An orgy of borrowing, speculation and euphoria has left the markets on the verge of catastrophe
Financial markets have experienced the fastest ever crash over the past few weeks. Even during the dotcom bust and the Lehman crisis, stocks did not fall this quickly. In less than a month, we have seen major indices fall almost 30%, and stocks in sectors such as oil and travel down by 80%. We are experiencing terrifying daily declines not seen since the 1929 stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression.
We are at a watershed moment: the coronavirus Covid-19 is a catalyst fast bringing many long simmering problems to the boil. It is exposing the creaking financial systems around us and it will change the way economies function. Economic and financial pundits, however, have been focusing almost exclusively on the short-term effects of coronavirus and so are missing the much bigger themes at play.
Epidemiologists tell us that when it comes to the virus, we are looking at a once in a century event. It is highly contagious and highly lethal. Experts are not comparing Covid-19 to SARS or Swine Flu, but to the Spanish influenza of 1918 that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.
We do not have good data on what the stock market did during the 1918 flu, but we do know that it led to a severe recession. The connection between influenza and recessions is well documented. Going as far back as the Russian flu in 1889-90, the Spanish flu in 1918, the Asian flu in 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 — they all led to recessions. This one will be no different.
But this recession will not only be driven by the economic loss of able-bodied workers, it will be helped along too by the steps political leaders take to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. In medicine, the immune system’s response can often be worse than the disease. When the body goes into septic shock, the immune system overreacts, releasing what doctors refer to as a cytokine flood, which can reduce blood to vital organs and lead to death. Sepsis is common and kills more than 10 million people a year. Today, the political reaction to Covid-19 is causing something akin to a septic shock to the global economy.
The recession is likely to be very sharp and but brief. Recessions are self-regulating. De-stocking of shelves and warehouses leads to re-stocking. Collapsing low interest rates and oil prices eventually spur spending and borrowing. Government spending and central bank easing eventually feed through to the real economy. While there will be massive panic and bankruptcies today, there is little doubt that markets will be better in a year, and certainly will be in two to three years,
But the structural changes to how our economy operates, however, will be felt for decades to come. And this is in large part because we didn’t learn the lessons of the last crash.
Over the years since the 2008 crisis, central banks have been trying to stamp out every single small fire that flares up (the European crisis in 2011-12, the Chinese slowdown in 2015-16, the slowdown last year); but suppressing volatility and risk only creates bigger fires. Risk is like energy and cannot be destroyed. It can only be transformed.
Forest fires are a useful analogy. California has infrequent, devastating forest fires; the Mexican state of Baja California has many small frequent fires and almost no major catastrophic fires. Both states have a similar climate and vegetation, yet they have vastly different outcomes. That’s because when there are very few small fires, underbrush grows, vegetation increases and creates greater kindling for the next fire. Suppressing small risks only makes them emerge eventually as very big ones.
In politics and economics, massive change events tend to happen not in orderly sequences, but in sudden spasms, like the Arab Spring, or the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Watching events unfold is often like watching sand grains pile slowly on top of one another until a final, random grain causes the entire pile to collapse. People knew the Arab countries were fragile and that the Eastern Bloc might eventually fall, but predicting which grain of sand would do it precipitate either was impossible.
Physicists call these transitions critical thresholds. Critical thresholds are everywhere in nature. Water at moderate temperatures is disorganised and free-flowing, yet at a given critical value, it has an abrupt transition to a solid. It’s the same with the sandpile: one grain too many can trigger collapse — but which one?
In 1987 Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld found that while sandpiles may be individually unpredictable, they all behave the same way. The critical finding of their experiments was that the distribution of sand avalanches obeys a mathematical power law: The frequency of avalanches is inversely proportional to their size. Much like forest fires, the less frequent they are, the more catastrophic they are.
It’s the same with financial markets and the economy. We will experience years of quiet, interrupted by sudden avalanche. Years of slowly adding grains of sand can end abruptly — to our great surprise. Today in financial markets, many unsustainable trends have been building, and the coronavirus is merely the grain of sand that has tipped the sandpile.
It would be controversial to say that the stock market reaction to the coronavirus would not have been very big had we not been in the middle of an orgy of borrowing, speculation and euphoria. Of course, stocks would have fallen with coronavirus headlines, but it is unlikely they would have crashed the way they did without those exacerbating factors. Furthermore, without enormous underlying imbalances of high corporate debt, the prospect of poor sales would not have driven so many stocks to the verge of collapse.
This aspect of the current crisis has so far gone unreported. But not unmentioned. A few weeks before the crash, Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner, issued a dire warning, “I think there are lots of troubles coming,” he said at the Los Angeles-based Daily Journal annual shareholders meeting. “There’s too much wretched excess.”
Speculative euphoria was at record highs. As Sir John Templeton once said, “Bull markets are born in pessimism, grow on skepticism, mature on optimism and die on euphoria.” Investors were all on the same side of the boat, and it capsized, as happens in market crashes.
- Investors were buying a record amount of call options, or bets on stock prices rising further. According to SentimenTrader, by early February, “We’ve never seen this level of speculation before. Not even close.”
- Asset managers were betting in record quantities on stock futures, which are instruments to bet on underlying indices. Positioning in S&P futures hit a new high as of February 11.
- Hedge fund borrowing to buy stocks was at a 24-month high. They were highly confident markets would keep rising.
It was not a coincidence that there was such euphoria. Retail brokerages had announced over the past few months that they were eliminating all commissions on trading activity. Buying and selling stocks was suddenly “free”. It was like pouring truckloads of kerosene on a blaze. At Charles Schwab, daily average trading revenue exploded 74% after the change.
In scenes reminiscent of the dotcom boom, stocks were doubling overnight. Virgin Galactic Holdings, with no revenue, was worth over $6 billion dollars. Tesla, which has never made money selling cars, had a market capitalisation greater than any other car manufacturer. Its stock price quadrupled in less than three months. The market was so stretched that it would have crashed due to its own absurdity — with or without coronavirus.
The source of this “free” trading came from high frequency trading firms that are supposed to act as market makers, executing buys and sells for clients. Except that they are not really disinterested middlemen; they are running their own trading strategies to make money off retail investors. They execute the order flow of so called mom and pop investors and profit from these “dumb money” retail traders, in the words of Reuters.
The brokerages which sell retail orders receive hundreds of millions of dollars in return from the market makers. This means that, essentially the market makers are bribing the brokerages to profit from retail traders. For example, E*Trade received $188 million for selling its customer order flow last year, while TD Ameritrade made $135 million in the fourth quarter alone. The market makers are willing to pay so much because they almost never lose money — they trade fast and know where the market is going.
As Warren Buffet once said, “As they say in poker, ‘If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.’” Retail is the patsy.
Ken Griffin is the owner of Citadel Securities the biggest market-making firm, and his business is so profitable that he has gone on one of the greatest property buying sprees of all time. In 2015 Griffin paid $60 million for multiple condo units in Miami. He paid a U.S.-record $239.96 million penthouse in New York City, a $122 million mansion in London, and over $250 million in Palm Beach properties. Market making against “dumb money” is a fabulous business.
As the mania deflated in late February, though, mom and pop were abandoned. As the crash started, market makers pulled back and provided less liquidity. Retail investors were left high and dry. It is no wonder prices fell so quickly.
The high frequency market makers have since been pleading for more capital, and rumors swirl that many are experiencing financial difficulties. The illusion of benign market makers looking after retail investors has vanished.
There are echoes here of the old problems from the Lehman crisis; but they have mutated into different forms. During the Lehman crisis, mortgage bonds were pooled together, and insurance companies and pension funds bought them. Today, retail investors have been buying popular funds known as Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). These are easy to trade and cheap, but they have a fundamental problem. While ETFs have simple tickers like HYG, JNK, LQD that the average retail broker can trade on their screen, they are really holding hundreds of individual bonds inside of them that the investor is unaware of. These bonds are not easy to trade at a moment’s notice and are highly illiquid. But while the ETFs rose slowly and steadily, and investors poured more money in, lulled by a false sense of security.
While the ETF shares trade daily by the second, the underlying bonds are not easy to trade on their own. In the old days, insurers and pension funds bought these bonds, put them away in a drawer and never traded them. Today, though, investors expect instant liquidity from an illiquid investment. Liquidity mismatches are as old as banking itself (deposits and cash are highly liquid, while mortgages and loans are often completely illiquid); the problems of ETFs have been known all along, and the outcome has been inevitable.
As the coronavirus panic spread, the ETFs started trading at big discounts to the underlying value of the baskets of bonds. Markets are broken, and the gap is a sign of how illiquid the underlying holdings really are.
But these ETFs should never have been allowed in the first place. In the words of Christopher Wood, an investment strategist at Jefferies, “they commoditise equity and bond investing in an insidious way which ultimately creates a dangerous illusion of liquidity. True, ETFs are cheap. But so is fast food.”
