Unfit for Office

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 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 spellingdoesn’t know the difference between a hyphen and an apostrophe, doesn’t appear to understand fractions, needs basic geography lessonsspeaks 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:
  • taxes,
  • income,
  • construction,
  • campaign finance,
  • drones,
  • technology,
  • infrastructure,
  • work visas,
  • the Islamic State,
  • “things” generally,
  • environmental-impact statements,
  • Facebook,
  • renewable energy,
  • polls,
  • courts,
  • steelworkers,
  • golf,
  • banks,
  • trade,
  • nuclear weapons,
  • tax law,
  • lawsuits,
  • currency devaluation,
  • money,
  • “the system,”
  • debt, and
  • politicians.

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 diedHis 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

  1.  his net worth,
  2. the size of the crowd at his inauguration, and
  3. 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

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.”

ProfitSelf-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 placein 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.

John Bolton on the Warpath

Can Trump’s national-security adviser sell the isolationist President on military force?

Bolton graduated from law school as the Reagan revolution was taking shape. He moved to Washington, joined the law firm of Covington & Burling, and immersed himself in the conservative cause. Bolton was active in a series of conflicts that helped define the battleground of contemporary politics. He worked as Ralph Winter’s assistant and, while still in his twenties, was involved  in guiding a landmark federal lawsuit, Buckley v. Valeo, to the Supreme Court. Winter and Bolton made the case that strict limits on campaign spending violated the right to free speech. They won, and the decision helped release a flood of private money into the American political system. In 1985, Bolton joined the Reagan Justice Department; there, he helped shepherd the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, whose ultimately unsuccessful bid began the era of fiercely partisan high-court nominations. During the contested Presidential election of 2000, Bolton flew to Florida to help insure that George W. Bush secured the office. In his memoir, he notes, with only slight embarrassment, that Republican colleagues called him “the Atticus Finch of Palm Beach County.”

.. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, urged an assertive use of military power abroad, while Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, was more restrained. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, told me that Bolton was appointed to his position only at Cheney’s insistence. “Everyone knew that Bolton was Cheney’s spy,”
.. Bolton told the group, “I don’t care about Syria, but I do care about Iran.” He said that the American forces would stay in Syria until the Iranians left—potentially for years. Bolton told his aides to communicate the new policy to the Russians, and he declared it publicly in September, 2018.
.. Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, took Bolton aside and “told him to shut up,” Wilkerson said. Before Bolton testified to Congress, much of his language was diluted. Armitage reached out to a team of intelligence officers who vetted public statements made by State Department officials, and asked them to give special scrutiny to Bolton’s. “Nothing Bolton said could leave the building until I O.K.’d it,” Thomas Fingar, who led the team at the time, told me.

.. As the Bush White House made the case to invade Iraq, Bolton came into conflict with José Bustani, who was in charge of overseeing the Chemical Weapons Convention—a treaty, endorsed by the U.S. and a hundred and ninety-two other countries, that bans the production of chemical weapons. Bustani, a former senior diplomat from Brazil, was negotiating with the Iraqi government to adopt the treaty, which mandated immediate inspections by outside technicians. He thought that, if inspectors could verify that Iraq had abandoned its chemical-weapons program, an invasion wouldn’t be necessary. But, he told me, when the Iraqis agreed to accept the convention, the Bush Administration asked him to halt his negotiations. “I think the White House was worried that if I succeeded it would mess up their plans to invade,” he said.

Not long afterward, Bustani recalls, Bolton showed up at his office in The Hague and demanded that he resign. When Bustani refused, Bolton said, “We know you have two sons in New York. We know your daughter is in London. We know where your wife is.” (Bolton has denied this.) Bustani held firm, and the White House, determined to remove him, convened an extraordinary session of the Convention’s members—in many cases, Bustani said, paying the travel expenses of delegates to insure that they attended. The group voted forty-eight to seven, with forty-three abstentions, to cut short Bustani’s term.

Later that year, Bustani was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work against chemical weapons. When U.S. troops moved into Iraq, they found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Commentators across the political spectrum have decried the invasion—even Trump calls it “a big, fat mistake”—but Bolton hasn’t changed his view. In 2015, he told the Washington Examiner, “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.”

 

.. In March, 2005, Bush nominated Bolton to be the Ambassador to the United Nations, a move that was widely seen as an expression of contempt for the institution. Bolton had a history of deriding the U.N., once saying that if the headquarters “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Still, Democrats in the Senate anticipated a routine hearing; they were the minority party and could do little to resist. Tony Blinken, who was the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me that the members began to reconsider as they examined Bolton’s work in the State Department. “We saw a pattern of Mr. Bolton trying to manipulate intelligence to justify his views,” Blinken told me. “If it had happened once, maybe. But it came up multiple times, and always it was the same underlying issue: he would stake out a position, and then, if the intelligence didn’t support it, he would try to exaggerate the intelligence and marginalize the officials who had produced it.” After several days of testimony, Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, declared, “John Bolton is the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be.”

The committee declined to advance Bolton’s nomination, but Bush moved ahead anyway, sending him to the U.N. on a “recess appointment,” a temporary assignment made when the Senate is out of session. His old friend Clarence Thomas swore him in. Bolton’s associates from that time told me that he refrained from ordinary diplomatic niceties: he did not engage in small talk, linger at cocktail parties, or attend national commemorations. Not long after Bolton took the job, Bush visited him in New York. “Are you having fun?” Bush asked. “It’s a target-rich environment,” Bolton replied.

