There is no way around it: President Trump lost.
He lost his gamble on shutting down the government. And though he will pretend otherwise, he has also lost his grandiose plan to build a border wall that most of the country does not want.
Trump walked away with nothing more than an assurance from congressional Democrats that they will sit down with Republicans for three weeks and try to come up with a border security plan that both parties can agree upon. There’s a reasonable chance they will come up with a solid proposal. But there’s just as much likelihood that Trump’s dream for a wall will die a quiet death there.
Nonetheless, this is the consequence of Trump’s obsession with satisfying the red-hatted, nativist throngs who chanted “build the wall” at so many of his rallies.
Not only do 6 in 10 Americans now disapprove of the job that the president is doing, but his party has also lost the 10-point edge it once held over the Democrats on the question of which party to trust on border security, according to a fresh Post-ABC News poll.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has shown that she better than Trump understands the art of the deal in Washington. She is the one who succeeded in building a wall — and Trump ran right into it.
Now, as Trump surveys the shambles that his greatest blunder has made of his presidency, the question is whether he and the Republicans learned anything from the five-week calamity that they caused. Will his party be as willing to follow him the next time he leads them toward the edge of a cliff?
If there is even a thin silver lining to the travesty of the longest-ever government shutdown, it is this: The Republicans’ slander of public servants has been exposed for what it is.
When the shutdown began, conservative pundits assured themselves that few Americans would notice or care, because only a quarter of the government was not being funded. By its final day, there was turmoil at airports, slowdowns at the Internal Revenue Service and countless individual stories of federal workers who were forced to find sustenance at food pantries and face agonizing choices between whether to pay for heat or medicine this month. In the Post-ABC poll, 1 in 5 people said they had personally been affected by the shutdown.
The stereotype of government employees as pampered, overpaid, Washington-bound bureaucrats has been around for many years. Republicans have long portrayed them as the enemies of reform and efficiency.
But Trump targeted them as no one did before. From his earliest months in office, he and his allies have portrayed those who dedicate their lives to serving their country as the corrupt, subversive “deep state” — the bottom-feeders of a swamp in need of draining.
As the shutdown began, Trump first made the absurd suggestion that 800,000 government workers were happy to give up grocery and rent money for a construction project on the U.S.-Mexico border that would stand as a monument to the president’s vanity. Then he contradicted himself in a tweet that declared it was largely his political enemies who were feeling the pain: “Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?”
Where a little empathy might have been in order as the shutdown continued, Trump’s team revealed a callousness that would have made Marie Antoinette blush.
Trump economic adviser
- Kevin Hassett said furloughed workers should be celebrating the fact they were getting time off without having to use vacation days. “In some sense, they’re better off,” he told PBS NewsHour. Commerce Secretary
- Wilbur Ross, a billionaire who pads around in custom-made velvet slippers, expressed bewilderment that federal workers would go to food banks instead of taking out a loan from a bank or credit union. And
- Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, dismissed their ordeal as “a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country.”
So it was noticeable that when Trump made his Rose Garden announcement Friday that the government was opening again, he began it by thanking federal workers who had displayed “extraordinary devotion in the face of this recent hardship. You are fantastic people. You are incredible patriots.”
On that point, Trump was absolutely right. Government employees have shown they are all that and more. Which is why they deserve much better than a chief executive who would wager so recklessly with their lives and their livelihoods.
He is demonstrably unfit for office. What are we waiting for?
The presidential oath of office contains 35 words and one core promise: to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Since virtually the moment Donald J. Trump took that oath two years ago, he has been violating it. He has
- repeatedly put his own interests above those of the country. He has
- used the presidency to promote his businesses. He has accepted financial gifts from foreign countries. He has
- lied to the American people about his relationship with a hostile foreign government. He has
- tolerated cabinet officials who use their position to enrich themselves.
To shield himself from accountability for all of this — and for his unscrupulous presidential campaign — he has
- set out to undermine the American system of checks and balances. He has
- called for the prosecution of his political enemies and the protection of his allies. He has
- attempted to obstruct justice. He has
- tried to shake the public’s confidence in one democratic institution after another, including
- the press,
- federal law enforcement and the
- federal judiciary.