While ETFs may appear technical and unrelated to the broader problems in markets, they share the same underlying problem. We have had the illusion of safety and liquidity for some time, and it is the coronavirus that has exposed the gaping holes in financial markets.
The coronavirus won’t kill companies. But it will expose their bloated, overleveraged balance sheets. Corporate debt in companies has never been higher and has now reached a record 47% of GDP.
Rather than encouraging moderation, central bankers and policy makers have been reloading the all you can eat buffet and persuading everyone to come back for third and fourth plates. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan have been buying corporate bonds, and central banks have kept funding at zero rates, which has encouraged a massive increase in indebtedness over the past decade.
Central bankers have long promoted high corporate leverage because they see it as a way to stimulate demand. Even now, many economists see no problems on the horizon. In the New York Times, Nicolas Veron, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, was openly mocking anyone advocating prudence, “The prophets of doom who thought that more debt was more risk have generally been wrong for the last 12 years.” Like most central bankers for the past decade, he argued, “More debt has enabled more growth, and even if you have a bit more volatility, it’s still net positive for the economy.”
But while debt has encouraged growth, it has also introduced much greater financial fragility, and so the growth is fundamentally unsound. We are now finding out that less debt, rather than lower rates is better for financial stability.
The global economy has gone mad
According to FactSet, 17% of the world’s 45,000 public companies haven’t generated enough cash to cover interest costs for at least the past three years. Debt has been used to finance more debt in a Ponzi fashion. The Bank for International Settlements looked at similar economic measures globally and found that the proportion of zombie companies — companies that earn too little even to make interest payments on their debt, and survive only by issuing new debt — is now higher than 12%, up from 4% in the mid 1990s.
Entire industries are zombies. The most indebted and bankruptcy prone industry has been the shale oil industry. In the last five years, over 200 oil producers filed for bankruptcy. We will see dozens if not hundreds more bankruptcies in the coming year. They were all moribund with oil at $50 dollars; they’re now guaranteed to go bust with oil at $30.
Only now, belatedly, are groups like the IMF waking up to the scale of the problem. In a recent report they warned that central banks have encouraged companies to pursue “financial risk-taking” and gorging on debt. “Corporate leverage can also amplify shocks, as corporate deleveraging could lead to depressed investment and higher unemployment, and corporate defaults could trigger losses and curb lending by banks,” the IMF wrote.
According to the IMF, a downturn only half as bad as 2008 would put $19 trillion of debt—nearly 40% of the corporate borrowing in major countries—at risk of default. The economic consequences would be horrific.
Corporate debt has doubled in the decade since the financial crisis, non-financial companies now owe a record $9.6 trillion in the United States. Globally, companies have issued $13 trillion in bonds. Much of the debt is Chinese, and their companies will struggle to repay any of it given the lockdown and the breakdown in supply chains.
We have not even begun to see the full extent of the corporate bond market meltdown. One little discussed problem is that a large proportion of the debt is “junk”, i.e. lowly rated. An astonishing $3.6 trillion in bonds are rated “BBB”, which is only one rating above junk. These borderline bonds account for 54% of investment-grade corporate bonds, up from 30% in 2008. When recessions happen, these will be downgraded and fall into junk category. Many funds that cannot own junk bonds will become forced sellers. We will see an absolute carnage of forced selling when the downgrades happen. Again, the illusion of safety and liquidity will be exposed by the coronavirus.
The average family is encouraged to save money for a rainy day, in case they are fired, or they face hardship. Saving some money is considered prudent. It’s quite different for business. Companies pocket the profits in the good years and ask Uncle Sam to bail them out in the bad years. Heads shareholders win, tails the taxpayer loses.
Industry can’t be blamed for not expecting an act of God or force majeure, but in the past 30 years we have seen two Gulf Wars, 9/11, SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, the Great Financial Crisis, etc. Saving for a rainy day should only be expected in cyclically sensitive industries.
But rather than do that, companies have been engaging in a rather more reckless strategy: borrowing to buyback shares. This may boost their Return on Equity (ROE), but it is not remotely prudent and makes their companies highly vulnerable. Borrowing to prop up their own shares means they have less on hand when hard times come.
According to Barons, “Stock buybacks within the S&P 500 index totaled an estimated $729 billion in 2019, down from a record $806 billion in 2018.”
And then along came coronavirus.
Of those industries that are now seeking a bailout, none has saved for a rainy day. Boeing, the poster boy of financial engineering and little real engineering, bought back over $100 billion worth of stock over the past few years. Today it is asking the government for a backstop to its borrowing.
According to Bloomberg, since 2010, the big US airlines have spent 96% of their free cash flow on stock buybacks. Today, they’re asking US taxpayers for $25 billion.
Airline CEOs have been handsomely paid while not saving for a rainy day. Delta Airline’s CEO Ed Bastian made the most, earning nearly $15 million in total compensation. American CEO Doug Parker $12 million, while United CEO Oscar Munoz earned total compensation last year of $10.5 million.
Corporate buyback culture is financial engineering not value creation
The cruise liners were little different. Over the past decade, Carnival Cruises paid $9.2 billion dollars in dividends to its billionaire owners and bought back $6.7 billion of shares. Royal Caribbean, which is a smaller company, paid out $2.7 billion in dividends and $1.6 billion in buybacks. And the smallest cruise liner Norwegian Cruise Line spent $1.3 billion on share buybacks.
For years, the cruise lines have triumphally proclaimed massive dividends and buybacks. For example, Carnival proudly announced in 2018. “In just three years, we have doubled our quarterly dividend and invested $3.5 billion in Carnival stock.”
Cruise lines have no real claim to any bailout. They pay no taxes due to a legal loophole, and all their vessels fly the flags of Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands. Furthermore, their owners tend to be billionaires with more than enough financial wherewithal to recapitalise their own businesses. Their shareholders are not among the 1%. They’re among the 0.01% of richest people in the world. In the worst-case scenario, the US has a highly efficient bankruptcy process. Bondholders of today become shareholders of tomorrow, and the companies can have a fresh start. Bondholders would only be more than happy to own the equity of these companies.
Banks, too, will inevitably be asking for bailouts before this is over. Banks have among the most aggressive stock buyback programs of any industry, with some repurchasing a staggering 10% of their outstanding shares annually. The eight biggest banks have announced they will suspend their share buybacks for the next two quarters due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy. In 2019, the top eight banks bought back $108 billion of their own stock.
If any good can come of the current crisis, perhaps it is exposing the irresponsibility of share buybacks and lack of prudence of most companies.
Monetary policy was one of the mechanisms employed in response to the last crisis, in the hope its effects would trickle down to the unwashed masses. Central banks bought vast amounts of treasuries and mortgage bonds to tighten financial spreads for banks and borrowers, but none of it went directly to households. It was all intermediated by the financial system and those who had access to capital.
The absurdity of the policy was perfectly illustrated recently in Europe. The European Central Bank has been busy buying bonds, and recently it bought bonds from LVMH, the luxury conglomerate owned by the world’s richest man Bernard Jean Étienne Arnault. The bonds had a negative yield, meaning that the ECB was paying LVMH to borrow. LVMH used the ECBs money to buy Tiffany.
If rates are now so low that billionaires are being paid to borrow, monetary policy has reached the limits of its usefulness.
Investors own stocks because their bond portfolios have acted like a hedge. Whenever stocks have fallen, bonds have gone up. In every downturn since the 1980s, central banks have cut rates, but most government bonds now have close to zero yields.
Extremely low interest rates and high valuations mean that any small change in interest rates will make portfolios much more volatile. If interest rates were to rise even slightly, they would vaporise many bond and stock portfolios. The margin of safety in bonds and stocks has diminished rapidly as rates have approached zero.
The world is now upside down. Many investors now buy stocks for current income and buy bonds to trade given how volatile they have become. Things cannot hold.
What do high frequency market making, share buybacks and high corporate debt have in common? They are supposedly tools to make trading, growth and returns on capital more efficient and cheaper, yet they have made the system more fragile and less resilient. Perhaps returns on capital and cheapness of market orders and ETFs are less important than stability and anti-fragility, i.e. designing systems that are robust in the face of stress.
We have seen the fragility in supply chains in the recent crisis.When the coronavirus struck in China, suddenly companies everywhere found out that outsourcing all their manufacturing and even medicines and face masks to China might be a problem.
Manufacturing has become less robust, more fragile, even if the returns on capital are better for those companies that outsource everything to China in pursuit of share buybacks.
The lessons of history are instructive. Although planting a single, genetically uniform crop might be more efficient and increase yields in the short run, low genetic diversity increases the risk of losing it all if a new pest is introduced or rainfall levels drop.
Have we been played by China?