In “Surrender Is Not an Option,” Bolton gives a minute-by-minute accounting of his time at the U.N., describing both foes and allies in strikingly undiplomatic language. He refers to “EUroids,” the European diplomats whom he generally regarded as soft on America’s enemies; to “the Crusaders of Compromise,” as he describes the national-security establishment; and to “the True Believers and the High Minded.” He even derides the U.K., traditionally America’s closest ally. “Many Brits believed that their role in life was to play Athens to America’s Rome, lending us the benefit of their superior suaveness, and smoothing off our regrettable colonial rough edges,” Bolton writes.

Bolton built a reputation for being abrasive but knowledgeable, with tremendous powers of recall. A U.S. diplomat told me that he once walked into Bolton’s office at the U.N. to ask about an issue concerning Somalia. Bolton replied by quoting, verbatim, from a memo written during the Reagan Administration, some twenty years before. “As John’s talking about it, I can see his eyes moving back and forth like he’s reading the memo—he was reading it from memory,” the diplomat told me.

.. Colleagues from other countries struggled to accommodate him. “On a personal basis, you can joke with him,” the Western diplomat who knows Bolton told me. Working with him was a different story: “Coöperation was possible, but very much on his conditions.” Bolton had spent decades refining an argument that multilateral institutions and international agreements often did more harm than good—that each one represented a loss of American sovereignty. “Bolton has a Hobbesian view of the universe—life is nasty, brutish, and short,” the former American official who worked with Bolton told me. “There are a lot of nasty people out there who want to do us harm. If our country’s interests align with another’s, it’s a fleeting phenomenon, and the moment our interests diverge they will sell us down the river.” Bolton doesn’t ordinarily concern himself with the internal affairs of other nations, or with trying to democratize them, the former official said: “The U.S. has values domestically, but he doesn’t give a shit about the values of others. If it advances your interests to work with another country, then do it.

Bolton had some successes at the U.N. Most notably, he helped persuade the Security Council to impose its first economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear-weapons programs. But when his post expired, after sixteen months, the Democrats had won back the majority in Congress, and it was clear that Bolton would not be confirmed. On December 31, 2006, he stepped down.

.. A few months later, Bolton appeared on Fox News to warn viewers that their government was intolerably complacent. “Six years after 9/11, people are simply not focussing the way they should,” he said. “I hope it is not going to take another 9/11 to wake us up—particularly not a 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction.” Bolton, for years a favored guest on Fox, became a paid commentator. During the next decade, he made hundreds of appearances, often arguing that America needed to act urgently to counter threats from abroad. He spoke in favor of military strikes on Iranian training camps (“This is not provocative or preëmptive—this is entirely responsive”), forced regime change in North Korea (“the only solution”), and punitive measures against Vladimir Putin for sheltering the intelligence leaker Edward Snowden (“We need to do things that cause him pain”).

After decades of public-sector work, Bolton grew rich in the private sector. According to a financial disclosure that he filed before joining Trump’s Administration, he made at least two million dollars in 2017, including some six hundred thousand from Fox; two hundred and fifty thousand from the American Enterprise Institute, where he was a senior fellow; and a hundred and twenty thousand from Rhône Group, a private-equity firm. In the course of ten years, Bolton wrote at least six hundred newspaper articles, and the uncompromising beliefs that had piqued colleagues in government found a willing audience outside it. After the Bush Administration reduced sanctions on North Korea, he wrote, in an op-ed, “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse.” When Bush was asked about it, he said, “I don’t consider Bolton credible,” and lamented spending political capital on him. The Obama Administration and its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East inspired even greater scorn. Following Obama’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which Bolton criticized as “turgid,” “repetitive,” and “high-school level,” he dismissed the President as fundamentally naïve. Homo sapiens are hardwired for violent conflict,” he said. “We’re not going to eliminate violent conflict until Homo sapiens ceases to exist as a separate species.” Later, he wrote a book-length jeremiad about international law titled “How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty.”

.. Bolton found an especially enthusiastic reception for arguments about the dangers of Islam. From 2013 to 2018, he was the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, which describes itself as “dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report.” The institute, which paid Bolton a hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars in 2017, has published virulently anti-Muslim articles of questionable accuracy. During Bolton’s tenure, one article warned of an impending “jihadist takeover” of Europe, and another claimed that immigrants from Somalia and other countries were turning Sweden into the “rape capital of the West.” A report titled “History of the Muslim Brotherhood Penetration of the U.S. Government” suggested that both the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and the State Department official Huma Abedin were sleeper agents. According to a database maintained by NBC News, at least four articles published by Gatestone were retweeted by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian intelligence front that led efforts to sow dissension during the 2016 election.

Like many conservatives in Israel and in the U.S., Bolton rejects the idea of a two-state solution. At a speech in Israel in 2017, he instead advocated a “three-state solution,” in which Israel, Jordan, and Egypt would divide up the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, abolishing the political entities that now exist there. For that speech, Bolton received a hundred thousand dollars and a Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University.

As Bolton became a celebrity in conservative media, he used his visibility to establish himself in electoral politics. In 2013, he set up a political-action committee, John Bolton Super pac, which raised money to support Republican candidates. The most significant donor was Robert Mercer, the right-wing activist, hedge-fund billionaire, and co-founder of the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which later became notorious for capturing private information from some eighty-seven million Facebook users. Mercer gave the super pac a total of five million dollars. During the elections in 2014 and 2016, Bolton’s organization paid Cambridge Analytica $1.2 million, for psychographic data to tailor messages that would help Senate candidates, including Scott Brown, in New Hampshire, and Thom Tillis, in North Carolina. But Groombridge, Bolton’s former aide, told me that the data turned out to be less effective than promised. “It was useless,” he said. “We used it the way they told us, and it had no discernible impact whatsoever.”

