Is Trump Actually Still in Control?

Aides are headed to the exits, and the president himself is disengaging.

Empty chairs in the Oval Office
Carlos Barria / Reuters

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Updated at 12:00 a.m. ET on April 23, 2021.

Who is steering the American ship of state?

This isn’t a philosophical question; we’ve spent four years wondering about the roots and motivations of Trumpism. It’s a specific question: Who is in charge right now when the White House has to make a decision?

On paper, the answer is simple: Until noon on January 20, Donald Trump is the president. Then Joe Biden will be sworn in and become president. In practice, matters are less clear. Even by the low standard he has set, Trump is reportedly disengaged from the work of governance, and is instead mainlining television news and raging over his social-media defenestration. Some reports suggest that Vice President Mike Pence is making some decisions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is back-channeling with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unelected staff members may be wielding power in the executive branch. Others have quit, or quit showing up.

There are two bitter ironies to the January 6 attempted coup. First, the mob was seeking to overturn an election in order to keep in office a president who manifestly has no interest in performing the job. Second, the riot seems to have accelerated rather than prevented the weakening of Trump’s presidency. Many attempted coups leave behind power vacuums and uncertainty. Until Biden is inaugurated, or Trump leaves office via resignation, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, or impeachment, the federal government may remain in the fragile state of having no clear leader.

Cracks have been showing since the midst of the riot. During the heat of the assault, leaders in Congress and in D.C. government were pleading for the National Guard to assist in the response. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, was prepared to send troops from his state. CNN reports that Trump resisted deploying the Guard, and that Pence—barricaded inside the Capitol—helped get approval. The New York Times reports on confusion and indecision among leaders including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley; the Army chief of staff; Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy; and Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller. We still don’t understand why approval for the Guard was slow or how it eventually came.

There still has been little in the way of federal-government briefings on the events of January 6—nothing from the White House, and few from other federal agencies. FBI Director Christopher Wray has not spoken publicly.

A U.S. Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, died after reportedly being beaten in the attack. But Trump has not personally offered any public condolences, and he has reportedly not called Sicknick’s family. (Pence aides say the vice president has done so.) For several days, the administration declined to lower the flag at the White House to honor the officer. Finally, yesterday, the flag was lowered. An accompanying proclamation is signed by Trump, but it’s written in proclamese, not the president’s patois. Without his Twitter account, Trump seems mute, and it’s unclear what eventually led to the flag decision, or who actually made it.*

Reports about the president’s state of mind suggest that he is raging over his Twitter ban and calls for his resignation, all while consuming his customary intake of TV. He has not appeared publicly since his speech just before the riot. What meager presidential initiatives still remain, such as pardons for friends, family, and toadies, are apparently paused, though the president found time to award the Medal of Freedom to a trio of golfers and will award it as well to the New England Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick. All of these stories require the context that, throughout his presidency, Trump has shown little interest in the work of governance.

Meanwhile, Pelosi seems to be trying to intervene in the military chain of command. In a letter to Democratic representatives last week, she reported that she had called Milley “to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.” Pelosi is right that Trump is dangerous and unhinged, but she also has no authority to tell the military not to follow a command from the president. (Nor, it’s worth noting, does Milley, whose role is lofty but advisory.)

The executive branch has seen an exodus of employees, both customary late-term departures and also a more recent spate of resignations in response to the attempted coup. Politico describes the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as a “ghost town.” Pence has reportedly ruled out removing Trump via the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, and he continues to go through some of the motions of his job, including hosting a coronavirus-task-force meeting today. Some top-ranking staffers considered resigning but decided to stay on the job, reportedly aiming to ensure stability. What exactly does this mean? Presumably it does not involve enacting the president’s vision—but instead trying to prevent him from doing dangerous things he might be tempted to do.

This is a more dramatic and dangerous iteration of the catch-22 I described in September 2018, when reports emerged about administration officials simply ignoring orders from the president. On the one hand, the constitutional order and rule of law depend on following a chain of command. If the president issues a command that is lawful but dangerous and foolish, they can follow it, resign, or refuse and risk being fired, but they cannot simply usurp his power—nor can the vice president, the speaker of the House, or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On the other hand, five days have passed since the president of the United States incited an assault on the Capitol, and he remains in office. He has never been equal to the task of being president, and reporting from the West Wing suggests that aides are now genuinely rattled by his mental state.

Several members of Congress in both parties have called for Trump to resign. Pelosi has demanded that Pence invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, and says the House will impeach Trump if he doesn’t. But none of these efforts seems likely to succeed, and, even so, they take time—and it’s already been five days.

Allowing Trump to continue to lead the government endangers democracy, but so does ignoring the Constitution to stop him. The nation placed itself in a terrible position in 2016 by electing Trump, creating impossible choices like this. Americans took a step toward correcting that error in November, when they voted to elect Biden and eject Trump, but lame-duck Trump has become even more dangerous—even if, or maybe particularly if, he has taken his hand off the tiller.

*This article originally stated that Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick was killed in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. On April 19, Washington, D.C.'s chief medical examiner released a report finding that Sicknick had experienced two strokes and died of natural causes. The article has been updated to reflect that the cause of Sicknick's death had not yet been confirmed at the time of publication.