The Irish Potato Famine is one such cautionary tale of the danger of monocultures, or only growing one crop. The potato first arrived in Ireland in 1588, and by the 1800s, the Irish had used it to solve the problem of feeding a growing population. They planted the “lumper” potato variety. All of these potatoes were genetically identical to one another, and it was vulnerable to the pathogen Phytophthora infestans. Because Ireland was so dependent on the potato, one in eight Irish people died of starvation in three years during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
The lessons from nature are dire. In the 1920s, the Gros Michel banana was almost wiped out by a fungus known as Fusarium cubense, and banana shortages became a growing problem. The widespread planting of a single corn variety contributed to the loss of over a billion dollars worth of corn in 1970, when a fungus hit the US crop. In the 1980s, dependence upon a single type of grapevine root forced California grape growers to replant approximately two million acres of vines when the pest phylloxera attacked.
Today, China is manufacturing’s monoculture.
Against this dangerous backdrop of volatility and uncertainty, the coronavirus will now achieve the impossible. For the past few years, two ideas have floated around on the political fringes of the Left, but they have been dead on arrival. No one has seriously thought they might become government policy. Today, the Left and Right in the United States and Europe are embracing them.
Andrew Yang, a former tech executive from New York, ran a quixotic, obscure presidential campaign in the United States based on the idea that every citizen should receive a Universal Basic Income (UBI). He advocated a “Freedom Dividend”. This would be a form of universal basic income that would provide a monthly stipend of $1,000 for all Americans between the ages of 18 and 64.
Today, Trump, Pelosi, Romney and others are fully backing Yang’s idea. Respected think tanks such Brookings and Chatham House have advocated UBI. But once it is implemented, there will be no going back. Handouts will start small and grow.
The other big idea has come from Stephanie Kelton, who advised Bernie Sanders and advocates for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Kelton argues that in any country with its own currency, budget deficits don’t matter unless they cause inflation. The government can pay for what it needs by simply printing more money — no reason to borrow by issuing bonds. Helicopter money.
Could free cash fix the economy?
Her ideas were widely criticised across the Left and Right, ranging from Paul Krugman to Warren Buffett to Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell.
Yet today, the two ideas have come together. There are no atheists in foxholes. Even libertarians on Twitter are now calling for government intervention. Investors and politicians of all stripes are calling for UBI financed by MMT money issuing.
This is an epochal turning point, a great reset. The coronavirus is the grain of sand that will cause the avalanche.
For once the taboo of printing money to pay citizens is broken, we can never go back. Governments will spend money with few constraints, aided by central banks. It’s a strategy that has not worked well in emerging markets, and it did not work well in the 1970s — which has conveniently been forgotten.
Undoubtedly, the government must compensate citizens from mandatory curfews and quarantines. The short-term impacts of the lockdowns must be mitigated, but temporary policies must not become permanent political expedients.
That’s why the danger is not today or even a year from now, it’s five to ten years away, when the crisis has past, along with the reason for UBI and monetary easing. What politican will be disciplined enough to stop spending? What central banker will raise rates when it is unpopular to do so?
Today we are reaping the whirlwind of the last financial crisis. Rather than pursue lower leverage, less debt and more robust institutions and more responsible corporate behaviour, investors and companies instead learned that they would be bailed out in a crisis.
Central banks became enamored of their own success as fire fighters, and they have busily been trying to put out fires by
- encouraging reckless behaviour,
- prizing low volatility above a robust financial system,
- viewing “risk management” as preferring no financial corrections ever.
They should accept that sometimes putting out every single fire creates greater conflagrations. They should be humbler about the extent and limits of their power.
It looks like they’re about to learn the hard way.
Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.
On a third-down play last season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith stood in shotgun formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. As he called his signals, a Houston Texans cornerback, Kareem Jackson, suddenly sprinted forward from a position four yards behind the defensive line.
Jackson’s timing was perfect. The ball was snapped. The Texans’ left defensive end, J.J. Watt, sprinted to the outside, taking the Redskins’ right tackle with him. The defensive tackle on Watt’s right rushed to the inside, taking the offensive right guard with him. The result was a huge gap in the Redskins’ line, through which Jackson could run unblocked. He quickly sacked Smith, for a loss of 13 yards.
Special-teams players began taking the field for the punt. But Smith didn’t get up. He rolled flat onto his back, pulled off his helmet, and covered his face with his hands. He was clearly in excruciating pain. The slow-motion replay immediately showed the television audience why: As Smith was tackled, his right leg had buckled sharply above the ankle, with his foot rotating significantly away from any direction in which a human foot ought to point. The play-by-play announcer Greg Gumbel said grimly, “We’ll be back,” and the network abruptly cut to a break. There was nothing more to say.
Even without the benefit of medical training, and even without conducting a physical examination, viewers knew what had happened. They may not have known what the bones were called or what treatment would be required, but they knew more than enough, and they knew what really mattered: Smith had broken his leg, very badly. They knew that even if they were not orthopedists, did not have a medical degree, and had never cracked open a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. They could tell—they were certain—something was seriously wrong.
And so it is, or ought to be, with Donald Trump. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need to be a mental-health professional to see that something’s very seriously off with Trump—particularly after nearly three years of watching his erratic and abnormal behavior in the White House. Questions about Trump’s psychological stability have mounted throughout his presidency. But those questions have been coming even more frequently amid a recent escalation in Trump’s bizarre behavior, as the pressures of his upcoming reelection campaign, a possibly deteriorating economy, and now a full-blown impeachment inquiry have mounted. And the questioners have included those who have worked most closely with him.
No president in recent memory—and likely no president ever—has prompted more discussion about his mental stability and connection with reality. Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly is said to have described him as “unhinged,” and “off the rails,” and to have called the White House “Crazytown” because of Trump’s unbalanced state. Trump’s former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, once reportedly discussed recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, the Constitution’s provision addressing presidential disability, including mental disability.
Rosenstein denies that claim, but it is not the only such account. A senior administration official, writing anonymously in The New York Times last September, described how, “given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment”—but “no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” And NBC News last week quoted someone familiar with current discussions in the White House warning that there is “increasing wariness that, as this impeachment inquiry drags out, the likelihood increases that the president could respond erratically and become ‘unmanageable.’” In September, a former White House official offered a similar assessment to a Business Insider reporter: “No one knows what to expect from him anymore,” because “his mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know his entire schedule gets tossed out the window. He’s losing his shit.”Even a major investment bank has gotten into the mix, albeit in a roundabout way: JPMorgan Chase has created a “Volfefe Index”—named after Trump’s bizarre May 2017 “covfefe” tweet—designed to quantify the effect that Trump’s impulsive tweets have on interest-rate volatility. The bank’s press release understatedly observed that its “volatility fair value model” shows that “the president’s remarks on this social media platform [have] played a statistically significant role in elevating implied volatility.” The president isn’t simply volatile and erratic, however—he’s also incapable of consistently telling the truth. Those who work closely with him, and who aren’t in denial, must deal with Trump’s lying about serious matters virtually every day. But as one former official put it, they “are used to the president saying things that aren’t true,” and have inured themselves to it. Trump’s own former communications director Anthony Scaramucci has on multiple occasions described Trump as a liar, once saying, “We … know he’s telling lies,” so “if you want me to say he’s a liar, I’m happy to say he’s a liar.” He went on to address Trump directly: “You should probably dial down the lying because you don’t need to … So dial that down, and you’ll be doing a lot better.”That was good advice, but clearly wishful thinking. Trump simply can’t dial down the lying, or turn it off—even, his own attorneys suggest, when false statements may be punished as crimes. A lawyer who has represented him in business disputes once told me that Trump couldn’t sensibly be allowed to speak with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, because Trump would “lie his ass off”—in effect, that Trump simply wasn’t capable of telling the truth, about anything, and that if he ever spoke to a prosecutor, he’d talk himself into jail.Trump’s lawyers in the Russia investigation clearly agreed: As Bob Woodward recounts at length in his book Fear, members of Trump’s criminal-defense team fought both Trump and Mueller tooth and nail to keep Trump from being interviewed by the Office of Special Counsel. A practice testimonial session ended with Trump spouting wild, baseless assertions in a rage. Woodward quotes Trump’s outside counsel John Dowd as saying that Trump “just made something up” in response to one question. “That’s his nature.” Woodward also recounts Dowd’s thinking when he argued to Trump that the president was “not really capable” of answering Mueller’s questions face to face. Dowd had “to dress it up as much as possible, to say, it’s not your fault … He could not say what he knew was true: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’ That was the problem.” (Dowd disputes this account.) Which raises the question: If Trump can’t tell the truth even when it counts most, with legal jeopardy on the line and lawyers there to help prepare him, is he able to apprehend the truth at all? Behavior like this is unusual, a point that journalists across the political spectrum have made. “This is not normal,” Megan McArdle wrote in late August. “And I don’t mean that as in, ‘Trump is violating the shibboleths of the Washington establishment.’ I mean that as in, ‘This is not normal for a functioning adult.’” James Fallows observed, also in August, that Trump is having “episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting,” and that if he “were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role.”