.. After forming the pac, Bolton briefly considered running for President, but people close to him said that he was more focussed on another job. “He was running for Secretary of State,” Groombridge told me. As with Bolton’s nomination for U.N. Ambassador, there were reasons for concern that he wouldn’t pass Senate confirmation. In Bolton’s financial disclosure, he listed a forty-thousand-dollar payment, for a speech that he gave, in 2016, to Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Iranian exile group dedicated to overthrowing the government in Tehran. The M.E.K., which professes an eccentric variant of Islam, has been characterized by many experts as resembling a cult. From 1997 until 2012, the United States listed it as a terrorist group, owing to a campaign of bombings and assassinations that it led in Iran. Bolton’s association with the group apparently went back at least to that time. During the speech in 2016, he told the crowd, “I just say again what I have been saying for ten years that I’ve been coming to this rally: the regime in Tehran needs to be overthrown at the earliest opportunity!”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a frequent critic of the regime, said that Bolton’s relationship with the group should have disqualified him from senior government jobs. “Anyone who pimps himself out to the M.E.K. fails the litmus test for integrity,” he said.

In 2011, Bolton became the head of the National Rifle Association’s international-affairs subcommittee. Two years later, he gave a video address to a conference hosted by a Russian gun-rights group, the Right to Bear Arms. In it, Bolton offered congratulations on the twentieth anniversary of the Russian constitution, which, he said, “signalled a new era of freedom for the Russian people and created a new force for democracy in the world.”

The conference appears to have been connected with the Kremlin’s campaign to influence politically powerful groups in the United States. It was organized by Maria Butina, who was recently sentenced to eighteen months in prison for conspiracy, after attempting to infiltrate the N.R.A. on behalf of the Russian government. Butina worked closely on the Right to Bear Arms with Alexander Torshin, a politician and an associate of Putin’s with links to organized crime. Last May, three days before Bolton became the national-security adviser, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Torshin, barring him from the Western financial system.

Bolton’s disclosure also listed payments, totalling a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars, from a foundation controlled by Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch. Pinchuk presents his foundation as a forum for diverse views, but his allegiances are murky. In 2012, he reportedly paid Gregory Craig, a former counsel for the Obama White House, to write a report intended to exonerate Ukraine’s pro-Russian President for jailing his chief opponent. (Pinchuk denies this.) Craig is now under indictment for lying about the matter to investigators working for the special counsel Robert Mueller. (Bolton’s connections later inspired questions about whether he posed a security risk. In March, 2019, Tricia Newbold, a White House personnel officer, testified that Trump had given security clearances to twenty-five White House officials who had failed to pass background checks. The names of those people were not released, but, after the news broke, the House Oversight Committee asked to see Bolton’s personnel files, along with those of several others.)

In his bid for Secretary of State, Bolton had support from populist conservatives. According to a former senior Administration adviser, the Mercer family “pushed hard for him.” But his candidacy was derailed by members of the Republican establishment. Robert M. Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, and Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, suggested that Trump appoint Rex Tillerson, an oil C.E.O. with experience in international business. “I wanted to recommend someone who would be good,” Gates told me. Tillerson got the job.

One weekend in 2017, Bolton and General H. R. McMaster were invited to Mar-a-Lago, the President’s Palm Beach mansion, to audition to become national-security adviser. McMaster won. A decorated veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a reputation as an iconoclast, he came to Mar-a-Lago in full-dress uniform. According to the former senior Administration adviser, McMaster had support from Jared Kushner, who thought that his appointment would play well in the press. Trump admired Bolton’s Fox appearances—he has praised him as “a tough cookie.” But the former senior Administration adviser told me that Trump, who prefers that his officials look the part, was put off by Bolton’s mustache—and, more significant, by his interventionist mind-set. “Trump had big reservations,” the official said. “John wants to bomb everyone.”

If Bolton was disappointed at being passed over, McMaster’s experience in the White House might have reassured him. McMaster was sorely out of place: a seasoned navigator of international institutions working for a President who often seemed determined to tear them down. The chemistry between McMaster and Trump was never good. “H.R. is intense, and he would try to tell the President as best he could the consequences of his decisions,” a former senior Administration official told me.

McMaster also clashed with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. On numerous occasions, current and former officials say, Mattis tried to block White House initiatives, leaving McMaster caught in the middle. In the fall of 2017, McMaster was planning a private session to develop military options for the possibility of conflict with North Korea: a war game, with Trump in attendance, at the Presidential retreat in Camp David. McMaster asked Mattis to send officers and planners. Mattis ignored him. “He prevented the thing from happening,” the former senior Administration official told me. Later, Mattis kept General John Nicholson, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, from meeting with Trump.

 

Administration officials speculate that Mattis was trying to avoid a war, or that he simply wanted to control the flow of information, so that the President could not make ill-advised decisions. “There are a lot of people in the Administration who want to limit the President’s options because they don’t want the President to get anything done,” the former senior Administration official told me.

Mattis declined to comment for the record, but a former senior national-security official told me, without confirming any incidents, that a strategy had evolved. “The President thinks out loud,” he said. “Do you treat it like an order? Or do you treat it as part of a longer conversation? We treated it as part of a longer conversation.” By allowing Trump to talk without acting, he said, “we prevented a lot of bad things from happening.” In 2017, Mattis and his staff helped forestall a complete withdrawal of American forces from both Afghanistan and Syria.

