collusion between his associates and the Russian government. Since then, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, have become senior White House officials, prompting intense criticism over potential conflicts of interest involving their private businesses. Between October and March, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics received more than thirty-nine thousand public inquiries and complaints, an increase of five thousand per cent over the same period at the start of the Obama Administration. Nobody occupies the White House without criticism, but Trump is besieged by doubts of a different order, centering on the overt, specific, and, at times, bipartisan discussion of whether he will be engulfed by any one of myriad problems before he has completed even one term in office—and, if he is, how he might be removed.
When members of Congress returned to their home districts in March, outrage erupted at town-hall meetings, where constituents jeered Republican officials, chanting “Do your job!” and “Push back!” The former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who is now a Republican congressman, told me that he’d held eight town halls in his district. Trump won South Carolina by nearly fifteen points, so Sanford was surprised to hear people calling for him to be impeached. “I’d never heard that before in different public interactions with people in the wake of a new President being elected,” he told me. “Even when you heard it with the Tea Party crowd, with Obama, it was later in the game. It didn’t start out right away.”
Trump’s critics are actively exploring the path to impeachment or the invocation of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which allows for the replacement of a President who is judged to be mentally unfit. During the past few months, I interviewed several dozen people about the prospects of cutting short Trump’s Presidency. I spoke to his friends and advisers; to lawmakers and attorneys who have conducted impeachments; to physicians and historians; and to current members of the Senate, the House, and the intelligence services. By any normal accounting, the chance of a Presidency ending ahead of schedule is remote. In two hundred and twenty-eight years, only one President has resigned; two have been impeached, though neither was ultimately removed from office; eight have died. But nothing about Trump is normal. Although some of my sources maintained that laws and politics protect the President to a degree that his critics underestimate, others argued that he has already set in motion a process of his undoing. All agree that Trump is unlike his predecessors in ways that intensify his political, legal, and personal risks. He is the first President with no prior experience in government or the military, the first to retain ownership of a business empire, and the oldest person ever to assume the Presidency.
The Administration’s defiance of conventional standards of probity makes it acutely vulnerable to ethical scandal. The White House recently stopped releasing visitors’ logs, limiting the public’s ability to know who is meeting with the President and his staff. Trump has also issued secret waivers to ethics rules, so that political appointees can alter regulations that they previously lobbied to dismantle.
On the day that Trump spoke in Wisconsin, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (crew), a prominent legal watchdog group, expanded a federal lawsuit that accuses Trump of violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution, a provision that restricts officeholders from receiving gifts and favors from foreign interests. The lawsuit cites the Trump International Hotel, half a mile from the White House, which foreign dignitaries have admitted frequenting as a way to curry favor with the President. (“Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor’?” an Asian diplomat told the Washington Post in November.) The suit, first filed in January, in the Southern District of New York, is partly an effort to pry open the President’s business records. Two plaintiffs involved in the hotel-and-restaurant industry joined the current case, arguing that Trump’s businesses enjoy unfair advantages. “This isn’t about politics; I’m a registered Republican,” Jill Phaneuf, a plaintiff who books receptions and events for hotels, has said. “I joined this lawsuit because the President is taking business away from me.”
crew is best known for its role in exposing the ethics violations of Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader, who, in 2006, resigned under indictment; and of Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who went to prison for corruption the same year. Richard Painter, the vice-chair of crew’s board, was formerly the chief ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s White House. He said that the Bush Administration maintained a policy of forbidding senior officials from retaining business interests that conflicted with their responsibilities, as some in Trump’s White House have done. “We never had controversies over divestment,” Painter told me. “They’d ask, ‘What is Hank Paulson’ ”—who became Treasury Secretary in 2006—“ ‘going to do?’ ‘He’s going to sell his Goldman Sachs stuff.’ It was pretty cut and dried.”
Meanwhile, nine months after the F.B.I. started investigating Russian interference in the campaign, it continues to examine potential links between Trump’s associates and the Kremlin. Michael Flynn, who resigned as Trump’s national-security adviser after acknowledging that he lied about his contact with Russia’s Ambassador, is seeking immunity in exchange for speaking with federal investigators, raising the prospect that he could reveal other undisclosed contacts, or a broader conspiracy. Robert Kelner, Flynn’s lawyer, wrote in a statement, “General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit.” The F.B.I. is also investigating Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, after it was reported that Manafort received millions of dollars in cash payments from pro-Kremlin groups in Ukraine; and Carter Page, a foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign until last September. The F.B.I. has described Page, in court filings, as having connections to Russian agents.
ere has been considerable speculation about Trump’s physical and mental health, in part because few facts are known. During the campaign, his staff reported that he was six feet three inches tall and weighed two hundred and thirty-six pounds, which is considered overweight but not obese. His personal physician, Harold N. Bornstein, issued brief, celebratory statements—Trump’s lab-test results were “astonishingly excellent”—mentioning little more than a daily dose of aspirin and a statin. Trump himself says that he is “not a big sleeper” (“I like three hours, four hours”) and professes a fondness for steak and McDonald’s. Other than golf, he considers exercise misguided, arguing that a person, like a battery, is born with a finite amount of energy.
