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Article II Section 1: How it might happen



Our United States Constitution provides for “the Removal of the President from Office” in only four cases: Impeachment (Article I Section 3) or “his Death, Resignation or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office” (Article II Section I).

Impeachment, we are pretty familiar with. Two Presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Impeachment is merely an indictment by the House; conviction and removal require a majority vote in the Senate. In the event, neither Johnson nor Clinton was convicted.

One of the three scenarios outlined in Article II Section I has, unfortunately, been played out too often in American history: the death of a President. Eight have died while in office: William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR and JFK. Our smooth Constitutional process ensured no period of uncertainty in any of those cases. As for resignation, only one President has quit: Richard Nixon. Which brings us to the last, final, fourth means by which a President may be removed from office: “the Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office.”

Since it’s never happened, we have only conjecture to guide us. What would constitute such an “Inability”? Physical illness, of course. Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in October, 1919, more than one year before his second term as President was due to expire. He was largely paralyzed afterwards, but remained in office. Years later, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, he was a sick man, hospitalized numerous times, and each time he temporarily transferred power to his Vice President, Nixon, but he never resigned. We thus have no experience in how to deal with a President who is physically unable to perform his or her duties.

What if a President is ill, not in a physical sense, but a mental one? This question has arisen, seemingly organically, since Trump was sworn in. Let’s conjure up a scenario–this is purely imaginary–in which his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Let’s say it starts with a continuation of the lying for which he has become notorious. (The latest is his insistence that the U.S. murder rate is the highest in history, when in fact it is at a historically low level.)

Imagine that the lies continue unabated, and become increasingly tenuous. Perhaps a Court rules against him on some large matter. He lambastes the judges. No matter; he has suffered a defeat. He is defiant; there is talk of a Constitutional crisis: the Executive versus the Judiciary, each co-equal. What is to be done? The country is riven with debate; the halls of Congress roar with the din of controversy. What will happen? Suddenly, Trump tweets that he never took the position in the first place that the Court rejected. In fact (he tweets), he argued the exact opposite. Were it not for the dishonest media (the New York Times, CNN, NBC, ABC and so on), which falsely misrepresent his positions, everybody would have known his real position.

It is an outrageous lie. Privately, even his most ardent Republican supporters are aghast. Public pressure mounts for someone, somewhere, to do something—rein him in. Cracks in Trump’s wall of support appear. Ted Cruz suggests all is not well in the Oval office; Paul Ryan says, embarrassed, he can speak only for himself, not the President; Kellyanne Conway, under massive assault from the media, quits. Even O’Reilly, on Fox, wonders if the President is compos mentis. The question of the President’s sanity, his mental fitness—up to now just background chatter in Democratic politics—now boils forth upon the general body politic.

Suddenly, in the midst of this electricity, comes new news of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Investigative journalists determine that, yes, Trump was in St. Petersburg at the time of the alleged sexual liaisons reported in the dossier. Meanwhile, the bipartisan Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, which had been holding closed-door hearings, issues a scathing report, which concludes that, not only did Russian intelligence blatantly hack into the DNC’s and Podesta’s emails, but they did so with the intention of getting Trump elected—and certain officials close to Trump—most visibly, Rudy Giuliani–strongly appear to have been complicit.

The country is now in full uproar. Trump again resorts to Twitter. “I never even met Rudy Giuliani until 2012,” he writes, despite dozens of photographs showing the two men together as long ago as 1985. Monster lies pile up, one after another. “I’ve never been to Russia.” “I criticized Wikileaks for releasing the emails.” And the capper: “Why does the crooked media say I admire Putin? He’s a bad man. So-called reporters are the most dishonest people in the world.”

On August 6, 1974, Barry Goldwater famously told a Republican Conference lunch, “There are only so many lies you can take, and now there has been one too many. Nixon should get his ass out of the White House—today!”

That was his response to Nixon’s ultimately intolerable final lies about Watergate, which were annihilated by the tapes. That afternoon, Goldwater and a cadre of Republican leaders—Sen. Hugh Scott, Rep. John Rhodes—marched to the White House and told Nixon the game was up. Nixon resigned from the Presidency three days later.

Nixon was not physically ill. He was not accused of being mentally ill, but pathological lying—which, essentially, was his crime—is a form of mental illness. Soon, it might be that a Republican deputation from Congress repeats that march to the Oval Office, this time to inform Trump he has to leave. If he does not, they tell him, they cannot guarantee that some Republican Senator or Congressman might not introduce a motion to remove the President from office, based on Article II Section I. And, they add, were such a motion introduced, it would more than likely pass.

There were rumors, back in those hot summer days of 1974, that Nixon would surround the White House with troops (of which he was Commander-in-Chief) and refuse to vacate the office. Fortunately for the nation, Nixon backed down. Trump—more volatile, far more grandiose in his own mind than the insecure Nixon—seems unlikely to kowtow to the wishes of mere Congressmen. The standoff, should it happen, will make for unbelievably great live T.V., and we can already start fantasizing about who will play whom—Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Melania, Ivanka, Pence, Spicer, Giuliani, Ryan, McConnell, Comey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the arresting officers—in the movie.

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