McMaster also acquired enemies outside the White House. Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, told me he believed that McMaster was “hostile to Israel,” citing offenses that ranged from advocating “Palestinian self-determination” to dodging a question about whether the Western Wall is in Israeli territory. Klein began a quiet campaign against McMaster, with help from Sheldon Adelson, the Republican casino magnate, and Safra Catz, the C.E.O. of Oracle, both of whom are fervent supporters of the Israeli right wing. “We were pushing for him to be fired,” Klein told me. For Klein and his allies, Bolton’s politics were more appealing. He has deep connections to the Israeli national-security establishment and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2018, he gave a well-compensated speech to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. “John almost regards Israel as part of the United States,” the former official who worked with Bolton told me. “He thinks our interests and their interest are identical.”

.. In March, 2018, according to a former Administration official, the President called McMaster and asked what he would think if Bolton became the new national-security adviser. It was clear to McMaster that he was being fired, but less clear that the President was certain Bolton was the right replacement. The official, who overheard Trump’s side of the conversation, recalled that the President ended the call with an uncomfortable joke: “Bolton is a hawk like you. He’s going to get us into a war.”

When Bolton took over, he quickly demonstrated an unsentimental style: he told Trump that he could not work with McMaster’s former aide Keith Kellogg, a seventy-three-year-old veteran who had won a Silver Star in Vietnam. Trump decided to send Kellogg to work for Vice-President Mike Pence. The former senior Administration official told me that there was widespread sympathy for Bolton: “Kellogg doesn’t have all of his faculties. He’s like the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving. But Trump liked him, so Pence had to take him.”

McMaster had set up a rigorous process for discussing issues with staff members, making recommendations to the President, and disseminating decisions through the bureaucracy. Under Bolton, there are fewer meetings, less collaboration; he often disappears into his office to immerse himself in documents. “H.R.’s door was always open—Bolton’s is closed,” a former national-security official told me. “He reads the memos. There just isn’t a lot of feedback.” Some former officials believe that Bolton’s insularity could be dangerous, particularly in a crisis, when various arms of the government and the military have to mount a quick and coördinated response. “It’s chaos under Bolton,” the former senior national-security official told me. “The national-security adviser is supposed to facilitate the President’s directives and coördinate national policy among the various government agencies. That process has completely broken down.” The official added, “Bolton hasn’t set any priorities. No one knows what the policies are—what’s important, what’s less important. The head is not connected to the body.” Principals’ meetings—crucial gatherings involving the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of intelligence agencies—have become rare. “I don’t remember the last time there was a fucking principals’ meeting,” the official said.

When I raised the issue with Bolton, he seemed unconcerned. He pointed to an oil painting on his office wall which depicted George H. W. Bush with a small group of close aides, including Brent Scowcroft, his national-security adviser. “That’s decision-making,” he said.

.. The comparison to the first Bush Administration doesn’t go far. Scowcroft and Bush were temperamentally similar—both reflective, cautious members of the establishment. Trump is restless and impulsive; Bolton, who goes to bed at nine-thirty every night and rises at three-thirty in the morning, is known for his lawyerly focus. Scowcroft and Bush were close friends before they began working together; Trump and Bolton were only vaguely acquainted. As national-security adviser, Bolton has unrivalled proximity to the Commander-in-Chief. But he described their relationship as businesslike. “I don’t socialize with the President, I don’t play golf with him—I see him in the morning and I talk to him at night,” he told me. In addition to giving Trump a rundown of potential national threats each morning, Bolton attends the President’s Daily Brief, a top-secret meeting with Gina Haspel, the head of the C.I.A., and Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence. Trump prefers to hold these meetings just two or three times a week, and is famously susceptible to distractions—people walking into the office, telephone calls, even houseflies. Aides have found that detailed briefings provoke impatience; graphics and bullet points work better, and relatable photographs better still. “Bolton gets to the point very fast,” a senior Administration official told me. “He’s very brief, and the President appreciates that.” Groombridge, the former aide, said, “John is thinking, To the extent I can modify or mollify the President’s actions, I will. He is truly a patriot. But I wonder how he goes into work every day, because deep in his heart he believes the President is a moron.”

Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent that he has one, tends toward isolationism, while Bolton’s is expansive but heavily unilateral, spurning allies when necessary. At times, though, unilateralism can sound a lot like America First. Both Bolton and Trump are dismissive of the international architecture of treaties and alliances, which was largely constructed by the United States following the Second World War. At the 2018 G-20 summit, in Buenos Aires, a gathering of the world’s largest economies, Bolton instigated a confrontation over the communiqué that announced the meeting’s results. As the document was being drafted, according to an American official who was present, one of Bolton’s aides began taking out phrases—“gender equality,” “multilateral institutions,” “rules-based international order.” The official told me, “He would point to a phrase and say, ‘This won’t pass the Bolton test.’ ” Bolton’s unilateralist approach permeates the N.S.C. “ ‘The post-World War Two rules-based global order’?” a Bolton staffer said to me. “What does that mean?”

Most national-security advisers work behind the scenes. Bolton has been unusually visible, travelling to Moscow to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov; to Jerusalem to meet Netanyahu; and to Ankara to meet the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Twitter, he has admonished the Russians for attempting to project influence in Latin America, and expressed gratitude to Ivanka Trump for “supporting women’s economic empowerment” in Africa. The Western diplomat told me that Bolton differed from other White House advisers, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reflexively agree with the President. “Pompeo is really interested not in foreign policy but in what is good for Trump. When you are out of the Trump field, he has nothing to say,” the diplomat told me. “When you meet Bolton, it’s a real conversation on any issue, no matter how obscure.”

