After several days of disturbing revelations about President Trump’s conduct in office, here come the calls for his removal—not from progressives (those have already come, early and often), but from conservatives. Ross Douthat of the New York Times writes in his Wednesday column that Trump should be removed from office, not impeached, using the mechanisms provided by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Cold War-era amendment allows the removal of the president if a majority of the cabinet affirms that he is unable to discharge the duties of his office. If the president resists, a two-thirds vote from Congress will confirm the cabinet’s judgement. It was designed to clarify who has the constitutional authority to declare a president incapacitated, a necessity that became apparent following the assassination of President Kennedy.
The 25th Amendment is not, however, a way for elites to get rid of a president they despise without having to persuade the millions of people who voted for him that he is indeed unfit for office. Douthat is indulging a dangerous fantasy here. It might feel good to write a column calling for the president’s removal. It might give pundits a rush of blood to the head. But this is not a parlor game.
The country is deeply divided. People have taken to attacking each other in the streets and threatening congressmen when they venture outside Washington. We’re still recovering from a presidential election that actually ended marriages and tore families apart. Trump’s election was, more than anything else, a giant middle finger to the political establishment, which has lost the confidence of the American people.
If now seems like the right time for that establishment to launch an unconstitutional coup to remove the president through a specious application of the 25th Amendment, then I respectfully submit that you’re underestimating the precariousness of national life at this moment.
The Elites Don’t Know Best
None of this is a defense of Trump. Perhaps it will turn out that he really is unfit for office. He certainly seems to be woefully deficient in the qualities necessary for a successful presidency, like prudence, patience, and a general seriousness and curiosity about the world. Of course, the torrent of news this week should worry every American.
But we should be equally worried about the illegal leaks that have fueled the news this week. Understand what these leaks mean: an unelected fourth branch of the government, the administrative state, is trying desperately to undermine the duly elected leader of the executive branch. The press is on the side of the administrative state, and would like nothing more than to be rid of this troublesome president, whom nobody important voted for anyway.
The argument for removing Trump at this juncture amounts to an elitist desire to nullify the votes of some 63 million Americans. Some, like Douthat, are no doubt motivated by a paternalistic urge to redirect the misguided frustrations of their benighted countrymen. Douthat took to Twitter Wednesday morning to bolster his case, saying that removing Trump “harnesses a central use of an elite—their ability to respond swiftly to a situation the public as a whole can’t reckon with.” He seems unaware that the public has already rendered judgement on the elite, and no longer wants their swift response. (Note that this was the exact same justification for the bank bailout, which incensed most Americans.)
Others, like the leaders of the Democratic Party, no doubt believe the people didn’t really elect Trump at all, because of the Russians or some such. Either way, the point is that the people cannot have known what they were doing when they put Trump in office, and now the elites must save us from ourselves.
Douthat justifies his stance on the insistence that Trump is too stupid to knowingly commit the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that would warrant impeachment. Thus it falls to Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell to do the right thing and launch a palace coup. Indeed, it’s their duty, he says, since “leaving a man this witless and unmastered in an office with these powers and responsibilities is an act of gross negligence, which no objective on the near-term political horizon seems remotely significant enough to justify.” It’s not like Hillary will become president or Gorsuch will be removed from the Supreme Court, so what’s the big deal?
This Is Not A Game, It’s A Dangerous Fantasy
The big deal right now, as Douthat concedes, is that the president’s unfitness for office hinges on whether “several days’ worth of entirely credible leaks and revelations are to be believed.” He apparently believes them all, along with the entire media establishment.
But that’s a wholly insufficient basis on which to call for the president’s removal. It’s reckless to do so—not because there are no questions that need to be answered, but because having a bad president (even a stupid and childish one) isn’t reason enough to steal from the American people one of the few means they have left to exercise self-governance.
It should go without saying that we have entered a dangerous and volatile time in our history. What those in positions of influence say and do now might well have grave consequences in the near future. If you believe Trump is dangerous, that is understandable. Many of us believed Obama was dangerous, too.
The country staggers back and forth: the people reject their appointed rulers, civil society rests on a knife’s edge. Removing the president will not save the republic, but making serious arguments for doing so will certainly imperil it.