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The Dangers of a Weakened President

Even if no one—inside or outside of the federal government—takes Donald Trump seriously, he could still cause a great deal of damage.
Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Many pundits have labeled Donald Trump's tenure, just seven months in, as a "failed presidency," and Washington, D.C., seems to be mulling over the idea of leaving him in power but weak and chastened. However, the idea that he can be marginalized while serving in the White House is a dangerous fantasy.

Last week, Jonathan Bernstein looked at Trump through the eyes of Richard Neustadt to reveal the weakness of the incumbent. Just yesterday, Frank Bruni compiled the claims from various politicians and political observers, even those of Trump's own party, that the president is unfit for office and that his administration is terminally damaged. Bruni suggested that Trump has functionally already resigned, or that he never even fully assumed the presidency:

Trump resigned the presidency already — if we regard the job as one of moral stewardship, if we assume that an iota of civic concern must joust with self-regard, if we expect a president’s interest in legislation to rise above vacuous theatrics, if we consider a certain baseline of diplomatic etiquette to be part of the equation.

By those measures, it's arguable that Trump's presidency never really began. By those measures, it's indisputable that his presidency ended in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon, when he chose — yes, chose — to litigate rather than lead, to attend to his wounded pride instead of his wounded nation and to debate the supposed fine points of white supremacy.

He abdicated his responsibilities so thoroughly and recklessly that it amounted to a letter of resignation.

As with many aspects of both his presidency and his campaign, Trump's most egregious offenses are his violations of longstanding democratic norms. What makes these egregious is that there is no automatic punishment or corrective for them. Whether it's threatening to jail his campaign opponent, placing his children in high-ranking positions of power, divulging classified intelligence to officials from adversary nations, using the presidency to advance his business interests, or sympathizing with Nazis and Klan members, we're generally talking about things that aren't violations of the law. They're just things presidents don't do, in large part because our parties have mostly refused to nominate people who would do such things.

Conversely, as Bruni notes, while Trump does things presidents just don't do, he refuses to do the things presidents are supposed to do, such as appoint people to government positions, learn about various policy proposal and engage in the lawmaking process, honor the nation's longstanding alliances and treaty obligations, and at least take seriously the advice and reports of the nation's law enforcement and intelligence gathering communities.

No, he's not doing the job, but he nonetheless still holds the office. He has considerable powers over the federal government by virtue of simply being there. He can't be compelled to resign. The idea that a president should resign when he's proven incapable of doing the job or when he's lost the confidence of the people or the Congress would be a norm, not a law. He's not much on following norms, as we know, and it's not really much of a norm anyway. The only president we've seen resign is one who faced immediate impeachment and removal.

Trump could be impeached and removed, but only if two-thirds of the Senate (which would necessarily include more than a few senators of his own party) voted to do that. His cabinet could force him out, but he could contest that in the Congress. The things Congress has recently done to push back on Trump and constrain him are notable and should not be dismissed, but they are a far cry from removal. If anything, they seem to affirm that Congress is getting used to the idea of a marginalized presidency. They want to minimize the damage he can do and operate as much of the government as possible without his input.

There are ways the government can more or less function without an executive branch, or at least with a bare minimum of presidential input. As political scientist Thomas Schwartz has noted, the United States Constitution could be interpreted as a parliamentary system, with the Speaker of the House functioning largely like a prime minister and the president only consulted for ceremonial duties. Yes, the president's signature would still be necessary for bills to become laws, but in much the way that the majority party leader in Britain's House of Commons needs the queen's "permission" to form a government. But again, such an arrangement requires an executive who is on board with the plan. Trump has given no such indication.

Even if the entire White House staff quit or was fired and the executive branch consisted of no one but Donald and Ivanka Trump, he'd still have a great deal of power. And even if no one in the federal government took him seriously, he could still cause a great deal of damage.

Under the Constitution, he's still the commander in chief of the armed forces. It's clear that a good many military leaders don't take his various pronouncements very seriously, but they're not to the point of flagrantly disobeying orders, at least not yet.

Imagine if Trump tweeted that he wanted the captain of a nuclear submarine deployed in the Pacific to launch a nuclear missile at Pyongyang. (Is that really beyond imagination?) What would happen? Would the captain take this as a serious order? Would he check in with the Pentagon to see if it was serious? What would they tell him? Would there be widespread agreement to ignore a public order of the commander in chief?

Perhaps more importantly, even if the military didn't take this seriously, would Pyongyang? If they thought there was a serious chance of a missile strike within the hour, wouldn't they seek to attack several targets first before their nation was incapacitated? Wouldn't this, in many ways, be the rational course of action?

This is an extreme example but hardly an improbable one. There are many other arenas, including rule-making, executive orders, diplomacy, and veto authority, where the president retains a great deal of authority even if he has lost legitimacy. By refusing to sign a debt ceiling extension, he could force the federal government into default. He could pretty much hand over our defense technologies to Russia were he so inclined.

If, as reported, the president's own staff, conservative columnists, and several Republican members of Congress feel he is not up for the job, it is not enough to simply muse about it to the press and raise concerns. Trump has demonstrated he's not particularly interested in being loved or popular, and he doesn't care about winning over his detractors. Leaving him in office and hoping for the best, or just the least worse, is a wish, not a plan.