There comes a point when you need to stop making excuses for the unfortunate behavior of a relative who is starting to lose it. And then you take measures to minimize the damage and keep the family safe and assure its future. Is the country reaching that point with its current president?
Perhaps it is time for people who work and live with him to start taking his spur-of-the-moment declarations, his inability to keep a stable staff, his confusion between the functions of family and public employees, and much more as signs of a failing mind. That does happen to people in their 70’s (and younger).
Our presidents, fortunately, aren’t absolute dictators. The whole constitutional structure compartmentalizes power, just as family members eventually need to invoke the right to discuss alternate arrangements among themselves when a grandparent, used to calling the shots, stops making sense.
Some of the safeguards we have, as a nation, are the US Senate and House, the court system, the professional staff of the executive agencies, the press, and the military. We aren’t used to thinking about the military as a safeguard of democracy, but you can find historical examples of it, as until recently in Turkey.
One of the reassuring moments in American history came when General Alexander Haig, Nixon’s last Chief of Staff, advised, or is rumored to have advised, the U.S. military to disregard any unusual military orders from a president under severe pressure to resign (History Commons, under August 26, 1974).
That could be the situation envisaged by the Australian academic who asked the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet whether he would conduct a nuclear attack on China if the President so ordered (New York Times, 7/27/17. Adm. Scott H. Swift said “Yes” and:
“Every member of the U.S. military has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as the commander in chief appointed over us.”
Of course, but things aren’t always that clear, especially if the officers and president happen to see things differently.
Although it’s not really constitutional, it doesn’t seem a bad idea for a White House Chief of Staff, in 1974 probably with the Secretary of Defense (James Schlesinger), to forestall a “beleaguered” (to use a current term in the news) or unstable president’s possibly ill-advised and disastrous military orders. They, or whoever did transmit such an order, were certainly acting in the spirit of the 25th Amendment, the crux of which is:
“Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President….”
Thus the 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, essentially allows a president who isn’t up to the job to be temporarily or permanently sidelined for rehabilitation.
Might Gen. John F. Kelly, sworn in yesterday as White House Chief of Staff and the first retired general in that position since Alexander Haig, play a prominent role in planning such a transition?
Congress has not named any “other body” for the job, so currently the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet have the power to declare the President “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” At that moment, Vice President Pence would become Acting President.
Such an eventuality would not really surprise those of us who remember the Watergate crisis, whose denouement gave power to Gerald Ford, the only President who was never elected either President or Vice President.
Gerald R. Ford on August 27, 1974, 18 days after being sworn in as the 38th President, by David Hume Kennerly. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library