The unrelenting chaos that Trump creates can sometimes obscure the big picture. But the big picture is simple: The United States has never had a president as demonstrably unfit for the office as Trump. And it’s becoming clear that 2019 is likely to be dominated by a single question: What are we going to do about it?
The easy answer is to wait — to allow the various investigations of Trump to run their course and ask voters to deliver a verdict in 2020. That answer has one great advantage. It would avoid the national trauma of overturning an election result. Ultimately, however, waiting is too dangerous. The cost of removing a president from office is smaller than the cost of allowing this president to remain.
He has already shown, repeatedly, that
- he will hurt the country in order to help himself. He will damage American interests around the world and
- damage vital parts of our constitutional system at home.
The risks that he will cause much more harm are growing.
Some of the biggest moderating influences have recently left the administration. The
- defense secretary who defended our alliances with NATO and South Korea is gone. So is
- the attorney general who refused to let Trump subvert a federal investigation into himself. The administration is increasingly filled with lackeys and enablers. Trump has become freer to turn his whims into policy — like, say, shutting down the government on the advice of Fox News hosts or pulling troops from Syria on the advice of a Turkish autocrat.
The biggest risk may be that an external emergency — a war, a terrorist attack, a financial crisis, an immense natural disaster — will arise. By then, it will be too late to pretend that he is anything other than manifestly unfit to lead.
For the country’s sake, there is only one acceptable outcome, just as there was after Americans realized in 1974 that a criminal was occupying the Oval Office. The president must go.
Since the midterm election showed the political costs that Trump inflicts on Republicans, this criticism seems to be growing. They have broken with him on foreign policy (in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria) and are anxious about the government shutdown. Trump is vulnerable to any erosion in his already weak approval rating, be it from an economic downturn, more Russia revelations or simply the defection of a few key allies. When support for an unpopular leader starts to crack, it can crumble.
Before we get to the how of Trump’s removal, though, I want to spend a little more time on the why — because even talking about the ouster of an elected president should happen only under extreme circumstances. Unfortunately, the country is now so polarized that such talk instead occurs with every president. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were subjected to reckless calls for their impeachment, from members of Congress no less.
So let’s be clear. Trump’s ideology is not an impeachable offense. However much you may disagree with Trump’s tax policy — and I disagree vehemently — it is not a reason to remove him from office. Nor are his efforts to cut government health insurance or to deport undocumented immigrants. Such issues, among others, are legitimate matters of democratic struggle, to be decided by elections, legislative debates, protests and the other normal tools of democracy. These issues are not the “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the founders intended impeachment to address.
Yet the founders also did not intend for the removal of a president to be impossible. They insisted on including an impeachment clause in the Constitution because they understood that an incompetent or corrupt person was nonetheless likely to attain high office every so often. And they understood how much harm such a person could do. The country needed a way to address what Alexander Hamilton called “the abuse or violation of some public trust” and James Madison called the “incapacity, negligence or perfidy” of a president.
The negligence and perfidy of President Trump — his high crimes and misdemeanors — can be separated into four categories. This list is conservative. It does not include the possibility that his campaign coordinated strategy with Russia, which remains uncertain. It also does not include his lazy approach to the job, like his refusal to read briefing books or the many empty hours on his schedule. It instead focuses on demonstrable ways that he has broken the law or violated his constitutional oath.
Trump has used the presidency for personal enrichment.
Regardless of party, Trump’s predecessors took elaborate steps to separate their personal financial interests from their governing responsibilities. They released their tax returns, so that any potential conflicts would be public. They placed their assets in a blind trust, to avoid knowing how their policies might affect their own investments.
Trump has instead treated the presidency as a branding opportunity. He has continued to own and promote the Trump Organization. He has spent more than 200 days at one of his properties and billed taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If this pattern were merely petty corruption, without damage to the national interest, it might not warrant removal from office. But Trump’s focus on personal profit certainly appears to be affecting policy. Most worrisome, foreign officials and others have realized they can curry favor with the president by spending money at one of his properties.