The former senior national-security official told me, “Trump feels aligned with Bolton. He talks tough—he’s a hawk. Trump likes that.” Still, it’s not clear how much influence Bolton—or any senior adviser—has over the President.

In April, 2018, during Bolton’s first week in office, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria dropped chemical weapons—probably chlorine gas—into a densely populated suburb of Damascus. The gas caused agonizing deaths for at least forty-nine people and sickened at least six hundred and fifty others, many of them women and children. The previous year, Trump had responded to a similar attack by ordering a strike, in which fifty-nine missiles were fired at a government airbase. This time, when Bolton asked the Pentagon for options, Mattis gave only one, a limited strike with cruise missiles. Bolton was furious, a person familiar with his thinking told me: “Mattis is an obstructionist. He seemed to forget that it was the President who was elected.” After some modifications, Trump authorized the attack. But Bolton wanted more; he believed that the U.S. needed a more enduring military presence in Syria.

.. When McMaster was the national-security adviser, he had carefully limited the scope of the mission in Syria, maintaining a deployment of some two thousand troops, dispatched by Obama in 2014. Their orders were to kill isis fighters and to train local soldiers, but not to fight Assad’s government, his Iranian and Russian backers, or their proxies in Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group and political party. An adviser on Middle East issues told me that senior officials at the Pentagon and in national security had regarded the deployment as highly successful. “We were trying to follow the President’s guidance that this force was there to destroy isis, and that’s it,” the adviser said.

Last summer, at a meeting with officials involved in Syria, Bolton announced that the mission was being expanded. According to the adviser on Middle East issues, who attended the meeting, Bolton told the group, “I don’t care about Syria, but I do care about Iran.” He said that the American forces would stay in Syria until the Iranians left—potentially for years. Bolton told his aides to communicate the new policy to the Russians, and he declared it publicly in September, 2018.

Trump had been suggesting for months that the mission in Syria was nearly concluded. “We were very successful against isis,” he told a group of Eastern European leaders that April. “We’ll be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it’s time to come back home.” Now he was saddled with an open-ended military commitment, of a kind that he had repeatedly vowed to avoid. Bolton told me that he had secured the President’s permission to expand the mission, but the adviser on Middle East issues disagreed: “What’s obvious is that Bolton does not speak for the President.”

In December, Erdoğan, the Turkish leader, offered Trump a way out. During a phone call with the President, he said that his troops could take over the job of securing Syria, leaving American forces free to go home. Turkey had its own interest in this arrangement: a large swath of territory near the Syrian border is controlled by ethnic Kurds, whom the Turks consider mortal enemies. The U.S. considers the Kurds allies, but Trump nevertheless leaped at the offer. “Erdoğan told the President that he could kill the terrorists in northeastern Syria, and the President said, ‘Fine, O.K., you do it,’ ” the source familiar with Bolton’s thinking told me.

The White House announced the withdrawal of American forces shortly after Trump hung up, sending a wave of concern through the Middle East. These troops, even with a limited mission, had served as a counterweight to the various armed groups that are active in Syria—Turks, Russians, the remaining isis loyalists, Assad’s soldiers. They also helped give the U.S. leverage in determining whether Assad’s regime remained in power after the war. “I think they are drinking champagne in Damascus,” the former senior Administration official told me.

To Bolton and others, it was clear that Turkey took the announcement as a green light to send troops into northeastern Syria. “For Erdoğan, that meant killing our Kurdish allies there,” the source familiar with Bolton’s thinking said. He suggested that Erdoğan and Trump had simply misunderstood each other: “They were two ships passing in the night.” After conversations with aides, Trump reconsidered, the source said: “The President has spoken to Erdoğan several times since then, and he has made clear to him, ‘Don’t come across, don’t kill Kurds.’ ”

Trump has recently expressed willingness to leave a small American force in Syria, but its exact size has not been settled; officials say that it may be as few as two hundred troops. “They are making it up as they go along,” a Senate staffer who works on national-security issues told me. When I first spoke to Bolton about the reduction in forces, he seemed disappointed. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said. A few weeks later, though, he was more cheerful as he outlined an ambitious roster of operations that appeared to mirror the one the President had tried to scale back: restraining the Iranians, limiting the Russians’ territory, keeping the Turks away from the Kurds. The adviser on Middle East issues suggested that Bolton was responsible for the entire affair, because he’d tried to push the President too far. “It’s a catastrophe, and I blame Bolton,” he said.

In July, 2017, after Kim Jong Un test-fired a new missile, Trump posted an arch tweet: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” But, that summer, there was evidence that the White House was concerned. As the regime launched a series of ballistic-missile tests, Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin removing the spouses and children of military personnel from South Korea. (“Mattis just ignored it,” the Administration official told me.) Since then, Trump has alternated between belligerent tweets and attempts to find a diplomatic solution. At the summit in Hanoi, he was seeking “the big deal”—the denuclearization of the country at one stroke.

Shortly before joining the White House, Bolton described a grimly constrained set of options, which seemed to preclude diplomacy. “You’re getting down fairly quickly to a binary choice: live with a North Korea with nuclear weapons, or look at military force,” he said. “These are not attractive options, but that’s where we’re headed.”

