An Internal ‘Soft Coup’ Is No Answer to Trump

Senior officials working to subvert the president’s agenda show cowardice, not principle.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Sep 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The Trump administration, like a dismasted man o’ war, keeps taking broadside after broadside from its opponents. But the latest explosion seems to have come from its own powder magazine.

An anonymous op-ed column in The New York Times, purportedly by a senior Trump official, claims that an internal “resistance” is keeping Trump from going completely off the rails and dragging the country with him.

Arriving the day after the first reports about Bob Woodward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House, the op-ed seems almost too well timed. It confirms Woodward’s sources, who say much the same thing — that Trump’s aides despise him but hang on to save the Republic from their boss, and their boss from himself.

Lifelong incompetence

The charges sound plausible. Donald Trump’s career is all the more astounding when you consider his lifelong incompetence in judging other people. He chose Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s protege, as his mentor. Many of the people he hired to run his campaign are now either in jail or making plea deals. He filled his cabinet with crooks and sycophants, and his White House with the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Steven Miller. And he fired people like FBI Director James Comey for being insufficiently loyal and an Obama appointee anyway.

So it could well be that Trump, looking for reliable crooks to serve him, screwed up again and again. He can spot a crook brilliantly, but reliability, like integrity, eludes him.

But some observers note that Woodward’s sources and the (so far) anonymous op-ed writer are confessing to far worse sins than they say they’re trying to prevent. No presidential appointee is hired on the understanding that he or she should feel free to save the Republic if the boss goes nuts. Like ordinary civil servants, appointees’ duties are to do what they’re told, regardless of their personal views.

And if they don’t want to do it? They can choose to quit or be fired. Or invoke the 25th Amendment, which allows Congress to make the vice-president acting president if the country’s leader is deemed incapable of doing the job.

The op-ed writer says no one wanted to trigger a constitutional crisis by invoking the 25th. But as David Frum observed, subverting the president’s wishes creates a far worse constitutional crisis: unelected appointees sabotaging their boss’s plans.

Time to blow the whistle

Trump’s incompetence in hiring personnel is confirmed by his self-styled internal “resistance.” If Trump’s administration does contain a genuine “resistance,” it ought to understand its own power, and the law. Swiping executive orders off Trump’s desk and hoping he’ll forget them only keeps the swiper on the payroll while prolonging the agony. Better to swipe the order, leave the White House and call a press conference that afternoon to resign and offer the order to the press.

Similarly, a mass resignation of White House officials would not only discredit Trump but offer the officials some hope of redemption and future work. If they are clinging to their jobs in hopes of saving their post-White House careers, it won’t happen unless Trump succeeds and American democracy is finished. If they think that’s a likely outcome, they shouldn’t have been messing with their boss in the first place.

Such a mass resignation would put intense pressure on the Republican-dominated House and Senate. They have so far been wretchedly complicit in Trump’s follies, evidently because he gives them room to dismantle social legislation going back to the New Deal, while installing reactionary judges who will confirm their new laws for at least a generation.

A limited President Pence

But a mass resignation would very likely trigger the 25th Amendment. If the process forced Trump out of office, Mike Pence would become president despite his association with Trump. But Pence would be barely functional for the remainder of his term, and a Democratic victory in the fall 2018 election could limit him even more — if not drive him out of office, to be replaced by a Democratic Speaker of the House.

Pence might also feel limited by the prospect not of a soft coup, but a hard one, led by some exasperated cabal of generals who would put a couple of divisions into Washington and forcibly remove Pence, his cabinet and everyone in the Congress and Supreme Court who owed him anything.

That might sound far-fetched, but everything about Trump’s campaign and presidency has succeeded precisely because no one could believe it was happening.

Before Trump was actually elected, I worried that he might organize an “autogolpe,” a state-run coup like that conducted by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. It is scant consolation that Trump now seems far too dumb and incapable to organize such a coup, or to sustain it if he tried.

But someone else in his administration, whether part of the “resistance” or not, might give it a shot. To forestall that, the resisters — especially the op-ed writer — should go public very soon, and stampede congressional Republicans into ditching Trump. They wouldn’t like it, but it might give them a chance to evade jail. And it would give the Republicans one last opportunity to uphold the Constitution they all swore to defend.  [Tyee]

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