On October 14, 1962, an American U-2 spy plane flew over Cuba and took hundreds of pictures of military installations on the island. The next day, the CIA determined that these bases were actually nuclear-missile sites, set up under our noses by the Soviet Union and discovered by pure luck.
On October 22, President John F. Kennedy enacted a blockade around Cuba and addressed the nation, and the world, on television, saying he was ready to take military action if necessary. The next day, he raised the U.S. military’s alert status to DEFCON 2, one step short of actual nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis was under way.
Over the next few days, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union heightened. The U.S.S.R. conducted demonstrative aboveground nuclear tests, and Soviet submarine commanders, on their way to Cuba, were authorized to use nuclear torpedoes at sea. At one point, Kennedy estimated the odds of a nuclear holocaust at “somewhere between one in three and even.”
By October 28, the Soviet ships had turned back, and the U.S.S.R. had pledged to remove the missiles from Cuba. The U.S. had agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove missiles from Turkey. From the time Kennedy went public to the end of the crisis was a mere six days.
Donald Trump still has 11 days in office.
Article II of the Constitution vests full executive power in the president, including the post of commander in chief of the armed forces. Since World War II, this has included the power to use nuclear arms—“the president’s weapons,” as nukes are called in the defense community—without contradiction or countermanding.
No special exception limits the actions of lame-duck presidents. Trump will have the full panoply of his powers right up until noon on January 20. After the storming of the U.S. Capitol, even these final few days are too much of a risk to endure.
Trump is an unstable and desperate man who has incited violence against the government of the United States. He cannot be trusted with the keys to Armageddon, and so he must be removed by any legal and constitutional means available.
Since the insurrection on Wednesday, Trump has tried in his diffident and childlike way to calm the waters with a weak statement acknowledging Joe Biden’s win, an acceptance Trump apparently sees as a gracious willingness to compromise after his initial seditious insistence on fighting to the end. This change in tone, however, was merely Trump following his usual pattern, in which he says something horrifying, panics his staff—and his lawyers—and then is pushed out in front of the cameras to say he didn’t really mean any of it, while he winks and indicates that he meant every word of it.
And sure enough, just hours after his grudging act of contrition, Trump was back on Twitter with an all-caps exhortation to his followers to take him both seriously and literally. “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” he tapped out furiously, “will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
And in case anyone was in doubt about yet another “new tone” or “presidential pivot,” Trump added one more tweet: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” (On Friday evening, Twitter permanently suspended the president’s account.) As my colleague David Frum has noted, Trump has finally ended the unbroken streak of peaceful transitions of power in the United States.
Mere spite, however, is not enough reason to remove Trump. He is willing to instigate violence against his own citizens and the other branches of government, an emotional condition that is an obvious case for invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Unfortunately, Vice President Mike Pence has resisted this move so resolutely that he refused to answer a call from the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader.
Congressional Republicans, for their part, are resisting calls to remove Trump, arguing instead that we should all just clench our teeth and tough it out. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, has called for impeachment if Trump does not resign. But she has also told her caucus that she has spoken with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”
This move is flatly unconstitutional. Pelosi has the right to ask questions as part of Congress's oversight, but she does not have the right to ask for options to circumvent the president's Article II powers. This is an unhealthy signal to the executive branch, and especially to the military, intelligence, and justice communities, to ignore the elected president and to function without an authority in power until Biden arrives.
This circumvention of the Constitution happened once before, albeit by a Cabinet officer rather than at the behest of a legislator. When Richard Nixon was in his final agony, rumored to be drinking heavily and having conversations with the portraits in the White House, Senator Alan Cranston phoned Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to warn about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.” Schlesinger told the U.S. military that any “unusual orders”—such as using nuclear weapons—should be verified by him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. What we didn’t know at the time was that the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, was in worse shape than Nixon. His health was failing, and he was addicted to sleeping pills. In October 1973, perhaps gambling that Nixon was too compromised to respond, Brezhnev threatened to send troops to the Arab-Israeli War then under way. Kissinger and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Thomas Moorer, decided to act. They issued a worldwide military alert—including elevating the ready status of U.S. nuclear forces—on the night of October 24.
The Soviets backed down. But it could have ended very differently.
We can’t keep hoping for the best or relying on those not in charge to keep Trump in line. Even one day more is too long for him to be in the White House. We escaped disaster over just a few days in 1962 and in the dark of an autumn night in 1973. Peace was kept, in part, by the presence of steady professionals such as Schlesinger and the Kennedy team, the likes of whom are nowhere to be found in Trump’s Washington.
We no longer have a margin for error. A second impeachment is the only reliable solution, and it should take place immediately.