Then, of course, there is Russia. Even before Robert Mueller, the special counsel, completes his investigation, the known facts are damning enough in at least one way. Trump lied to the American people during the 2016 campaign about business negotiations between his company and Vladimir Putin’s government. As president, Trump has taken steps — in Europe and Syria — that benefit Putin. To put it succinctly:
The president of the United States lied to the country about his commercial relationship with a hostile foreign government toward which he has a strangely accommodating policy.
Combine Trump’s actions with his tolerance for unethical cabinet officials — including ones who have made shady stock trades, accepted lavish perks or used government to promote their own companies or those of their friends — and the Trump administration is almost certainly the most corrupt in American history. It makes Warren G. Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal look like, well, a tempest in a teapot.
Trump has violated campaign finance law.
A Watergate grand jury famously described Richard Nixon as “an unindicted co-conspirator.” Trump now has his own indictment tag: “Individual-1.”
Federal prosecutors in New York filed papers last month alleging that Trump — identified as Individual-1 — directed a criminal plan to evade campaign finance laws. It happened during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, when he instructed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to pay a combined $280,000 in hush money to two women with whom Trump evidently had affairs. Trump and his campaign did not disclose these payments, as required by law. In the two years since, Trump has lied publicly about them — initially saying he did not know about the payments, only to change his story later.
It’s worth acknowledging that most campaign finance violations do not warrant removal from office. But these payments were not most campaign finance violations. They involved large, secret payoffs in the final weeks of a presidential campaign that, prosecutors said, “deceived the voting public.” The seriousness of the deception is presumably the reason that the prosecutors filed criminal charges against Cohen, rather than the more common penalty of civil fines for campaign finance violations.
What should happen to a president who won office with help from criminal behavior? The founders specifically considered this possibility during their debates at the Constitutional Convention. The most direct answer came from George Mason: A president who “practiced corruption and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance” should be subject to impeachment.
Trump has obstructed justice.
Whatever Mueller ultimately reveals about the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia, Trump has obstructed justice to keep Mueller — and others — from getting to the truth.
Again and again, Trump has interfered with the investigation in ways that may violate the law and clearly do violate decades-old standards of presidential conduct. He
- pressured James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, to let up on the Russia investigation, as a political favor. When Comey refused, Trump fired him. Trump also repeatedly
- pressured Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, to halt the investigation and ultimately forced Sessions to resign for not doing so. Trump has also
- publicly hounded several of the government’s top experts on Russian organized crime, including Andrew McCabe and Bruce Orr.
And Trump has repeatedly lied to the American people.
- He has claimed, outrageously, that the Justice Department tells witnesses to lie in exchange for leniency. He has
- rejected, with no factual basis, the findings of multiple intelligence agencies about Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign. He reportedly
- helped his son Donald Trump Jr. draft a false statement about a 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer.
Obstruction of justice is certainly grounds for the removal of a president. It was the subject of the first Nixon article of impeachment passed by the House Judiciary Committee. Among other things, that article accused him of making “false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States.”
Trump has subverted democracy.
The Constitution that Trump swore to uphold revolves around checks and balances. It depends on the idea that the president is not a monarch. He is a citizen to whom, like all other citizens, the country’s laws apply. Trump rejects this principle. He has instead tried to undermine the credibility of any independent source of power or information that does not serve his interests.
It’s much more than just the Russia investigation. He has
- tried to delegitimize federal judges based on their ethnicity or on the president who appointed them, drawing a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts. Trump has
- criticized the Justice Department for indicting Republican politicians during an election year. He has
- called for Comey, Hillary Clinton and other political opponents of his to be jailed. Trump has .
- described journalists as “the enemy of the people” — an insult usually leveled by autocrats. He has
- rejected basic factual findings from the
- C.I.A., the
- Congressional Budget Office,
- research scientists and
- He has told bald lies about election fraud.
Individually, these sins may not seem to deserve removal from office. Collectively, though, they exact a terrible toll on American society. They cause people to lose the faith on which a democracy depends — faith in elections, in the justice system, in the basic notion of truth.