Secrecy about a President’s health has a rich history. “No one in the White House wants to emphasize the fact that the President might be too ill to carry out his responsibilities,” Robert E. Gilbert, a political scientist at Northeastern University who studies Presidential health, told me. “They want everyone to think that the President is able to surmount any problem, no matter how serious, because they are thinking of reëlection, and they are thinking of the judgment of history.” Although John F. Kennedy’s tan was often described as a sign of vigor, it was caused by Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder, which Kennedy and his aides hid for decades, and which left him dependent on multiple medications.
The Framers of the Constitution planned ahead for the death of Presidents—hence, Vice-Presidents—but they failed to address an unnerving prospect: a President who is alive and very sick. Had Kennedy survived being shot, and been left comatose, there would have been no legal way to allow others to assume his powers. To fend off that possibility, the Twenty-fifth Amendment was added to the Constitution in February, 1967. Under Section 4, a President can be removed if he is judged to be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The assessment can be made either by the Vice-President and a majority of the Cabinet secretaries or by a congressionally appointed body, such as a panel of medical experts. If the President objects—a theoretical crisis that scholars call “contested removal”—Congress has three weeks to debate and decide the issue. A two-thirds majority in each chamber is required to remove the President. There is no appeal.
However, the definition of what would constitute an inability to discharge the duties of office was left deliberately vague. Senator Birch Bayh, of Indiana, and others who drafted the clause wanted to insure that the final decision was not left to doctors. The fate of a President, Bayh wrote later, is “really a political question” that should rest on the “professional judgment of the political circumstances existing at the time.” The Twenty-fifth Amendment could therefore be employed in the case of a President who is not incapacitated but is considered mentally impaired.
A study by psychiatrists at Duke University, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, in 2006, made a striking assertion: about half the Presidents they studied had suffered a mental illness at one time or another. The researchers examined biographies and medical histories of thirty-seven Presidents, from Washington to Nixon, and found that forty-nine per cent met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder—mostly depression, anxiety, and substance abuse—at some point in their lives. Ten Presidents, or about one in four, had symptoms “evident during presidential office, which in most cases probably impaired job performance.”
To some mental-health professionals, the debate over diagnoses and the Goldwater rule distracts from a larger point. “This issue is not whether Donald Trump is mentally ill but whether he’s dangerous,” James Gilligan, a professor of psychiatry at New York University, told attendees at a recent public meeting at Yale School of Medicine on the topic of Trump’s mental health. “He publicly boasts of violence and has threatened violence. He has urged followers to beat up protesters. He approves of torture. He has boasted of his ability to commit and get away with sexual assault,” Gilligan said.
Bruce Blair, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton, told me that if Trump were an officer in the Air Force, with any connection to nuclear weapons, he would need to pass the Personnel Reliability Program, which includes thirty-seven questions about financial history, emotional volatility, and physical health. (Question No. 28: Do you often lose your temper?) “There’s no doubt in my mind that Trump would never pass muster,” Blair, who was a ballistic-missile launch-control officer in the Army, told me. “Any of us that had our hands anywhere near nuclear weapons had to pass the system. If you were having any arguments, or were in financial trouble, that was a problem. For all we know, Trump is on the brink of that, but the President is exempt from everything.”
In the months since Trump took office, several members of Congress have cited concern about his mental health as a reason to change the law. In early April, Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and a professor of constitutional law at American University, and twenty co-sponsors introduced a bill that would expand the authority of medical personnel and former senior officials to assess the mental fitness of a President. The bill has no chance of coming up for a vote anytime soon, but its sponsors believe that they have a constitutional duty to convene a body to assess Trump’s health. Representative Earl Blumenauer, of Oregon, introduced a similar bill, which would also give former Presidents and Vice-Presidents a voice in evaluating a President’s mental stability. Of Trump, he said, “The serial repetition of proven falsehoods—Is this an act? Is this a tactic? Is he just wired weird? It raises the question in my mind about the nature of Presidential disability.”