In fact, Bolton has believed for decades that these are the only two choices. In the early two-thousands, as the Bush Administration was negotiating to limit North Korea’s nuclear program, Bolton stridently advocated war. Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, was so concerned that he brought Bolton into a private meeting on the consequences of military strikes: “I gave him a ten-minute brief on what a war with North Korea would look like—a hundred thousand casualties in the first thirty days, many of them Americans. The Japanese that would die. The Chinese that would die. The fact that Seoul, one of the most modern and forward-looking cities in the world, would probably be reduced to the Dark Ages. I told him, ‘That’s Passchendaele, John. That’s Ypres.’ ”

He said that Bolton was unmoved: “John looked at me and said, ‘Are you done? Clearly, you do war. I don’t do war. I do policy.’ ”

Bolton’s skepticism about negotiating with North Korea has largely been confirmed; several successive Administrations have failed to talk the regime into giving up its nuclear program. Now that the problem has fallen to the Trump Administration, though, Bolton is in the same position as the officials he’s been deriding for twenty-five years. The failure of the talks in Hanoi means that the North Korean regime can work toward a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. “They haven’t demonstrated that capacity yet,” the Administration official said. But even a medium-range weapon would pose a threat to much of Asia.

The Administration official, like others, was reluctant to speak about what might happen if North Korea does not back down. A strike to destroy the country’s nuclear capability would have catastrophic effects throughout the region. Even if the United States could cripple North Korea’s nuclear facilities, it could not eliminate its conventional weapons quickly enough to prevent them from being used. These include thousands of artillery pieces and mortars near the border with South Korea. Seoul, which has a population of ten million, including some two hundred thousand Americans, could suffer tens of thousands of casualties. In 2017, Mattis told reporters that a conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

Even in the White House, there seems to be a growing realization that military force is not a realistic option. “I think we could have destroyed the North’s nuclear program in the nineteen-nineties—it was more concentrated, and we knew where everything was,” the Administration official told me. “Not anymore. It’s too big and too dispersed.”

But Bolton still believes that such a strike is possible, the source familiar with his thinking said: “We can still do it. We know where most, if not all, of their weapons are—we could destroy their nuclear capability. There are ways to deal with their artillery.” When I asked about potential casualties, he said that Bolton “wishes we weren’t at this point. But the military option remains viable.”

The primary negotiating tool that remains is economic sanctions. The senior Administration official told me that the fiscal pressure on North Korea is greater than ever. Kim, the official said, has repeatedly told the North Korean people that their years of suffering and hardship will finally end. “We think that he has raised expectations, and now he has to follow through,” he said.

Not long after the summit, Kim complained in a speech that the American team had come to Hanoi with “completely unrealizable plans.” Unless Trump changed his thinking, Kim said, “the U.S. will not be able to move us one iota even if they sat with us a hundred, a thousand times.” He added, however, that he was open to a third summit—extending an eighteen-month sequence of insults and meetings, during which the North Korean regime has continued to refine its weapons. In response, Trump described his relationship with Kim as “excellent.” In April, North Korea test-fired another missile.

Bolton was nonplussed by Kim’s test. “That was their way of giving us the little finger,” the source familiar with his thinking said. “Not the big finger—just a little one.” The big finger came a week later: Kim held a summit with Vladimir Putin to discuss the nuclear situation. Afterward, Putin called for a return to “international law, instead of the rule of the fist.”

People who have worked with Bolton say that he is focussed less on North Korea than on Iran, where his vigilance can sometimes seem out of proportion to the apparent threat. “There are only two countries that can really threaten the United States—China and Russia,” the former senior national-security official said. “But Bolton has had this anal focus on Iran for twenty years. I don’t know why.” When I asked Bolton about it, he said, “I care about Iran because I care about nuclear weapons.”

On February 11th, Bolton released a video on Twitter, in which he addressed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. In a professorial tone, he noted that it was the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and enumerated what he saw as its results: repression at home, terrorism abroad, a dismal economy, and the enmity of the world. “So, Ayatollah,” he said, “for all your boasts, for all your threats to the life of the American President, you are responsible for terrorizing your own people and terrorizing the world as a whole. I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”

The Trump Administration has persistently spoken out against Iran, but it has also made scattershot efforts at diplomacy. A senior Iranian official told me that, in 2017, Trump sent eight requests to meet with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. “Trump invited President Rouhani to dinner!” the official told me. Rouhani evidently declined, but, a few weeks before Bolton posted his video on Twitter, there was another apparent attempt. Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s national-security council, told an Iranian news agency that a U.S. official had approached him, during a visit to Afghanistan, and “asked to hold talks.” Shamkhani didn’t say whether Iran had responded, but a Middle Eastern businessman told me that, around the same time, an Iranian official had asked him to pass a message to the White House.

Mattis served as a brake on confrontation. In late 2017, Iraq was preparing for parliamentary elections, and McMaster grew concerned about Iran’s efforts to influence the outcome. He asked the Pentagon to provide options to counter the Iranian campaign. As the elections approached, one of McMaster’s aides told me, a Pentagon official came to the White House. “I asked him what happened to the options,” the former aide said. “He told me, ‘We resisted those.’ You could feel everyone in the meeting go, ‘Excuse me?’ ”

During the Obama Administration, the sanctions on Iran were designed to force the regime to agree to limit its nuclear program. Under Trump, the goal is apparently to make the Iranian people so miserable that they will overthrow the government. “After all the experience we’ve had with regime change, I think we’re out of that business,” a senior member of Trump’s foreign-policy team told me. “We can collapse their economy—it’s not that difficult. But it’s up to the Iranian people.”