No other president since Nixon has engaged in behavior remotely like Trump’s. To accept it without sanction is ultimately to endorse it. Unpleasant though it is to remove a president, the costs and the risks of a continued Trump presidency are worse.
The most relevant precedent for the removal of Trump is Nixon, the only American president to be forced from office because of his conduct. And two aspects of Nixon’s departure tend to get overlooked today. One, he was never impeached. Two, most Republicans — both voters and elites — stuck by him until almost the very end. His approval rating among Republicans was still about 50 percent when, realizing in the summer of 1974 that he was doomed, he resigned.
The current political dynamics have some similarities. Whether the House of Representatives, under Democratic control, impeaches Trump is not the big question. The question is whether he loses the support of a meaningful slice of Republicans.
I know that many of Trump’s critics have given up hoping that he ever will. They assume that Republican senators will go on occasionally criticizing him without confronting him. But it is a mistake to give up. The stakes are too large — and the chances of success are too real.
Consider the following descriptions of Trump:
- “terribly unfit;”
- “a pathological liar;”
- “dangerous to a democracy;”
- a concern to “anyone who cares about our nation.”
Every one of these descriptions comes from a Republican member of Congress or of Trump’s own administration.
They know. They know he is unfit for office. They do not need to be persuaded of the truth. They need to be persuaded to act on it.
.. Democrats won’t persuade them by impeaching Trump. Doing so would probably rally the president’s supporters. It would shift the focus from Trump’s behavior toward a group of Democratic leaders whom Republicans are never going to like. A smarter approach is a series of sober-minded hearings to highlight Trump’s misconduct.
Democrats should focus on easily understandable issues most likely to bother Trump’s supporters, like corruption.
If this approach works at all — or if Mueller’s findings shift opinion, or if a separate problem arises, like the economy — Trump’s Republican allies will find themselves in a very difficult spot. At his current approval rating of about 40 percent, Republicans were thumped in the midterms. Were his rating to fall further, a significant number of congressional Republicans would be facing long re-election odds in 2020.
Two examples are Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, senators who, not coincidentally, have shown tentative signs of breaking with Trump on the government shutdown. The recent criticism from Mitt Romney — who alternates between critical and sycophantic, depending on his own political interests — is another sign of Trump’s weakness.
For now, most Republicans worry that a full break with Trump will cause them to lose a primary, and it might. But sticking by him is no free lunch. Just ask the 27 Republican incumbents who were defeated last year and are now former members of Congress. By wide margins, suburban voters and younger voters find Trump abhorrent. The Republican Party needs to hold its own among these voters, starting in 2020.
It’s not only that Trump is unfit to be president and that Republicans know it. It also may be the case that they will soon have a political self-interest in abandoning him. If they did, the end could come swiftly. The House could then impeach Trump, knowing the Senate might act to convict. Or negotiations could begin over whether Trump deserves to trade resignation for some version of immunity.
Finally, there is the hope — naïve though it may seem — that some Republicans will choose to act on principle. There now exists a small club of former Trump administration officials who were widely respected before joining the administration and whom Trump has sullied, to greater or lesser degrees. It includes
- Rex Tillerson,
- Gary Cohn,
- H.R. McMaster and
- Jim Mattis.
Imagine if one of them gave a television interview and told the truth about Trump. Doing so would be a service to their country at a time of national need. It would be an illustration of duty.
Throughout his career, Trump has worked hard to invent his own reality, and largely succeeded. It has made him very rich and, against all odds, elected him president. But whatever happens in 2019, his false version of reality will not survive history, just as Nixon’s did not. Which side of that history do today’s Republicans want to be on?
The U.S. has leverage over Riyadh. Let’s use it.
In fact, I’ve felt reasonably safe in Saudi Arabia. Officials were respectful and courteous even when I was painfully frank. But people also seemed more afraid to speak to a journalist than before, and mingled with the oppressiveness, there was an aggrieved nationalism in the air.
.. Senior Saudis privately accept that M.B.S. ordered Khashoggi’s death but insist that the Saudi-U.S. relationship is more important than one man’s life. For the sake of stability in the region, they say, America should stand by Saudi Arabia.
