Opinion | Don’t Count on Congress to Oust an Unfit President

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If you’ve ever had the misfortune to observe a friend or associate lose their mind over time, you probably recall making excuses for their patterns of odd behavior before the shrinks made the official diagnosis. Oh, we all do weird things now and again, you console yourself. Or, you shrug and say, “He’s having a bad day.” But then comes the time when you accept that your zany friend or relative can no longer be judged sane.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears to have arrived at such a juncture this week as she endorsed legislation that would establish a commission that would lend 25th Amendment powers to Congress, letting the legislature remove future presidents from their duties and replace them with vice presidents should they no longer be judged physically or psychologically fit to perform them.

If passed, the bill wouldn’t take effect until after the 2024 election. But Pelosi’s pitch (live-streamed here) was obviously triggered by President Donald Trump’s hospitalization for Covid-19, the many still-unanswered questions about his health, the potentially judgment-altering doses of the steroid dexamethasone he is taking, and—let’s not be polite about this—his history of manic outbursts and actions during his time in office.

Made giddy by the prospect of adding to their toolbox a new technique for swapping out a defective president, the Democrats are kicking themselves for not having passed such a bill decades earlier to cancel an erratic president like Trump.

Would it really have worked, though? While we can imagine how a new law might replace a physically compromised president, it’s inconceivable that Congress and a commission would yank a president from office just because he’s acting crazy. Trump has been triggering 25th Amendment talk—from serious observers, not just partisan takedown fantasists—since before he gave his inaugural address in 2017, and he shows no sign of slowing down. But no one with the power to do anything about it has seriously broached the subject.

Trump has always been a scenery eater, but since sidelining his press secretary in early 2019 to assume the role of chief White House spokesman for himself, he has given us an almost daily, detailed view of his brainworks, one that might even convince skeptics that he’s lost his mind. Remember when, talking about his China trade war to reporters, he looked to the skies and declared, “I am the chosen one”? Or the same day, when he thanked a conspiracy theorist saying the Jewish people love Trump as if he’s the King of Israel for all that he’s done for that nation? Combine his messiah boasting with his 2019 observation that Jews who vote for Democrats are “disloyal,” and you have the opening argument for his commitment hearing.

Remember his offer to buy Greenland and his tiff with the Danish prime minister who called Trump’s plan “absurd”? Proposing the purchase of a portion of another nation isn’t nuts on its face. But expecting a servile response to an offer and then taking the rejection personally is. Take Trump’s view, reported in the Atlantic, that dead U.S. soldiers are “losers” and “suckers.” Insensitive or wack? Or his soft approval of the QAnon nonsense. Or his reported proposal to nuke hurricanes, or his belief that windmills cause cancer. Or his self-comparisons to Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. His loopy notions about using disinfectant (internally) and ultraviolet light (also internally) to treat Covid-19. Accusing more than a dozen citizens of “treason.” Do you know anybody aside from Trump who imagines that nobody reads the Bible more, nobody knows more about taxes, nobody knows more about nuclear weapons, nobody has a better temperament or knows more about renewable energy, nobody builds walls better, and nobody has more respect for women or is less racist than he?

These aren’t examples of just a drunk guy at the end of the bar talking to keep awake. Taken together, Trump’s deviations from “normal” behavior sketch a man in perpetual psychological imbalance, ready to crash hard at any time. No less an authority on political sanity than Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) diagnosed Trump as nuts during the 2016 campaign—that is, before becoming his ally. “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office,” Graham said in a February 2016 interview—before spending the next four years in unquestioning support of his new leader.

Graham has had lots of company in his first take on the subject. Psychologists and psychiatrists have been assessing Trump from afar, declaring him a malignant narcissist, a sociopath, delusional, the victim of cognitive decline, and all of the above. And, some of them think Trump’s getting worse. “Increasingly, he’s not able to be coherent in terms of making complete, coherent sentences, not repeating words, not looking for words, not repeating concepts and not trailing off of his initial train of thought,” said Yale School of Medicine forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee, editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, in an April 2019 interview. Last year, my fellow lay psychiatrist, George Conway, put Trump in his pincers for the Atlantic and pronounced the president mentally incapable of discharging his constitutional duties.

Is Trump getting worse, or, as he has sidelined aides and Cabinet officers who once tempered his worst tendencies, have we only gotten a clearer look at him? I suspect the latter and that nobody will take action until his fury prompts him to bite the head off a Lafayette Square pigeon that waddles into one of his impromptu lawn-side pressers. But even then, will people act? Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton believes that we’ve become inured to Trump’s unceasing antics. His bad behaviors have taken on the aura of “malignant normality.” We recognize on one level his supreme aberrance, but instead of doing anything about it we simply adapt. If you’ve watched a friend lose their marbles, you’ve probably witnessed malignant normality in action.

Pelosi’s legislative intentions, I trust, are sound. But don’t expect a new law alone to goad Congress into action. It’s hard to imagine any future presidential behavior that could trigger both houses of Congress if nothing Trump’s done has triggered them thus far.

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In Fletcher Knebel’s 1965 thriller, Night of Camp David, a delusional U.S. president schemes to merge the United States with Scandinavia (for its Aryan blood) and Canada. He also proposes an automatic wiretap on all telephones in the country and interprets any slight as evidence of a conspiracy against him. Send plans for the invasion of Canada and the liberation of Sweden to [email protected]. My email alerts would like to admit Thailand into the United States for the food. My Twitter feed would adopt Fiji for its beaches. My RSS feed thinks the country went to hell when it admitted Alaska.

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