Andy Schmookler: Does the 25th Amendment apply here?

Andy Schmookler

What should be included in the notion of the president being “unable to discharge the duties of his office”? (That’s wording in the 25th Amendment relating to the circumstances in which a president might be removed.)

Clearly, it would include circumstances like those in 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a serious stroke. And it’s probably safe to assume that the framers of the 25th Amendment, back in the 1960s, did not envision a situation like that which confronts the United States today.

So we’re left to ask, for example: If the president, for reasons of his emotional and cognitive habits, were judged unable to make his decisions based on what is best for the United States and its people, would that qualify?

Repeatedly, on a host of issues, Trump issues statements that – if they are sincere – show a failure to grasp the factual realities of the situation.

  • He keeps claiming that Iran is in violation of the nuclear deal, whereas his own cabinet officers, the governments of our main allies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all affirm that Iran is in compliance.
  • He keeps claiming that the Affordable Care Act is in a death spiral, whereas the experts declare that untrue — except for Trump deliberately working to make it true by sabotaging it.
  • He both talks and acts as if he sees no reason that nuclear weapons cannot be used, whereas – for generations — it has been the considered judgment of American and other world leaders that a top priority for humankind is to assure that nuclear war is avoided.

So, if the President were to be judged unable to get a realistic grasp of the facts pertinent to the decisions he makes, would that demonstrate an inability to discharge his duties?

Never has anyone been so closely watched, and widely discussed, as Donald Trump. And many careful observers have concluded that many of Trump’s decisions are dictated by an emotion-based grudge, driving him to undo the accomplishments of his predecessor, President Obama.

Thus late last week, President Trump took unilateral measures to undo Obama’s signature domestic achievement by defunding the health care subsidies — despite Trump’s move meaning $200 billion in greater costs to the U.S. government, and hurting millions of Americans.

Trump also attacked Obama’s biggest international achievement – starting to nullify the deal to block Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, contrary to the counsel of his national security team.

On the Iran deal, virtually no one – even those who have had reservations about that agreement — thinks that Trump’s move is in the interests of the United States.

  • Trump’s action not only contravenes the counsel of his own team, but also is opposed by our major allies (the U.K., France, and Germany) who are also party to the agreement, thus further isolating the United States.
  • Trump’s threatened termination of the agreement will make it far more likely that Iran will build nuclear weapons–the very outcome Trump claims he’s seeking to prevent.
  • Abrogating the agreement will likely leave the U.S. with far worse choices with Iran: either watching it become a nuclear power, thus destabilizing a region vital to American interests; or going to war against Iran, which all analysts say would be a nightmare.
  • Trump’s demonstration that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its word will eliminate whatever chance there may have been to reach a negotiated agreement with North Korea about its own nuclear program–for the North Koreans will see no value in making an agreement with a power that can’t be counted on to honor the deal?

If all this is just to stick a finger in the eye of former President Obama, would that show him “unable to discharge the duties of his office”?

Elsewhere, while the situation of the American citizens on Puerto Rico remains appalling, weeks after the hurricane, the president continues to deal with this disaster in a completely uncaring, irresponsible way. Some say that Trump is punishing the people of the island in retaliation for the criticism leveled against him by the mayor of San Juan.

If that were true that Trump’s vindictive impulses overrule his presidential responsibilities, would such dereliction of duty constitute an inability to discharge the duties of his office?

President Trump seems irrepressibly drawn to create conflict–alienating allies (attacking leaders in his own party, disrespecting America’s traditional friends, sowing division in the nation over such matters outside of the scope of presidential authority as protests at NFL games; lashing out at critics (as if having critics isn’t part of being president); and exacerbating tensions with adversaries like the North Koreans – while appearing also indifferent to finding ways to bring Americans together to cooperate for the good of the nation.

So far in office, while dismantling previous American accomplishments, Trump has built virtually nothing to improve the condition of the country. And meanwhile, no foreign policy experts can see a plausible strategy behind his escalating the prospects of a catastrophic war with North Korea.

If it were judged that Trump’s character leads him toward destructiveness, and renders him incapable of generating constructive outcomes, would that be incompatible with “the duties of his office”?

Concern about Trump’s increasingly evident “unfitness” for his office are now rampant, even among Trump’s cabinet and the Republicans in Congress.

Even if there’s no sign those people are willing to act to protect the nation against the danger the see, we the people should still ask: do all these factors add up to a picture of a president who is “unable to discharge the duties” that we, the American people, have a right to consider requirements of the office of the president?

Andy Schmookler, the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012, is the author of the forthcoming book, “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World — and How We Can Defeat It.”

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