Trump’s erratic behavior has long been the subject of political criticism, late-night-television jokes, and even speculation about whether it’s part of some incomprehensible, multidimensional strategic game. But it’s relevant to whether he’s fit for the office he holds. Simply put, Trump’s ingrained and extreme behavioral characteristics make it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires. To see why first requires a look at what the Constitution demands of a president, and then an examination of how Trump’s behavioral characteristics preclude his ability to fulfill those demands.
The Framers of the Constitution expected the presidency to be occupied by special individuals, selfless people of the highest character and ability. They intended the Electoral College to be a truly deliberative body, not the largely ceremonial institution it has become today. Because the Electoral College, unlike Congress and the state legislatures, wouldn’t be a permanent body, and because it involved diffuse selections made in the various states, they hoped it would help avoid “cabal, intrigue and corruption,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in “Federalist No. 68,” and deter interference from “these most deadly adversaries of republican government,” especially “from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”
Though the Constitution’s drafters could hardly have foreseen how the system would evolve, they certainly knew the kind of person they wanted it to produce. “The process of election affords a moral certainty,” Hamilton wrote, “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” might suffice for someone to be elected to the governorship of a state, but not the presidency. Election would “require other talents, and a different kind of merit,” to gain “the esteem and confidence of the whole Union,” or enough of it to win the presidency. As a result, there would be “a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” This was the Framers’ goal in designing the system that would make “the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”Hamilton’s use of the word trust in The Federalist Papers to describe the presidency was no accident. The Framers intended that the president “be like a fiduciary, who must pursue the public interest in good faith republican fashion rather than pursuing his self-interest, and who must diligently and steadily execute Congress’s commands,” as a recent Harvard Law Review article puts it. The concept is akin to the law of private fiduciaries, which governs trustees of trusts and directors and officers of corporations, an area that has been central to my legal practice as a corporate litigator. “Indeed,” as the Harvard Law Review article explains, “one might argue that what presents to us as private fiduciary law today had some of its genesis in the law of public officeholding.” The overarching principle is that a fiduciary—say, the CEO of a corporation—when acting on behalf of a corporation, has to act in the corporation’s best interests. Likewise, a trustee of a trust must use the assets for the benefit of the beneficiary, and not himself (a fundamental rule, incidentally, that Trump apparently couldn’t adhere to with his own charitable foundation). In providing for a national chief executive, the Framers incorporated the very similar law of public officeholding into his duties in two places in the Constitution—in Article II, Section 3 (the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”), and in Article II, Section 1, Clause 8, which requires the president to “solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” That language—particularly the words faithfully execute—was in 1787 “very commonly associated with the performance of public and private offices,” the Harvard Law Review article points out, and “anyone experienced in law or government” at that time would have recognized what it meant, “because it was so basic to … the law of executive officeholding.” In a nutshell, while carrying out his official duties, a president has to put the country, not himself, first; he must faithfully follow and enforce the law; and he must act with the utmost care in doing all that.
But can trump do all that? Does his personality allow him to? Answering those questions doesn’t require mental-health expertise, nor does it really require a diagnosis. You can make the argument for Trump’s unfitness without assessing his mental health: Like James Fallows, for example, you could just ask whether Trump would have been allowed to retain any other job in light of his bizarre conduct. At the same time, the presence of a mental disorder or disturbance doesn’t necessarily translate to incapacity; to suggest otherwise would unfairly stigmatize tens of millions of Americans. Someone battling a serious psychological ailment can unquestionably function well, and even nobly, in high public office—including as president. The country, in fact, has seen it: Abraham Lincoln endured “no mere case of the blues”; he suffered such “terrible melancholly,” said one of his contemporaries, that “he never dare[d] carry a knife in his pocket.” Many historians speculate that he suffered from what we would now diagnose as clinical depression. Yet Lincoln’s mechanisms for coping with his lifelong affliction may have supplied him with the vision, the creativity, and the moral fortitude to save the nation, to achieve for it a new birth of freedom. As a writer in this magazine once put it: Lincoln’s “political vision drew power from personal experience … Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition. And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society.”
More than a diagnosis, what truly matters, as Lincoln’s case shows, is the president’s behavioral characteristics and personality traits. And understanding how people behave and think is not the sole province of professionals; we all do it every day, with family members, co-workers, and others. Nevertheless, how the mental-health community goes about categorizing those characteristics and traits can provide helpful guidance to laypeople by structuring our thinking about them.And that’s where the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes into play. The DSM, now in its fifth edition, “contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders,” and serves as the country’s “authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.” What’s useful for nonprofessionals is that, for the most part, it’s written in plain English, and its criteria consist largely of observable behaviors—words and actions.That’s especially true of its criteria for personality disorders—they don’t require a person to lie on a couch and confess his or her innermost thoughts. They turn on how a person behaves in the wild, so to speak. If anything, a patient’s confessions in an office may disadvantage a clinician, because patients can and do conceal from clinicians central aspects of their true selves. If you can observe people going about their everyday business, you’ll know a lot more about how they act and behave. And Donald Trump, as president of the United States, is probably the most observable and observed person in the world. I’ve personally met and spoken with him only a few times, but anyone who knows him will tell you that Trump, in a way, has no facade: What you see of him publicly is what you get all the time, although you may get more of it in private. Any intelligent person who watches Trump closely on television, and pays careful attention to his words on Twitter and in the press, should be able to tell you as much about his behavior as a mental-health professional could.One scholarly paper has suggested that accounts of a person’s behavior from laypeople who observe him might be more accurate than information from a clinical interview, and that this is especially true when considering two personality disorders in particular—what the DSM calls narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These two disorders just happen to be the ones that have most commonly been ascribed to Trump by mental-health professionals over the past four years. Of these two disorders, the more commonly discussed when it comes to Trump is narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD—pathological narcissism. It’s also more important in considering Trump’s fitness for office, because it touches directly upon whether Trump has the capacity to put anyone’s interests—including the country’s and the Constitution’s—above his own.
Narcissus, the greek mythological figure, was a boy who fell so in love with his own reflection in a pool of water that, according to one version of the story, he jumped in and drowned. Psychiatrists and psychologists now use the term narcissism to describe feelings of self-importance and self-love. As Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively on the subject, has explained, narcissism is a trait that, to some extent, all human beings have: “the drive to feel special, to stand out from … other[s] … to feel exceptional or unique.”
A certain amount of narcissism is healthy, and helpful—it brings with it confidence, optimism, and boldness. Someone with more than an average amount of narcissism may be called a narcissist. Many politicians, and many celebrities, could be considered narcissists; presidents seem especially likely to “rank high in extroverted narcissism,” Malkin writes, although they have varied greatly in the degree of their narcissism. But extreme narcissism can be pathological, an illness—and potentially a danger, as it was for Narcissus. “Pathological narcissism begins when people become so addicted to feeling special that, just like with any drug, they’ll do anything to get their ‘high,’ including lie, steal, cheat, betray, and even hurt those closest to them,” Malkin says.
The “fundamental life goal” of an extreme narcissist “is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see,” the psychologist Dan P. McAdams wrote in The Atlantic. To many mental-health professionals, Donald Trump provides a perfect example of such extreme, pathological narcissism: One clinical psychologist told Vanity Fair that he considers Trump such a “classic” pathological narcissist that he is actually “archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of the characteristics of the disorder he displays. “Otherwise,” this clinician explained, “I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.” Another clinical psychologist said that Trump displays “textbook narcissistic personality disorder.”
Not everyone agrees that Trump meets the diagnostic criteria for NPD. Allen Frances, a psychiatrist who helped write the disorder’s entry in the DSM, has argued that a mental “disturbance” becomes a “disorder” only when, as the DSMputs it, the affliction “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” The idea behind this threshold is to separate “mild forms” of problems from pathological ones, “in the absence of clear biological markers or clinically useful measurements of severity for many mental disorders.”In Frances’s view, that dividing line disqualifies Trump from having a disorder, particularly NPD. Trump “may be a world-class narcissist,” he has written, “but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder. Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.”But from the perspective of the public at large, the debate over whether Trump meets the clinical diagnostic criteria for NPD—or whether psychiatrists can and should answer that question without directly examining him—is beside the point. The goal of a diagnosis is to help a clinician guide treatment. The question facing the public is very different: Does the president of the United States exhibit a consistent pattern of behavior that suggests he is incapable of properly discharging the duties of his office? Even Trump’s own allies recognize the degree of his narcissism. When he launched racist attacks on four congresswomen of color, Senator Lindsey Graham explained, “That’s just the way he is. It’s more narcissism than anything else.” So, too, do skeptics of assigning a clinical diagnosis. “No one is denying,” Frances told Rolling Stone, “that he is as narcissistic an individual as one is ever likely to encounter.” The president’s exceptional narcissism is his defining characteristic—and understanding that is crucial to evaluating his fitness for office.The DSM-5 describes its conception of pathological narcissism this way: “The essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” The manual sets out nine diagnostic criteria that are indicative of the disorder, but only five of the nine need be present for a diagnosis of NPD to be made. Here are the nine:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
These criteria are accompanied by explanatory notes that seem relevant here: “Vulnerability in self-esteem makes individuals with narcissistic personality disorder very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat.” And “criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.” The manual warns, moreover, that “interpersonal relations are typically impaired because of problems derived from entitlement, the need for admiration, and the relative disregard for the sensitivities of others.” And, the DSM-5 adds, “though overweening ambition and confidence may lead to high achievement, performance may be disrupted because of intolerance of criticism or defeat.”