Bolton suggested that the policy was working. “The opposition to the regime has widened,” he said. “There have been riots. You don’t always read about this in the Western press, because they don’t let reporters see it.” Although the United States has withdrawn from the nuclear accord, the Iranian regime continues to adhere to it. Funding to Hezbollah, Iran’s primary foreign proxy, has been cut substantially. Nervousness about the future has frozen foreign investment. With inflation at nearly fifty per cent, and with one in four young Iranians out of work, the economy is under extreme stress. Iranian oil exports, which rose to 2.8 million barrels a day after sanctions were lifted, have been severely diminished, at times to less than a million barrels a day. It’s possible that the Iranian government will be ousted. But allies worry that the White House is squeezing the regime so hard that it might force a confrontation, perhaps a military one. “They’re not giving the Iranians any room,” the Western diplomat told me. “It’s implosion or surrender.”

Sadjadpour, the Iran expert, believes that the tensions inside the White House over Iran have not been resolved. “Trump doesn’t want to go to war—he doesn’t want to intervene anywhere,” he told me. Trump’s real goal, he suggested, was the pageantry of public negotiations. The main obstacle to direct talks is Khamenei, he said; having the United States as an enemy has been a linchpin of the regime’s self-justification. “Bolton’s worst nightmare is that Khamenei will write Trump a letter saying, ‘Why don’t we get together and talk?’ Because he knows that Trump would jump at that opportunity.”

In April, Bolton travelled to Coral Gables, Florida, to speak to the surviving members of Brigade 2506, a group of Cuban exiles who fought in the American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. It was the fifty-eighth anniversary of the operation, which ended in catastrophe; the annual commemoration has become a kind of Miami Passion play.

As the aging veterans gathered for lunch, at the Biltmore Hotel, large screens played a documentary about the operation, with black-and-white footage of combat and interviews with survivors, many of whom still feel that they were betrayed by irresolute allies in the United States. “The invasion failed precisely because of President Kennedy’s order not to provide air support and to destroy the Cuban Air Force,” one veteran says.

As Bolton came to the lectern, the veterans, some of them in wheelchairs, gave him a hero’s welcome. Bolton announced new economic sanctions on the Cuban government and assailed Obama for attempting a rapprochement, which Trump has rolled back. “The Trump Administration will never, ever abandon you!” Bolton declared. “We will always have your back.”

As the crowd applauded, Bolton broadened his speech to attack other leftist governments—especially in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro is trying to ride out an economic collapse and a nationwide uprising. Bolton has led the White House’s charge against Maduro, accusing him of forming, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, a “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere. They aid one another, Bolton said, pointing to the Cuban security forces inside Venezuela, and all of them were aided by Obama. “In no uncertain terms, the Obama Administration’s policies toward Cuba have enabled the Cuban colonization of Venezuela,” he said.

For a national-security adviser, this was remarkably close to a campaign speech—a radical departure from the habits of Bolton’s predecessors. It was also a departure from Bolton’s habits; he resists being called a neocon, but in Venezuela he was trying to oust a regime that poses no immediate threat. When I asked him about it, in his office soon after the speech, he argued that Venezuela was dangerous, because it was allowing Russia to gain a foothold in the region. He said that there were twenty thousand Cubans in Venezuela who served as “surrogates for the Russians.” There were also at least a hundred Russian soldiers and mercenaries on the ground, helping Maduro stay in power. “To get the Russians out, you have to change the regime,” he said.

As the crowd applauded, Bolton broadened his speech to attack other leftist governments—especially in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro is trying to ride out an economic collapse and a nationwide uprising. Bolton has led the White House’s charge against Maduro, accusing him of forming, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, a “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere. They aid one another, Bolton said, pointing to the Cuban security forces inside Venezuela, and all of them were aided by Obama. “In no uncertain terms, the Obama Administration’s policies toward Cuba have enabled the Cuban colonization of Venezuela,” he said.

For a national-security adviser, this was remarkably close to a campaign speech—a radical departure from the habits of Bolton’s predecessors. It was also a departure from Bolton’s habits; he resists being called a neocon, but in Venezuela he was trying to oust a regime that poses no immediate threat. When I asked him about it, in his office soon after the speech, he argued that Venezuela was dangerous, because it was allowing Russia to gain a foothold in the region. He said that there were twenty thousand Cubans in Venezuela who served as “surrogates for the Russians.” There were also at least a hundred Russian soldiers and mercenaries on the ground, helping Maduro stay in power. “To get the Russians out, you have to change the regime,” he said.

The source familiar with Bolton’s thinking pointed out another incentive: Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. “Who is in control of the oil fields—the United States or Russia?” he asked. “The President said he would have taken the oil in Iraq. Well, look at how much oil Venezuela has.”

With Trump’s national-security team depleted—no permanent Secretary of Defense, no Secretary of Homeland Security, no Ambassador to the United Nations—Bolton would have extraordinary latitude in a crisis. “John understands that you have to get the elected leader the approval of the audience that matters,” Hundt said. “As long as Trump’s base is still applauding, then Bolton can do whatever he wants.”

For Bolton, it is ultimately a question of sovereignty. “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” he said. “It’s our hemisphere.” The doctrine, he noted, was a prohibition against outside powers interceding in Latin America. “That doesn’t mean armed force,” he said. “That’s the Roosevelt Corollary. I haven’t invoked that—yet.” But, he argued, as he has innumerable times in the past thirty years, “all options are on the table.” ♦

The Real Trump Foreign Policy: Stoking the G.O.P. Base

Why else would he pursue so many policies in Latin America that do not serve the national interest?

