On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot as he entered his limousine after a speech at a Washington hotel. Reagan’s condition soon stabilized. He was released from the hospital April 11 and spoke to a joint session of Congress on April 28.
But in the first few hours, it was not clear whether the president would live or die. Paperwork was prepared to appoint Vice President George H. W. Bush as acting president. You can see it here, courtesy of the Reagan Library. The paperwork was never executed. Instead, the day after the shooting, three top aides visited Reagan in the hospital. They brought with them a piece of legislation that had to be signed that day. Reagan signed it. American citizens and foreign allies were assured: The presidency still functioned. Adversaries who might have been tempted to take advantage of a break in United States governance also got the message: Be warned.
(The legislation, in case you were wondering, blocked a scheduled increase in dairy price supports from going into effect the next day.)
The faction-riven Reagan White House was not always a happy place. But under the deft management of Chief of Staff James Baker (now the subject of a superb new biography by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser), the Reagan White House was a supremely functional place. It got the job done.
The Trump White House is not happy and does not get the job done. It is the most dysfunctional in history. Donald Trump is the most corrupt president in history. Yet that White House and that president head the government of this unfortunate country. Now that Trump has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, it’s important that Americans and the world know whether anybody is in charge—and if so, who?
Granted, Americans were asking that question even before Trump was airlifted to the hospital. The administration has given no straight answer even to such basics as “Are Trump’s tweets official statements of the president?” The U.S. government in court has sometimes argued yes. At other times, it has argued no. Trump notoriously spends his days watching television, and also notoriously trusts even the wackiest television talkers more than the scientists, military, and intelligence services of the United States.
Before Trump’s diagnosis, however, Americans at least knew that he was the head of government and the head of state. If a presidential signature was required, his was that signature. If an order had to be given to the armed forces, that order ultimately traced to his legal authority.
Now there’s reason to wonder: Is he still able to discharge the office from Walter Reed? If he’s not, U.S. law provides remedies. Either way, Americans and the world need to know.
That need raises special problems in the Trump era, because of this White House’s supreme dishonesty. Their words mean little. In the stress of 1981, the Reagan White House walked an extra mile to communicate assurance. I mentioned how faction-riven that White House was. When Reagan signed the dairy bill on the day after the assassination attempt, the three aides by his side were the leaders of the three big factions: not only Baker, but also his rivals, Michael Deaver and Edwin Meese. Nobody was left to linger behind to cast doubt on Reagan’s competence.
COVID-19 can be incapacitating, especially for older people and especially for people who are overweight, as Trump is. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered the hospital for COVID-19 in April of this year, he formally deputized Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to oversee government for him. Such a transfer is a more serious matter in the U.S. system, formalized by law. Any administration might hesitate to acknowledge the incapacity of the president. But if the Trump administration is not going to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and its temporary transfer of authority from president to vice president, then it needs to do something else. It needs to communicate to Americans and the world that Trump remains able to do his job, if only to the same minimal extent he has done the job until now. And it needs to do that communicating fast—and as close to truthfully as this crooked administration can manage.