The diagnostic criteria offer a useful framework for understanding the most remarkable features of Donald Trump’s personality, and of his presidency. (1) Exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements? (2) Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance? (3) Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and should only associate with other special or high-status people? That’s Trump, to a T. As Trump himself might put it, he exaggerates accomplishments better than anyone. In July, he described himself in a tweet as “so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!” (Exclamation point his, of course.) That “stable genius” self-description is one that Trump has repeated over and over again—even though he has trouble with spelling, doesn’t know the difference between a hyphen and an apostrophe, doesn’t appear to understand fractions, needs basic geography lessons, speaks at the level of a fourth grader, and engages in “serial misuse of public language” and “cannot write sentences,” and even though members of his own administration have variously considered him to be a “moron,” an “idiot,” a “dope,” “dumb as shit,” and a person with the intelligence of a “kindergartener” or a “fifth or sixth grader” or an “11-year-old child.” Trump wants everyone to know: He’s “the super genius of all time,” one of “the smartest people anywhere in the world.” Not only that, but he considers himself a hero of sorts. He avoided military service, yet claims he would have run, unarmed, into a school during a mass shooting. Speaking to a group of emergency medical workers who had lost friends and colleagues on 9/11, he claimed, falsely, to have “spent a lot of time down there with you,” while generously allowing that “I’m not considering myself a first responder.” He has spoken, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, about awarding himself the Medal of Honor. Trump claims to be an expert—the world’s greatest—in anything and everything. As one video mash-up shows, Trump has at various times claimed—in all seriousness—that no one knows more than he does about:
- campaign finance,
- work visas,
- the Islamic State,
- “things” generally,
- environmental-impact statements,
- renewable energy,
- nuclear weapons,
- tax law,
- currency devaluation,
- “the system,”
- debt, and
Trump described his admission as a transfer student into Wharton’s undergraduate program as “super genius stuff,” even though he didn’t strike the admissions officer who approved his candidacy as a “genius,” let alone a “super genius”; Trump claimed to have “heard I was first in my class” at Wharton, despite the fact that his name didn’t appear on the dean’s list there, or in the commencement program’s list of graduates receiving honors. And Trump, through an invented spokesman, even lied his way onto the Forbes 400.
(4) Requires excessive admiration? Last Thanksgiving, Trump was asked what he was most thankful for. His answer: himself, of course. A number of years ago, he made a video for Forbes in which he interviewed two of his children. The interview topic: how great they thought Donald Trump was. When his own father died, in 1999, Trump gave one of the eulogies. As Alan Marcus, a former Trump adviser, recounted the story to Timothy O’Brien, he began “more or less like this: ‘I was in my Trump Tower apartment reading about how I was having the greatest year in my career in The New York Times when the security desk called to say my brother Robert was coming upstairs’”—an introductory line that provoked “‘an audible gasp’ from mourners stunned by Trump’s self-regard.” According to a Rolling Stone article, other eulogists spoke about the deceased, but Trump “used the time to talk about his own accomplishments and to make it clear that, in his mind, his father’s best achievement was producing him, Donald.” The author of a book about the Trump family described the funeral as one that “wasn’t about Fred Trump,” but rather “was an opportunity to do some brand burnishing by Donald, for Donald. Throughout his remarks, the first-person singular pronouns—I and me and mine—far outnumbered he and his. Even at his own father’s funeral, Donald Trump couldn’t cede the limelight.”
And he still can’t. Here’s a man who holds rallies with no elections in sight, so that he can bask in his supporters’ cheers; even when elections are near, and he’s supposed to be helping other candidates, he consistently keeps the focus on himself. He loves to watch replays of himself at the rallies, and “luxuriates in the moments he believes are evidence of his brilliance.” In July, after his controversial, publicly funded, campaign-style Independence Day celebration, Trump tweeted, “Our Country is the envy of the World. Thank you, Mr. President!” In February 2017, Trump was given a private tour of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, and paused in front of an exhibit on the Dutch role in the slave trade. He turned to the museum’s director and said, “You know, they love me in the Netherlands.”(5) A sense of entitlement? (9) Arrogant, haughty behaviors? Trump is the man who, on the infamous Access Hollywood tape, said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything you want”—including grabbing women by their genitals. He’s the man who also once said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”(8) Envious of others? Here’s a man so unable to stand the praise received by a respected war hero and statesman, Senator John McCain, that he has continued to attack McCain months after McCain’s death; his jealousy led White House staff to direct the Pentagon to keep a destroyer called the USS John S. McCain out of Trump’s line of sight during a presidential visit to an American naval base in Japan. And Trump, despite being president, still seems envious of President Barack Obama. (6) Interpersonally exploitative? Just watch the Access Hollywood tape, or ask any of the hundreds of contractors and employees Trump the businessman allegedly stiffed, or speak with any of the two dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, or rape. (Trump has denied all their claims.) Finally, (7) Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others? One of the most striking aspects of Trump’s personality is his utter and complete lack of empathy. By empathy, psychologists and psychiatrists mean the ability to understand or relate to what someone else is experiencing—the capacity to envision someone else’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.The notorious lawyer and fixer Roy Cohn, who once counseled Trump, said that “Donald pisses ice water,” and indeed, examples of Trump’s utter lack of normal human empathy abound. Trump himself has told the story of a charity ball—an “incredible ball”—he once held at Mar-a-Lago for the Red Cross. “So what happens is, this guy falls off right on his face, hits his head, and I thought he died … His wife is screaming—she’s sitting right next to him, and she’s screaming.” By his own account, Trump’s concern wasn’t the poor man’s well-being or his wife’s. It was the bloody mess on his expensive floor. “You know, beautiful marble floor, didn’t look like it. It changed color. Became very red … I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s disgusting,’ and I turned away. I couldn’t, you know, he was right in front of me and I turned away.” Trump describes himself as saying, after the injured man was hauled away on a makeshift stretcher, “‘Get that blood cleaned up! It’s disgusting!’ The next day, I forgot to call [the man] to say is he okay … It’s just not my thing.” And then there was 9/11. Trump gave an extraordinary call-in interview to a metropolitan–New York television station just hours after the Twin Towers collapsed. He was asked whether one of his downtown buildings, 40 Wall Street, had suffered any damage. Trump’s immediate response was to brag about the building’s brand-new ranking among New York skyscrapers: “40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and it was actually, before the World Trade Center, was the tallest—and then when they built the World Trade Center, it became known as the second-tallest. And now it’s the tallest.” (This wasn’t even true—a building a block away from Trump’s, 70 Pine Street, was a little taller.)That human empathy isn’t Trump’s thing has been demonstrated time and again during his presidency as well. In October 2017, he reportedly told the widow of a serviceman killed in action “something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’” (Trump later claimed that this account was “fabricated … Sad!” and that “I have proof,” but of course he never produced any.) On a less macabre note, on Christmas Eve last year, Trump took calls on NORAD’s Santa Tracker phone line, which children call to find out where Santa Claus is as he makes his rounds. Trump asked a 7-year-old girl from South Carolina: “Are you still a believer in Santa? Because at 7, it’s marginal, right?” According to Woodward’s Fear, when Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, resigned, he found out about his replacement when he saw a tweet from Trump saying that he had appointed John Kelly as the new chief of staff—moments after Priebus and Trump had spoken about waiting to announce the news. Kelly was appalled, and that night apologetically told Priebus, “I’d never do this to you. I’d never been offered this job until the tweet came out. I would have told you.” His predecessor, though, wasn’t surprised. “It made no sense, Priebus realized, unless you understood … ‘The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way.’”Priebus apparently isn’t the only White House staffer to have learned this; in February 2018, when Trump met with survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and their loved ones, his communications aide actually gave him a note card that made clear that “the president needed to be reminded to show compassion and understanding to traumatized survivors,” as The New York Times put it. The empathy cheat sheet contained a reminder to say such things as “I hear you.” One aide to President Obama told the Times that had she and her colleagues given their boss such a reminder card, “he would have looked at us like we were crazy people.”Most recently, in July of this year, in a stunning scene captured on video, Trump met in the Oval Office with the human-rights activist Nadia Murad, a Yazidi Iraqi who had been captured, raped, and tortured by the Islamic State, and had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for speaking out about the plight of the Yazidis and other victims of genocide and religious persecution. Her voice breaking, she implored the president of the United States to help her people return safely to Iraq. Trump could barely look her in the eye. She told him that ISIS had murdered her mother and six brothers. Trump, apparently not paying much attention, asked, “Where are they now?” “They killed them,” she said once again. “They are in the mass grave in Sinjar, and I’m still fighting just to live in safety.” Trump, who has publicly said that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, seemed interested in the conversation only at the end, when he asked Murad about why she won the prize. Another equally unforgettable video documents Trump visiting Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria, tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of victims. He later responded vindictively to charges that his administration hadn’t done enough to help the island, prompting the mayor of San Juan to observe that Trump had “augmented” Puerto Rico’s “devastating human crisis … because he made it about himself, not about saving our lives,” and because “when expected to show empathy he showed disdain and lack of respect.”In October 2018, a gunman burst into Shabbat morning services at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh and sprayed worshippers with semiautomatic-rifle and pistol fire. Eleven people died. Three days later, the president and first lady visited the community, and the day after that, the first thing Trump tweeted about the visit was this: “Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh. The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite—Disgraceful!” Similarly, after gunmen killed dozens in the span of a single August weekend in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Trump went on a one-day sympathy tour that was marked by attacks on his hosts and on political enemies, and an obsessive focus on himself.