Americans can be forgiven if they struggle to find any coherence in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It zigs and zags, with senior administration officials saying one thing and President Trump contradicting them without warning the next day. It punishes our allies and coddles our adversaries; it privileges demagogy over democracy. Mr. Trump’s approach appears impulsive, improvisational and inchoate — devoid of clear purpose, values or even ideology.

Yet, upon closer examination, there is indeed a consistent logic staring us in the face. The unifying theme of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is simply to service his domestic politics.

Mr. Trump welcomes and encourages Russia, a hostile adversary, to interfere in our elections so long as the manipulations benefit him. He discards decades of bipartisan policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to curry favor with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and thus right-wing political support. The president follows a basic, if unorthodox, playbook: He and his party over our country.

Nowhere is this pattern more consistently apparent than in the administration’s dealings with Latin America. In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has taken a series of actions that are not tied to coherent strategies and will not deliver the desired results — if those results are to be measured in terms of achieving American foreign policy objectives. Rather, they may succeed only to the extent that they help Mr. Trump gain re-election by dishing up red meat to energize the Republican base.

Take Cuba. Last month, the Trump administration turned the clock back to the Cold War, imposing the harshest forms of sanctions against Cuba allowable under United States law. Mr. Trump reversed the policy of his Republican and Democratic predecessors by permitting Americans to sue foreign companies that use property confiscated without compensation by the Castro regime.

The administration also canceled a deal to allow Cuban baseball players to play in the United States, sharply constrained remittances and promised to end most forms of nonfamily travel, actions that will directly harm Cuba’s people and nascent private sector. In triumphantly announcing this policy shift before veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the national security adviser, John Bolton, repeatedly stressed the contrast with President Obama’s approach and pledged relentless pursuit of regime change.

Anyone familiar with the 60-plus years of failed United States policy toward Cuba before Mr. Obama’s opening in 2014 knows that the embargo only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on its long-suffering people. Instead of causing the collapse of the Cuban government or the abandonment of its ally Venezuela, Mr. Trump’s approach will again bolster hard-liners in Havana, entrench policies we oppose, drive Cuba closer to Russia and China, further isolate and impoverish the Cuban people and punish our European and Canadian allies, whose companies will now be sued.

Yet, this policy reversal surely pleases the old guard among Cuban émigrés, as it did the Bay of Pigs celebrants who cheered Bolton. Given the changing attitudes among younger Cuban-Americans who largely supported Mr. Obama’s engagement, it remains to be seen how much political sway the hard-liners still have in the crucial battleground state of Florida. Still, Mr. Trump is betting on firing up that faction.

Not content to bank only on the Cuban community in Florida, Mr. Trump is also courting the state’s many Venezuelan immigrants, who justifiably detest the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. To hasten Mr. Maduro’s exit, the Trump administration has rightly joined with regional and international partners to impose sanctions against Mr. Maduro, his government and cronies, and to recognize the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as interim president.

Trump Says He Never Asked McGahn to Fire Mueller

President’s tweet directly contradicts account in special counsel report

President Trump on Thursday said in a tweet that he had never asked then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, directly contradicting a detailed account in Mr. Mueller’s report.

“As has been incorrectly reported by the Fake News Media, I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn’t need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself.”

The special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election said that Mr. Trump “called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed.” The report, which the Justice Department released last week, relied on interviews that Mr. McGahn gave Mr. Mueller’s team in March 2018, after which Mr. Mueller concluded that “McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House.”

Mr. Mueller also wrote the president “made clear” to his chief of staff and chief strategist at the time—Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, respectively—that he was considering firing the special counsel. Both men spoke to the special counsel’s investigators. Mr. Trump declined to answer questions about obstruction of justice and declined to sit for an interview with Mr. Mueller.

Mr. Trump has long denied reports that he sought to have Mr. McGahn fire Mr. Mueller, telling reporters in January 2018 that it was “fake news.” He subsequently asked his White House counsel to publicly deny the reports, which Mr. McGahn refused to do, according to the Mueller report. The special counsel investigated that episode, among others, in seeking to determine whether the president obstructed justice.

In the week since the 448-page report was released to the public, Mr. Trump has gone from saying it exonerates him to attacking some findings as “total bullshit.” His comments Thursday marked his first effort to contradict a key part of the report that raised the question of obstruction.

.. After reports surfaced in January 2018 of Mr. Trump’s directive to Mr. McGahn, Mr. Trump publicly denied the conversation and sought to have his White House counsel do the same. According to the Mueller report, Mr. Trump sought to have aides including his personal lawyer, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and former staff secretary Rob Porter ask Mr. McGahn to dispute the reports, at one point threatening to fire Mr. McGahn, according to Mr. Porter’s account to investigators.

In another instance recounted in the Mueller report, Mr. McGahn and the president met face-to-face in February 2018, where Mr. Trump asked him: “Did I say the word fire?” Mr. McGahn told the president that he had understood the conversation as “Call Rod. There are conflicts. Mueller has to go.” Mr. Trump then demanded to know why Mr. McGahn kept notes, saying, “I never had a lawyer who took notes.”

Advisers described the president’s response to the report in recent days as more impulsive than strategic, saying he was driven by media coverage of the report and its fallout rather than any plan to undermine the investigation. “He’s going to talk about it if it’s current and discussed and out there,” Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for the president, said in an interview. “He’s not if it’s not.”

Meanwhile, some of the president’s advisers have opted for a more muted response to the report. Mr. Trump’s lawyers had prepared a 30-page counter-report to Mr. Mueller’s document—whittled down from 150 pages originally—that they planned to release the day the report came out. One week later, they haven’t yet released it.