Sometimes, it is true, Trump makes it hard for officials to comply with orders. He announced his decision to bar transgender troops without much notice to the Pentagon and without any of the requisite details, leaving the Joint Chiefs to scratch their heads and maintain the status quo until the White House provided instructions specific enough to follow. As S.V. Date writes, incidents like that are becoming distressingly commonplace across the executive branch, thanks to Trump’s inattention to detail and short attention span. But while that’s a serious problem, intentionally disregarding orders isn’t a good answer.
The chaos has Ross Douthat hoping members of the administration will invoke the 25th Amendment’s provision stating that if the president is incapacitated, the vice president and Cabinet can act to have him removed. This, too, is a dangerous path. The provision was intended for situations in which the president has become too ill to work, and was enacted after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to answer the question of what might have happened if Kennedy were kept alive but unable to handle the duties of office. There have been other, similar situations in the past, like that of Woodrow Wilson, who was for months incapacitated by a stroke.
But there’s no evidence that anything has happened to Trump since the election that has changed his fitness for office. He shows no new signs of illness. If Trump is unfit for the presidency in the estimation of Douthat or anyone else, he is no less fit than he was on November 8, 2016, when voters had their chance to to render a verdict. Pressing for the 25th Amendment solution in this case, with no evidence of a change in cognition or health, is de facto pressing for Mike Pence and the Cabinet to nullify the will of the voters.
When observers worry that Trump is destroying norms, this is precisely what they’re referring to. The norm-destruction doesn’t end with what Trump does and doesn’t do, nor does it end with his loyalists. It’s even more dangerous and far-reaching because his rhetoric and acts encourage his opponents to support responses that they would have found unthinkable even a year ago. Thus the smart and careful Will Wilkinson can be found arguing that in the name of stopping Trump’s lawlessness, federal officials must lawlessly disobey him, even while acknowledging, “Yes, it’s dangerous.” Those praying for a deus ex machina aren’t arguing for a cure that is worse than the disease. They’re arguing for a cure that is the same as the disease.
This isn’t to say that that Trump’s critics should just take a seat for the next three years and hope there’s not a nuclear war while they wait. There is a mechanism for removing a president that doesn’t require disobeyed orders, military coups, or executive-branch appointees nullifying elections. That, of course, is impeachment. As Cass Sunstein argues, impeachment wasn’t designed as a method of bringing criminal charges against the president. It’s a fundamentally political process, created to prosecute political misdeeds. The president needn’t have committed any criminal offense at all. In fact, many of the actions that have critics calling for the unwise steps laid out above could arguably be grounds for impeachment.
Is impeachment difficult? Of course it is. It should be—every attempted impeachment in American history has been a cataclysm in its own way. But it offers a process for handling presidents that is established, doesn’t break longstanding norms, and doesn’t seek to solve lawlessness with more lawlessness. Far better to exhaust the lawful remedies before anyone starts calling for soft, much less hard, coups.