Yet pathological narcissism is not the only personality disorder that Trump’s behavior clearly indicates. A second disorder also frequently ascribed to Trump by professionals is sociopathy—what the DSM-5calls antisocial personality disorder. As described by Lance Dodes, a former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “sociopathy is among the most severe mental disturbances.” Central to sociopathy is a complete lack of empathy—along with “an absence of guilt.” Sociopaths engage in “intentional manipulation, and controlling or even sadistically harming others for personal power or gratification. People with sociopathic traits have a flaw in the basic nature of human beings … They are lacking an essential part of being human.” For its part, the DSM-5 states that the “essential feature of antisocial personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”
The question of whether Trump can serve as a national fiduciary turns more on his narcissistic tendencies than his sociopathic ones, but Trump’s sociopathic characteristics sufficiently intertwine with his narcissistic ones that they deserve mention here. These include, to quote the DSM-5, “deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others.” Trump’s deceitfulness—his lying—has become the stuff of legend; journalists track his “false and misleading claims” as president by the thousands upon thousands. Aliases? For years, Trump would call journalists while posing as imaginary PR men, “John Barron” and “John Miller,” so that he could plant false stories about being wealthy, brilliant, and sexually accomplished. Trump was, and remains, a con artist: Think of Trump University, which even Trump’s own employees described as a scam (and which sparked a lawsuit that resulted in a $25 million settlement, although with no admission of wrongdoing). There’s ACN, an alleged Ponzi scheme Trump promoted, and from which he made millions (he, his company, and his family deny the allegations of fraud); and the border wall that hasn’t been built and that Mexico’s never going to pay for. Trump is a pathological liar if ever there was one. Other criteria for antisocial personality disorder include
- “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”;
- “impulsivity or failure to plan ahead”; and
- “lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.” Check, check, and check:
As for social norms and lawful behaviors, there are all the accusations of sexual misconduct. Also relevant is what the Mueller report says about Trump’s efforts to derail the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the last presidential election. And given what federal prosecutors in New York said about his role in directing hush money to be paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels, a strong case can be made that Trump has committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice and criminal violations of campaign-finance laws. Were he not president, and were it not for two Justice Department opinions holding that a sitting president cannot be indicted, he might well be facing criminal charges now.
As for impulsivity, that essentially describes what gets him into trouble most: It was his “impulsiveness—actually, total recklessness”—that came close to destroying him in the 1980s. In “response to his surging celebrity,” Trump, “acquisitive to the point of recklessness,” engaged in “a series of manic, ill-advised ventures” that “nearly did him in,” Politico reported. His impulsiveness has buffeted his presidency as well: Think of his first ordering, then calling off, the bombing of Iran in June, and his aborted meeting with the Taliban at Camp David just last month. And remember the racist tweets he sent in mid-July in which he told four nonwhite representatives—three of whom were born in the United States—to “go back” to the “countries” they “originally came from.” Those tweets were apparently triggered by something he saw on TV.
Or consider his impetuous, unvetted personnel decisions, such as his failed selection of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician, as Veterans Affairs secretary, and his choice of Representative John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence. It was just so on The Apprentice, where editors and producers found that “Trump was frequently unprepared” for tapings, and frequently fired strong contestants “on a whim,” which required them “to ‘reverse engineer’ the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage … in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.” One editor remarked that he found “it strangely validating that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.” Trump sees none of this as a problem; to the contrary, he prides himself on following his instincts, once telling an interviewer: “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody’s brain can ever tell me.”
And lack of remorse? That’s a hallmark of sociopathy, and goes hand in hand with a lack of human conscience. In a narcissistic sociopath, it’s intertwined with a lack of empathy. Trump hardly ever shows remorse, or apologizes, for anything. The one exception: With his presidential candidacy on the line in early October 2016, Trump expressed regret for the Access Hollywood video. But within weeks, almost as soon as the campaign was over, Trump began claiming, to multiple people, that the video may have been doctored—a preposterous lie, especially since he had acknowledged that the voice was his, others had confirmed this as well, and there was no evidence of tampering. “We don’t think that was my voice,” he said to a senator. The “we,” no doubt, was a lie as well.
Again, as with his narcissism, all this evidence of Trump’s sociopathy only begins to tell the tale. The bottom line is that this is a man who, over and over and over again, has indifferently mused about the possibility of killing 10 million or so people in Afghanistan to end the war there, while allowing that “I’m not looking to kill 10 million people”—as though this were a realistic but merely less preferred option than, say, raising import tariffs on chewing gum. As a 1997 profile of Trump in The New Yorker put it, Trump has “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”
In a way, Trump’s sociopathic tendencies are simply an extension of his extreme narcissism. Take the pathological lying. Extreme narcissists aren’t necessarily pathological liars, but they can be, and when they are, the lying supports the narcissism. As Lance Dodes has put it, “People like Donald Trump who have severe narcissistic disturbances can’t tolerate being criticized, so the more they are challenged in this essential way, the more out of control they become.” In particular, “They change reality to suit themselves in their own mind.” Although Trump “lies because of his sociopathic tendencies,” telling falsehoods to fool others, Dodes argues, he also lies to himself, to protect himself from narcissistic injury. And so Donald Trump has lied about
- his net worth,
- the size of the crowd at his inauguration, and
- supposed voter fraud in the 2016 election.
The latter kind of lying, Dodes says, “is in a way more serious,” because it can indicate “a loose grip on reality”—and it may well tell us where Trump is headed in the face of impeachment hearings. Lying to prevent narcissistic injury can metastasize to a more significant loss of touch with reality. As Craig Malkin puts it, when pathological narcissists “can’t let go of their need to be admired or recognized, they have to bend or invent a reality in which they remain special,” and they “can lose touch with reality in subtle ways that become extremely dangerous over time.” They can become “dangerously psychotic,” and “it’s just not always obvious until it’s too late.”
Experts haven’t suggested that Trump is psychotic, but many have contended that his narcissism and sociopathy are so inordinate that he fits the bill for “malignant narcissism.” Malignant narcissism isn’t recognized as an official diagnosis; it’s a descriptive term coined by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and expanded upon by another psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg, to refer to an extreme mix of narcissism and sociopathy, with a degree of paranoia and sadism mixed in. One psychoanalyst explains that “the malignant narcissist is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioural regulation with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.” In the view of some in the mental-health community, such as John Gartner, Trump “exhibits all four” components of malignant narcissism: “narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personality and sadism.”
Mental-health professionals have raised a variety of other concerns about Trump’s mental state; the last worth specifically mentioning here is the possibility that, apart from any personality disorder, he may be suffering cognitive decline. This is a serious matter: Trump seems to be continually slurring words, and recently misread teleprompters to say that the Continental Army secured airports during the American Revolutionary War, and to say that the shooting in Dayton had occurred in Toledo. His overall level of articulateness today doesn’t come close to what he exhibits in decades-old television clips. But that could be caused by ordinary age-related decline, stress, or other factors; to know whether something else is going on, according to experts, would require a full neuropsychological work-up, of the kind that Trump hasn’t yet had and, one supposes, isn’t about to agree to.
But even that doesn’t exhaust all the mental-health issues possibly indicated by Trump’s behavior. His “mental state,” according to Justin A. Frank, a former clinical professor of psychiatry and physician who wrote a book about Trump’s psychology, “include[s] so many psychic afflictions” that a “working knowledge of psychiatric disorders is essential to understanding Trump.” Indeed, as Gartner puts it: “There are a lot of things wrong with him—and, together, they are a scary witch’s brew.”
