I asked that question the morning after the attack on the Capitol and the answer seems no clearer five days later. Cabinet members are resigning, some Republicans are talking impeachment, Trump himself is incommunicado thanks to his Twitter ban. Apart from giving out medals to his friends and cronies, he doesn’t even seem to even be making a pretense of doing the job right now. It was Pence, not Trump, who reportedly consulted on sending the National Guard to the Capitol and who placed a condolence call to the family of Brian Sicknick. The White House didn’t even lower the flag to honor Sicknick until yesterday afternoon. It was an afterthought.
Although all of that’s going to change tomorrow.
My guess, and it’s a pure guess, is that there’s an informal understanding within the cabinet that any normal orders from the president are to be followed and any unusual orders are to be brought to Pence’s attention immediately. At that point, depending upon how unusual they are, he’ll invoke the 25th Amendment to strip Trump’s authority temporarily. A source told CNN over the weekend that Pence hasn’t ruled out using the 25th Amendment, although that reporting contradicts other reporting. Maybe Pence is maintaining strategic ambiguity about it because he thinks that’s the only way to keep Trump from behaving badly. If he says explicitly that it’s on the table, Trump might fly off the handle again. If he says explicitly that it’s *not* on the table, Trump might take that as license to do whatever he wants. Pence has a tiny bit of leverage here to influence his behavior, assuming the president still cares about not becoming the first commander-in-chief to be removed for incapacity.
Take this with a good-sized chunk of salt, as it’s based on nothing more than the account of an anonymous “former aide,” but:
Vice President Mike Pence has assumed control of Mr Trump’s cabinet and is ‘acting as if he is no longer President’, one former aide said.
The source added: ‘Allies and foes alike have united to ensure the President doesn’t go completely rogue during his final days in office. He has effectively been shut down. The cabinet are going about their duties to ensure the safety of the country and a smooth transition of power to Joe Biden.’
“One source close to the vice president said Pence is hoping to spend his remaining days in office telegraphing ‘to our allies and adversaries that we have a fully functioning government,'” said CNN this afternoon. I, uh, do not think they’re going to get that message, Mike, after we just had a riot at the U.S. Capitol where a crazed Trump mob was looking to lynch you. According to CNN, Trump and Pence haven’t even spoken since last week’s rally — also not a hallmark of a “fully functioning government.” In fact, one of the reasons why so many deputies are either quitting or avoiding Trump now is because they’re outraged at how he’s treated Pence personally, demonizing a guy who showed utmost loyalty to him for years because Pence wouldn’t abet a coup attempt during certification while lacking all legal authority to do so.
He nearly ended up dead because of it. And Trump apparently never called him to check on his welfare. This sums up the state of the play in our fully functioning government well enough:
The Trump experiment is really going to end with everyone trying to hold back an all-out administration meltdown, including the chain of command and national security stability. It’s fitting, but it’s also incredibly dangerous and incredibly sad.
What an awful four years. https://t.co/ghMf6jI5J6
— Matt Glassman (@MattGlassman312) January 11, 2021
We’re in an “extraconstitutional” limbo right now, writes Laura Field. Trump nominally remains head of the executive branch but he’s lost meaningful authority within the government apart from the House GOP caucus, and even they have a few people considering impeachment.
Right now, however, the Constitution is not fully operative, because the person occupying the most important office in the system, Donald Trump, does not have the authority he needs to execute the duties of the office. The person who was elected to lead the executive has lost so much legitimacy that it is unclear who holds the reins…
The fact is that on Wednesday, and since Wednesday, Vice President Pence and others have demonstrated that they no longer trust him, in a pretty stark and public way. Others have made the same point more subtly: “[M]any Republican lawmakers are already employing [what] one GOP strategist termed . . . the ‘wink, wink, nod, nod’ strategy, by which lawmakers simply treat VP Mike Pence as president,” reports Politico, while, according to the Washington Post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “has told fellow senators and other confidants that he does not plan to speak with Trump again.”
Field’s conclusion is straightforward: If everyone in the government is already acting as if Trump is no longer president, the responsible thing to do is to formalize that arrangement by removing him via impeachment or the 25th Amendment. Don’t invite a crisis in which Trump issues an order and there’s suddenly chaos because no one knows if they’re supposed to follow it or not. If he tells the Pentagon to bomb Beijing and Pence says not to do it, what do they do? If they listen to Pence instead of Trump, that in itself would amount to a coup. Only by replacing Trump so that Pence assumes the lawful powers of the presidency can that crisis be averted.
But Congress isn’t going to that, at least not with the sort of haste that would make impeachment actually meaningful. And the reason they’re not going to do it, which Field doesn’t mention, is that they’re afraid of domestic terrorists. If you could secretly poll the House GOP on whether Trump is still fit for office and should continue to serve, how many would say yes? Maybe half? A third? But when impeachment hits the floor, I’ll be surprised if the number of Republicans who vote yes exceeds a dozen. In all likelihood, it’ll be single digits. Why? Because they fear for their lives and would rather appease terrorists by doing the wrong thing than let this insanity continue in the name of protecting themselves. That’s a human reaction, but also an abdication of leadership. Makes you wonder how far Al Qaeda could have gotten if they’d focused on threatening members of Congress instead of American civilians. Maybe we’d have just handed them Afghanistan instead.
Although that’s what we’re going to end up doing anyway after 20 years, right?
I’m skeptical that foreign adversaries will try something in the next nine days to capitalize on U.S. instability. The one and only good thing about having a president crazy enough to egg on a violent mob of conspiracy theorists is that even the bad guys abroad are apt to look at him and think, “He’s capable of anything now, isn’t he?” A man who’d put the life of his own VP in danger isn’t going to fret much about the lives of Iranian or Chinese soldiers. Tehran and Beijing must realize that and prefer to cool their jets while waiting for Biden. I hope?
Anyway, things change tomorrow. Trump is going to the border in Texas to celebrate his achievements on immigration, visiting the town of Alamo. The odds that he’s going to say something irresponsible to his fans about January 20 being “the Alamo” for MAGA can’t be higher than, oh, 96 percent. If he does do that, though, I think that’s when the calculus on impeachment might change even for some Republicans in the House. Some are probably waiting right now to see if he’s actually going to go on inciting his fans before the inauguration or if he’s at least pretending that what happened at the Capitol is wrong. If he says something incendiary in his first public appearance since the riot, they’re going to drop the hammer. I hope?
Exit quotation from a person close to Trump’s legal team, speaking to New York magazine last week after the attack: “He’s sort of turning on everybody. The president is so visceral, he just can’t hear people unless he can respect them. And he thinks everybody’s a traitor, even the people who got him through impeachment. It’s just nuts.”
Update: Looks like some of the information above is outdated. Can’t wait to hear how this went:
CONFIRMED: President Trump and VP Pence spoke in Oval Office today a Senior Admin Official tells me. @CBSNews
— Fin Gomez (@finnygo) January 11, 2021