To which my answer is: The problem is not only that M.B.S. is a murderer, but also that he has destabilized the region, starved Yemeni children and undermined the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States alike. Everything he touches, he breaks.
President Trump and Jared Kushner have placed their bets on the prince, and in a narrow sense they may be right. King Faisal managed to oust his incompetent predecessor, King Saud, in 1964, but I saw no sign that M.B.S. is in jeopardy of losing power.
My most interesting interaction was with a group of young professionals who believe that I am getting it all wrong.
“I don’t know why the media focuses on the bad side,” protested Tariq Buhilaigah, a consultant in Riyadh. Sure there have been missteps, he said, but the most important things going on are the modernization of the country and the diversification of the economy away from oil.
.. But modernity isn’t just about cappuccinos and iPhone apps; it’s also about human dignity and the rule of law. While M.B.S. is bringing social progress, he’s also reckless, oppressive and brutal, and I am skeptical of his economic competence. He hasn’t even been able to organize an initial public offering for Aramco.
Trump’s bizarre defense of the prince reflects what has been wrong with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It has become all transactional. The Saudis have treated us like body guards, and we have treated them like gas station attendants.
I suspect the real reason Trump and Kushner embrace M.B.S., aside from the hope that he will back their Middle East peace plan, is business: the belief that Saudis will invest in their personal real estate projects for decades to come.
The truth is that as Saudi Arabia’s significance as an oil producer diminishes, we need Saudi Arabia less. In 25 years, if we’re freed from the tyranny of imported oil, we may not need it at all.
Some Saudis kept trying to suggest to me that if we block weapons sales to Riyadh, the kingdom will turn to Moscow. That’s absurd. It needs our spare parts and, more important, it buys our weapons because they come with an implicit guarantee that we will bail the Saudis out militarily if they get in trouble with Iran.
In 1947, “Mr. X” wrote an extremely influential article, for Foreign Affairs, advocating a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies. Its author turned out to be the diplomat George Kennan, who was then the second-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And, in 1996, Random House published “Primary Colors,” a thinly disguised roman à clef about Bill Clinton, by “Anonymous.” Less consequential than Kennan’s contribution, the novel nonetheless created a great deal of speculation about who its author was; it turned out to be the political journalist Joe Klein.
.. By nightfall on Wednesday, there were reports that White House officials were engaged in a frantic search for the culprit.
.. “scrutiny focused on a half-dozen names.”
.. the piece merely adds to what we already know about Trump’s character and the struggle of people around him to control his destructive tendencies.
.. it was reported that the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the national-security adviser at the time—James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H. R. McMaster—had privately agreed to avoid being out of Washington at the same time.
.. There have been numerous reports about how Don McGahn, the outgoing White House counsel, tried to talk Trump out of firing James Comey and Jeff Sessions.
.. The real importance of the Op-Ed is that it corroborates these reports, provides a window into the mind-set of people who continue to work for Trump, and also reveals some intriguing details. “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,”
.. Really? “Early whispers within the cabinet” of invoking the Constitution to oust the President? If this is true, it is information of enormous consequence, and leads to a series of further questions. Who was involved in these discussions, and how far did the whispers go?
.. The suggestion that at least some members of the Cabinet have talked about invoking these powers is new and shocking. But what does it mean to say that the whisperers didn’t want to precipitate a crisis? After all, the rest of the article makes clear that the crisis already exists and is deadly serious.
.. The head of state of the most powerful country in the world is someone whose own subordinates and appointees regard as unmoored, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.
.. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the Op-Ed says. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making. . . . Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”
.. “I have no respect for someone who would say these things—of whose truth I have no doubt—in an anonymous oped, rather than in a public resignation letter copied to the House Judiciary Committee.”
.. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.”
.. These are legitimate concerns, but the larger one is that we have a menacing dingbat in the White House, and nobody with the requisite authority seems willing to do anything about it, other than to try to manage the situation on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis. Perhaps this could be seen as a “Trump containment” strategy, but it falls well short of the systematic containment strategy that Kennan advocated, and, in any case, the Trumpkins, unlike the early Cold War strategists, are not necessarily dealing with a rational actor. Something more is surely needed.