This is a lot to digest. It would take entire books to catalog all of Trump’s behavioral abnormalities and try to explain them—some of which have already been written. But when you line up what the Framers expected of a president with all that we know about Donald Trump, his unfitness becomes obvious. The question is whether he can possibly act as a public fiduciary for the nation’s highest public trust. To borrow from the Harvard Law Review article, can he follow the “proscriptions against profit, bad faith, and self-dealing,” manifest “a strong concern about avoiding ultra vires action” (that is, action exceeding the president’s legal authority), and maintain “a duty of diligence and carefulness”? Given that Trump displays the extreme behavioral characteristics of a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, or a malignant narcissist—take your pick—it’s clear that he can’t.
To act as a fiduciary requires you to put someone else’s interests above your own, and Trump’s personality makes it impossible for him to do that. No president before him, at least in recent memory, has ever displayed such obsessive self-regard. For Trump, Trump always comes first. He places his interests over everyone else’s—including those of the nation whose laws he swore to faithfully execute. That’s not consistent with the duties of the president, whether considered from the standpoint of constitutional law or psychology.
Indeed, Trump’s view of his presidential powers can only be described as profoundly narcissistic, and his narcissism has compelled him to disregard the Framers’ vision of his constitutional duties in every respect. Bad faith? Trump has repeatedly used executive powers, threatened to use executive powers, or expressed the view that executive powers should be used to advance his personal interests and punish his political opponents. Thus, for example, he has
- placed restrictions on disaster aid to Puerto Rico in apparent response to criticism of him and his administration;
- directed the Pentagon to reconsider whether to award a $10 billion contract to Amazon because its CEO owns The Washington Post, whose coverage he doesn’t like;
- threatened to take “regulatory and legislative” action against Facebook, Google, and Twitter, because of their supposed “terrible bias” against him;
- tried to get White House staff to tell the Justice Department to try to block the merger between AT&T and Time Warner in order to punish CNN for its coverage;
- attacked his first attorney general for allowing the indictment of two Republican congressmen who had supported him; and
- ordered the revocation of the security clearance of a former CIA director who had criticized him.
And now, in just the past two weeks, we’ve seen the pièce de résistance of bad faith, the one that’s brought Trump to the verge of impeachment: Trump’s efforts to use his presidential authority to strong-arm a foreign nation, Ukraine, into digging up or concocting evidence in support of a preposterous conspiracy theory about one of his principal challengers for the presidency, former Vice President Joe Biden. As one political historian has put it, Trump’s use of his Article II authority to pursue vendettas is “both a sign of deep insecurity … and also just a litany of abuse of power,” and something no president has done “as consistently or as viciously as Trump has.”
Profit? Self-dealing? Look at the way Trump is using the presidency to advertise his real-estate holdings—most notably and recently, his apparent determination to hold the next G7 summit at the Trump Doral resort in Florida. Ultra vires? Trump has made the outrageous claim that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” Consistent with that view, he has repeatedlysuggested that, by executive order, he can overturn the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship—an utterly lawless assertion. His core constitutional obligations flow from Article II’s command that he faithfully execute the laws, yet he has told subordinates not to worry about violating the laws. According to one former senior administration official quoted in The New York Times, Trump’s “constant instinct all the time was: Just do it, and if we get sued, we get sued … Almost as if the first step is a lawsuit. I guess he thinks that because that’s how business worked for him in the private sector. But federal law is different, and there really isn’t a settling step when you break federal law.” Federal law is also different, one might add, because he’s in charge of upholding it.
Facing the approach of the 2020 election with not a single new mile of his border wall having been built, Trump, as reported in The Washington Post, has urged his aides to violate all manner of laws to expedite construction—environmental laws, contracting laws, constitutional limitations on the taking of private property—and “has told worried subordinates that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing” they commit along the way.
A duty of diligence and carefulness? Trump is purely impulsive, and incapable of planning or serious forethought, and his compulsion for lying has enervated any capacity for thoughtful analysis he may have ever had. He apparently won’t read anything; he himself has said, in regard to briefings, that he prefers to read “as little as possible”—despite occupying what David A. Graham calls “one of the most demanding jobs in the world” precisely because its “holder is expected to consume, digest, and absorb prodigious amounts of information via reading.”
And then there’s the question of honesty. Fiduciaries must be honest. The Framers understood, based upon the law of public officeholding in their time, that “faithful execution” of the laws requires “the absence of bad faith through honesty.” In the private realm, fiduciaries owe a duty of candor, of truth-telling; the standard of behavior was once memorably described by the renowned jurist Benjamin Cardozo as “not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.” Today, in my own practice area of corporate litigation, corporate officers and directors, as fiduciaries, owe duties that include a duty to disclose material information truthfully and completely. Trump, whose lawyers wouldn’t dare allow him to speak to the special counsel lest he make a prosecutable false statement, couldn’t pass this standard to save his life.
Trump’s incapacity affects all manner of subjects addressed by the presidency, but can be seen most acutely in foreign affairs and national security. Presidential narcissism and personal ego have frequently displaced the national interest. Today, the most obvious—and stunning—example is his conduct toward Ukraine: While trying to pressure the Ukrainian president to restart an investigation against Biden, Trump ordered the withholding of vital military aid to that country, thus weakening its ability to withstand Russian aggression and undermining the interests of the United States. But the list goes on: Last summer, in a narcissistic effort at self-aggrandizement, Trump told the Pakistani prime minister about a conversation he had with the Indian prime minister—leading India to deny, indignantly, that any such conversation had ever taken place. Trump reportedly even lied about trade talks with China—announcing that phone calls had occurred that never occurred and that the Chinese denied took place—in an apparent attempt to pump up the stock market and take credit for it.
Trump’s penchant for vendettas also doesn’t stop at the water’s edge—American interests be damned. When confidential cables sent by the United Kingdom’s ambassador to his government were leaked, and were revealed to contain uncomplimentary (but obvious) observations about Trump’s ineptitude and emotional insecurity, and the dysfunction of his administration, Trump went on an extended Twitter tirade against the ambassador, calling him “wacky” and “a very stupid guy,” “a pompous fool,” and ultimately declared: “We will no longer deal with him.” When reports surfaced that Trump was interested in having the United States purchase Greenland from Denmark, and the Danish prime minister understandably described talk about such a purchase as “an absurd discussion” in light of Greenland’s position on the matter, Trump canceled a visit to Denmark, and then attacked the prime minister, calling her comments “nasty”; for good measure, he also attacked some of America’s NATO allies.
At the same time, Trump happily succumbs to flattery from America’s enemies; he received “beautiful … great letters” from North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, and therefore “fell in love” with him, and rewards him with kind words and meetings even as North Korea continues to develop new nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Trump once said on television: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”
Putin, of course, did more than say great things about Trump, which brings up what was, until the Ukraine scandal surfaced, the most significant way in which Trump’s extraordinary narcissism influenced his presidency—the Russia investigation. Trump made that investigation about himself, and in the course of doing so, committed what appear to be unmistakably criminal acts. At the outset, the Mueller investigation wasn’t about what Donald Trump had done during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. It was primarily an investigation about what the Russians had done to interfere with that election and to help the Trump campaign. At its core, it was a counterintelligence investigation—an effort to protect the country, to defend our democracy. An effort to find out exactly what a hostile foreign power had done to attack the United States, so that our nation could fight back, and so that it could take measures to ensure that such an attack never happened again.
But Trump didn’t see it that way. The Mueller report repeatedly describes Trump’s self-obsession, and his disregard for the national interest. Trump viewed “the intelligence community assessment of Russian interference as a threat to the legitimacy of his electoral victory.” He is said to have “viewed the Russia investigation as an attack on the legitimacy of his win.” He thought it would “tak[e] away from what he had accomplished.” The Washington Post has now reported, moreover, that in the Oval Office in May 2017, Trump told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador that he was unconcerned with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
And so, contrary to his obligation to act in the nation’s interests rather than his own, and contrary to the criminal code, he repeatedly tried to obstruct the investigation—and therefore, ironically, put himself in the crosshairs of the investigation. Thanks to Trump’s narcissism, the special counsel was forced to devote an entire volume of his report—some 182 pages of single-spaced text—to Trump’s repeated and persistent efforts to derail the investigation. And persistent, Trump was. He tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the investigation, to violate ethics rules and unrecuse himself, so that he could get rid of the special counsel and limit the investigation to future election interference only. Trump tried to get his White House counsel to have the acting attorney general remove Mueller on a ridiculous pretext, prompting the counsel to threaten to resign. Trump tried to encourage witnesses to refuse to cooperate with the very government that Trump himself heads. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in his efforts to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump “did much more than this, but all of this is more than enough: He committed the crime of obstructing justice—multiple times.” Trump even obstructed justice about obstructing justice when he tried to get the White House counsel to write a false account of Trump’s efforts to remove Mueller.
