After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 25th Amendment was ratified to better provide for a succession of a government in crisis. Article IV deals specifically with what to do if the president’s cabinet determines that he is unfit to serve in office. The language is vague. The only definition of fitness is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” which seems to imply some kind of health concern rather than any ethical or performance-related motive. This sense is strengthened by looking at Article III, which describes how the president can temporarily turn the country over to the vice president. This has been done before when presidents have required surgery and therefore have been unable to discharge the duties of their office for a brief period.
Nonetheless, there is no specific language that sets out any test for when a president can be considered “unable” to do his job. If the president simply disappeared or refused to report to work, that would qualify even if he was perfectly healthy. If he were compromised by a foreign power and engaged in a criminal conspiracy to shut down an investigation into foreign interference in his own presidential election, that might conceivably also apply.
The idea of invoking the 25th Amendment was discussed by officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI in the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to fire James Comey. At the same time, a decision was made to open a counterintelligence investigation into the president to determine if he was working on behalf of the Russians. This was also the point at which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided to appoint a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation.
Some people will inevitably see this as a kind of nascent Deep State coup attempt, since all the officials involved technically worked for the president. To me, this only makes it clearer just how seriously they took their own suspicions.
To illustrate why their fears were well-founded, I want to use one episode from the 2015-16 campaign. In December 2015, Donald Trump made one of his many appearances on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. He was questioned by the hosts, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, about recent praise he had received from Russian president Vladimir Putin. You can watch the video, but I’ve excerpted the most relevant portion below.
.@realDonaldTrump on Putin: When people call you brilliant, it’s always good https://t.co/yNTFwwjcQS
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) December 18, 2015
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Do you like Vladimir Putin’s comments about you?
DONALD TRUMP: Sure! When people call you “brilliant” it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and …
WILLIE GEIST: Invades countries.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: … and invades countries, obviously that would be a concern, would it not?
DONALD TRUMP: He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: But, again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.
DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.
Trump went on to explain he had always been “fine with Putin” and that the Russian people loved him and gave him excellent approval numbers. He was a bit miffed that he’d been asked “one question and then asked another one,” as if he had somehow been entrapped. But that did not prevent him from continuing to excuse Putin’s violence and aggression while praising his leadership qualities. On February 4, 2017, two weeks into his presidency, Trump gave a repeat performance of this behavior during an interview he did with Bill O’Reilly that ran before the Super Bowl.
In an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, which will air ahead of the Super Bowl on Sunday, Trump doubled down on his “respect” for Putin — even in the face of accusations that Putin and his associates have murdered journalists and dissidents in Russia.
“I do respect him. Well, I respect a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get along with them,” Trump told O’Reilly.
O’Reilly pressed on, declaring to the president that “Putin is a killer.”
Unfazed, Trump didn’t back away, but rather compared Putin’s reputation for extrajudicial killings with the United States’.
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
After the 2015 Morning Joe incident, Philip Bump of the Washington Post expressed the general dismay of those who cover politics for a living.
This is by no means a surprising response from Trump, who insists that his lead in the polls is a mark of his superiority and who has in the past suggested that the United States cede the fight in Syria to Russia. But it is, or should be, a surprising response from someone who seriously wants to be the president of the United States….
…Putin’s poll numbers among Americans are terrible. Globally, Russia is viewed very negatively, according to Pew Research, with two-thirds of Americans holding an unfavorable view of the country. Three-quarters of Americans have no confidence in Putin to do the right thing — which presumably includes offering political endorsements.
At the time, Bump settled on the explanation that Trump simply likes autocratic leaders and had a vision of being “a strongman-president.” What he did not know then is that Trump was actively working on getting approval from Putin to build the tallest skyscraper in Europe in Moscow. In fact, on October 28, 2015, Trump signed a letter of intent to build the tower and he had his personal attorney, fixer, and Trump Organization vice-president Michael Cohen working feverishly to get final approval from the Kremlin.
At the time of the February 2017 appearance with Bill O’Reilly, Trump was embroiled in a dispute with the Department of Justice over whether he should fire his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over discussions he had about sanctions relief during the transition with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Eight days after the Super Bowl, Trump gave in and relieved Flynn of his duties.
Almost exactly two years later, we got to see similar language about strongmen killing journalists.
Tom Barrack, a key donor and friend of President Donald Trump attempted to justify the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi Tuesday, arguing that the US does not have the moral authority to criticize Saudi Arabia due to its own record of “atrocities.”
If you don’t know about Mr. Barrack, I encourage you to read my October 31, 2017 piece: What Did Thomas Barrack Know and When Did He Know It?. It details his rise to power and his early friendship with Paul Manafort. Here’s a relevant citation I made in that article:
Barrack became a lawyer, and his ability to speak Arabic led to an assignment in 1972 to go to Saudi Arabia to work on a gas deal. Barrack played squash with a local Saudi. Soon the Saudi brought his brothers. It turned out they were all sons of the king of Saudi Arabia. Barrack spent many hours listening to the Arabs discuss their world, which he said gave him “great respect for the society and community.”
The princes, in turn, hired him, and he became, as he put it, the American representative of “the boys.”
In other words, the Saudi royal family has considered Mr. Barrack a trustworthy representative for more than four decades. It was Barrack who recommended Paul Manafort to Donald Trump. It was Barrack who hired Rick Gates after he was forced out of a political action committee that was formed to help Trump push his agenda because of his business ties to Manafort. It was Barrack who was put in charge of the inauguration, which is now being investigated by the Justice Department.
It’s not hard to understand his motives for defending the assassination of a journalist that included the use of a bone saw to cut up his body. Trump’s motives for defending Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi case are no doubt financial, too. Or, at least, they may have originated in a financial interest. It’s likely that the Saudis know things about Trump that he doesn’t want them to reveal.
That has certainly been the case with Russia. At the time Brzezinski and Scarborough were questioning Trump about Putin’s killing of journalists, he could hardly afford for Putin to reveal that his lawyer was trying to get him to sign off on a major real estate deal in Moscow. For business reasons, he wanted to please Putin. For political reasons, he wanted to avoid upsetting him.
Being susceptible to this kind of pressure and influence is the exact kind of thing that counterintelligence officers look for when trying to vet people for sensitive government positions. When the FBI saw how Trump was behaving in the aftermath of the election, they obviously suspected that he was compromised in some way.
If he was seeking sanctions relief for Russia because he had no alternative if he wanted to avoid exposure, then he was, in a very real sense, “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” This wasn’t because he was medically incapable of performing the tasks required of a president. It was because he wasn’t free to execute them in a way that protected America’s interests.
Of course, this was exactly the situation as it stood when Comey was fired. It is still the situation today. But the FBI was still too early in their investigation to have the kind of proof they would have needed to make the case for removal under the 25th Amendment. If they had had the Moscow Trump Tower piece back then, it would have gone off like a thermonuclear bomb. It’s only because so much time has gone by that the revelations about Trump’s business motive hasn’t caused an immediate push for his removal. Now everyone is waiting on Mueller to make the case, and he has a lot more material to work with.
The issue of collusion with the Russians during the election has gotten most of the attention, partly because Trump keeps insisting that there was “NO COLLUSION!” But it’s the compromise that makes Trump “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
He started out as a candidate excusing the murder of journalists because he had a secret financial reason for doing so, and then he wound up doing the same as president because he’s too compromised to object.
Anyone should be able to see that he cannot be allowed to continue in this job. The Deep State suspected this. The Deep State was right.