Over the years, the use, or misuse, of the Twenty-fifth Amendment has been irresistible to novelists and screenwriters, but political observers dismiss the idea. Jeff Greenfield, of CNN, has described the notion that Trump could be ousted on the basis of mental health as a “liberal fantasy.” Not everyone agrees. Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, told me, “I believe that invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment is no fantasy but an entirely plausible tool—not immediately, but well before 2020.” In Tribe’s interpretation, the standard of the amendment is not “a medical or otherwise technical one but is one resting on a commonsense understanding of what it means for a President to be ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office’—an inability that can obviously be manifested by gross and pathological inattention or indifference to, or failure to understand, the limits of those powers or the mandatory nature of those duties.”
The power of impeachment is a more promising tool for curtailing a defective Presidency. The Framers considered the ability to eject an executive so critical that they enshrined it in the Constitution even before they had agreed on the details of the office itself. On June 2, 1787, while the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, in Philadelphia, were still arguing whether the Presidency should consist of a committee or a single person, they adopted, without debate, the right to impeach for “malpractice or neglect of duty.” They gave the House of Representatives the power to impeach a President for “treason, bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” by a simple majority vote, and they gave the Senate the power to convict or dismiss the charges, setting a high bar for conviction, with a two-thirds majority.
David O. Stewart, the author of “Impeached,” a history of the case, told me that it established a crucial point: impeachment is not a judicial proceeding but a tool of political accountability. “Because of the unique powers of the executive, we are depending on a single person to be wise and sane,” Stewart said. “If, in fact, there are enough people who no longer think those are both true, impeachment is designed to deal with that.” For this reason, actual evidence of misconduct may not be the most important criterion in determining which Presidents get impeached. “The most important thing is political popularity,” Michael J. Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina, told me. “A popular President is unlikely to be threatened with impeachment. Second is your relationship with your party—how strongly are they connected to you? Third is your relationship with Congress, and fourth is the nature of whatever the misconduct may be.”
Were Trump to face impeachment, his lawyers would likely try to present him as a victim of a partisan feud, but his unpopularity would be a liability; Republicans in Congress would have little reason to defend him. Nonetheless, the Clinton impeachment may contain an even larger warning for Democrats in pursuit of Trump. “It’s pretty important to be seen in sorrow rather than anger,” Stewart, the historian of impeachment, said. “Don’t emerge red in tooth and claw. That’s not merely tactical—it’s good for the country, because you should only pursue impeachment if you really have to.”
Because the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives will almost certainly not initiate the ouster of a Republican President, the first step in any realistic path to impeachment is for Democrats to gain control of the House. The next opportunity is the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans have been relatively confident, in part because their redistricting in 2010 tilted the congressional map in their favor. But Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and the president of the right-leaning American Action Forum, believes that the chances of control shifting to the Democrats is greater than many people in either party realize. “After a party takes the House, the Senate, and the White House, they typically lose thirty-five seats in the House in the next midterm,” he told me. “Republicans now hold the House by twenty-three seats, so, as a going proposition, they’re in trouble. They need to do really, really well.”
If Democrats retake the House, the Judiciary Committee could establish a subcommittee to investigate potential abuses and identify specific grounds for impeachment. The various investigations of Trump already in process will come into play. In addition to allegations of business conflicts and potential Russian collusion, Trump is facing dozens of civil proceedings. In a case in federal court, he is accused of urging violence at a campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky, in March, 2016, where he yelled, referring to a protester, “Get ’em out of here.” In a New York state court, he is facing a suit brought by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” who alleges that he sexually assaulted her in 2007. The constitutional question of whether a President could be impeached for offenses committed before he took office is unsettled, but, as Clinton’s case showed, civil proceedings contain risks whenever a President testifies under oath.
Many scholars believe that the most plausible bases for a Trump impeachment are corruption and abuse of power. Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in constitutional studies, argues that, even without evidence of an indictable crime, the Administration’s pattern of seemingly trivial uses of public office for private gain “can add up to an impeachable offense.” Last week, after the State Department took down an official Web page that showcased Trump’s private, for-profit club, Mar-a-Lago, Feldman told me, “A systematic pattern shown through data points would count as grounds for impeachment.” He said that economic analysis of the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s self-enrichment proves the concept. “Berlusconi is said to have gained at most one per cent per business transaction from his Presidency, but that added up to more than a billion euros,” Feldman said.
keyboard shortcuts: V vote up article J next comment K previous comment