All in all, Trump sought to impede and end a significant counterintelligence and criminal investigation—one of crucial importance to the nation—and did so for his own personal reasons. He did precisely the opposite of what his duties require. Indeed, he has shown utter contempt for his duties to the nation. How else could one describe the attitude Trump expressed when, sitting next to Vladimir Putin in late June, he was asked whether he would tell Putin not to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election? Trump smirked, wagged his finger playfully at Putin, and said, “Don’t meddle in the election.” Putin smirked too. The Russian president was in on the joke—the punch line being how Trump treats America’s interests versus his own.
What constitutional mechanisms exist for dealing with a president who cannot or does not comply with his duties, and how should they take the president’s mental and behavioral characteristics into account? One mechanism discussed with great frequency during the past three years, including within the Trump administration, is Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. That provision allows the vice president to become “Acting President” when the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But it doesn’t define what such an inability entails; essentially, it lets the vice president and the Cabinet, the president himself, and ultimately two-thirds of both houses of Congress decide.
Certainly it would cover a coma. Had the amendment been in effect in 1919 through 1921, it presumably could have been used to deal with President Woodrow Wilson. A severe stroke had rendered Wilson paralyzed on the left side, but he could still speak, and he could still sign documents with his right hand. Nevertheless, although Wilson had “relatively well preserved intellectual function,” the stroke rendered him “subject to ‘disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, and defective judgment.’”
Sound judgment, of course, is what a president’s job is all about. And as Jeffrey Rosen has explained, “nothing in the text or original understanding of the amendment” would prevent the vice president, the Cabinet, or Congress from deciding that Trump has disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, defective judgment, or other behavioral or psychological issues that keep him from carrying out his constitutional duties the way they were meant to be carried out.
The problem is one of mechanics. Section 4, quite understandably, was designed to be extremely difficult to implement. The vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can determine that the president isn’t able to carry out his duties; if so, the vice president immediately becomes acting president. But if the president doesn’t agree—and you know what Trump’s view will be, no matter what—then a constitutional game of ping-pong starts: The president can certify that he is capable, and he can reassume his authority after a four-day waiting period, unless the vice president and the Cabinet, within that period, recertify that the president can’t function. (As a new book on Section 4 explains, this waiting period exists in part because “a deranged President could do a lot of damage if he could retake power immediately,” and, in particular, he “would also be able to fire the Cabinet, which would prevent it from contesting his declaration of ability.”) If that happens, the vice president continues as acting president, and the whole matter gets kicked to Congress, which must assemble within 48 hours and decide within 21 days: If two-thirds of both houses agree that the president can’t function, then the vice president continues as acting president; if not, the president gets his authority back.
No matter how psychologically incapable of meeting his constitutional obligations Trump may be, that route is virtually certain not to work in this case. Would a vice president and department heads who have shamelessly slaked Trump’s narcissistic thirst at Cabinet meetings by praising his supposed greatness, and who of course owe their jobs to Trump, dare incur his wrath by sparking a constitutional crisis on the basis of what they must surely know about his unprecedented faults? Doubtful, to say the least. They would know full well that, if their decision weren’t sustained by Congress, the first thing that Trump would do after reassuming power would be to fire every department head who sought to have him sidelined. (He can’t fire Vice President Mike Pence, of course.) Which brings up the ultimate question upon which successful invocation of Section 4 would turn: whether two-thirds of both houses of Congress would vote to remove Trump. That’s harder than impeachment, which requires only a simple majority of the House in order to bring charges of impeachment to a trial in the Senate (which in turn can convict on a two-thirds vote).
And so it turns out that impeachment is a more practical mechanism for addressing the fact that Trump’s narcissism and sociopathy render him unable to comply with the obligations of his office. It’s also an appropriate mechanism, because the constitutional magic words (other than Treason and Bribery) that form the basis of an impeachment charge—high Crimes and Misdemeanors, found in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution—mean something other than, and more than, offenses in the criminal-statute books. High Crimes and Misdemeanors is a legal term of art, one that historically referred to breaches of duties—fiduciary duties—by public officeholders. In other words, the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense for a president coincides precisely with whether the president can execute his office in the faithful manner that the Constitution requires.
The phrase high Crimes and Misdemeanors was dropped into the draft Constitution on September 8, 1787, during the waning days of the Constitutional Convention. The discussion before the Convention’s Committee of Eleven was extremely brief. The extant version of what became Article II, Section 4 provided for impeachment merely for treason and bribery. George Mason objected, and proposed adding “maladministration.” Elbridge Gerry seconded Mason’s proposal, but James Madison objected that it was too vague. Gouverneur Morris chimed in, arguing that having a presidential election “every four years will prevent maladministration.” Mason moved to add, according to Madison’s notes, “other high crimes & misdemeanors (against the State).” The motion passed, eight to three. And so, as a result of that brief exchange, Article II of the Constitution of the United States provides that “the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
As Yoni Appelbaum has observed in this magazine, “constitutional lawyers have been arguing about what counts as a ‘high crime’ or ‘misdemeanor’ ever since.” One of the most compelling arguments about the meaning of those words is that the Framers, in Article II’s command that a president faithfully execute his office, imposed upon him fiduciary obligations. As the constitutional historian Robert Natelson explained in the Federalist Society Review, the “founding generation [understood] ‘high … Misdemeanors’ to mean ‘breach of fiduciary duty.’” Eighteenth-century lawyers instead used terms such as breach of trust—which describes the same thing. “Parliamentary articles of impeachment explicitly and repetitively described the accused conduct as a breach of trust,” Natelson argues, and 18th-century British legal commentators explained how impeachment for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” was warranted for all sorts of noncriminal violations that were, in essence, fiduciary breaches.
Just as the Framers viewed the presidency as fiduciary, they understood the offenses that might disqualify the incumbent as breaches of that fiduciary duty. And that may well be why the discussion of Morris’s suggestion was so brief—the drafters knew what the words historically meant, because, as a House Judiciary Committee report noted in 1974, “at the time of the Constitutional Convention the phrase ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ had been in use for over 400 years in impeachment proceedings in Parliament.” Certainly Alexander Hamilton knew by the time he penned “Federalist No. 65,” in which he explained that impeachment was for “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
What constitutes such an abuse or violation of trust is up to Congress to decide: First the House decides to bring impeachment charges, and then the Senate decides whether to convict on those charges. The process of impeachment by the House and removal by trial in the Senate is thus, in some ways, akin to indictment by a grand jury and trial by a petit jury. In other ways, it is quite different. As Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz explain in their recent book on impeachment, “the Constitution explicitly states that Congress may not end a presidency unless the president has committed an impeachable offense. But nowhere does the Constitution state or otherwise imply that Congress must remove a president whenever that standard is met … In other words, it allows Congress to exercise judgment.” As Tribe and Matz argue, that judgment presents a “heavy burden,” and demands that Congress be “context-sensitive,” and achieve “an understanding of all relevant facts.” A president might breach his trust to the nation once in some small, inconsequential way and never repeat the misbehavior, and Congress could reasonably decide that the game is not worth the candle.
So the congressional judgment in the impeachment process necessarily includes the number and seriousness of offenses, and even extends well beyond those calculations. Congress must also, in particular, weigh the chances of recidivism; that possibility is precisely why the Constitution provides for removal as the principal sanction upon conviction on impeachment charges. As Charles Black Jr. explained in his classic 1974 book on impeachment, “We remove him principally because we fear he will do it again.” Or as George Mason put it during the Constitutional Convention, “Shall the man who has practised corruption … be suffered to escape punishment, by repeating his guilt?”
In short, now that the House of Representatives has embarked on an impeachment inquiry, one of the most important judgments it must make is whether any identified breaches of duty are likely to be repeated. And if a Senate trial comes to pass, that issue would become central as well to the decision to remove the president from office. That’s when Trump’s behavioral and psychological characteristics should—must—come into play. From the evidence, it appears that he simply can’t stop himself from putting his own interests above the nation’s. Any serious impeachment proceedings should consider not only the evidence and the substance of all impeachable offenses, but also the psychological factors that may be relevant to the motivations underlying those offenses. Congress should make extensive use of experts—psychologists and psychiatrists.
- Is Trump so narcissistic that he can’t help but use his office for his own personal ends?
- Is he so sociopathic that he can’t be trusted to follow, let alone faithfully execute, the law?
Congress should consider all this because that’s what the question of impeachment demands. But there’s another reason as well. The people have a right to know, and a need to see. Many people have watched all of Trump’s behavior, and they’ve drawn the obvious conclusion. They know something’s wrong, just as football fans knew that the downed quarterback had shattered his leg. Others have changed the channel, or looked away, or chosen to deny what they’ve seen. But if Congress does its job and presents the evidence, those who are in denial won’t be able to ignore the problem any longer. Not only because of the evidence itself, but because Donald Trump will respond in pathological ways—and in doing so, he’ll prove the points against him in ways almost no one will be able to ignore.
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?