Thanks to the president’s press conference last week—broadcast live from the bridge of USS Caine (“Ahh, but the strawberries that’s… that’s where I had them…”)—the only political topic of conversation that matters is when and how President Donald Trump will leave office.
Conventional thinking has the Republican majority in Congress rising up in indignation, pouring over purloined tax returns for princely emoluments from some suspect foreign power, and then joining the Democrats to remove Trump from the highest office.
Those who like their morning coffee with some conspiracy have Trump going down as a Manchurian president, done in by the revelation not just that Putin tilted the electoral wheels with the connivance of the disgraced General Michael Flynn, but that Trump’s entourage is a cell of fellow travellers, in office to pay off the venture capital that Putin spread around Trump Inc. when Donald had to turn to the Russian mob for a payday loan.
The problem with both paths from power is that they assume an orderly transition, based on precedent and succession clauses in the Constitution, not an assassination worthy of Cesarian Rome (“Et tu, Mitch?”) or some of the slow poisons mixed into the sacraments that have been known to speed change among the popes.
Alas, palace intrigue in Washington is as American as the Bill of Rights, which may explain why so many plotters come as if a well-armed militia.
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According to the storyboards used in most high schools (not to mention by cable commentators), American democracy is the last, best-hope on earth—the munificent bequest of the founding fathers—and a paradise exempt from palace revolutions, coups, putsches, cabals, nights of the long knives, and seizures of the radio station. After all, we’re not Guatemala or Sierra Leone.
Consistent with the brochures passed out at Independence Hall, the United States only replaces its leaders after sober deliberations and presidential debates—with Wolf Blitzer moderating.
If Trump is to leave office before his term expires, it should only be according to the rules established in the Constitution, which has two sections dealing with the removal of the president from office. Article Two states:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Then there is the 25th Amendment, which, in part, reads:
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Since 1789, when the Constitution was ratified, no president has been convicted of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Nor since 1967, when the 25th Amendment passed, has a president been deemed incompetent and removed by a cabinet camarilla (plus a doctor’s note).
That said, the United States has turned palace revolutions into a political art, so that many presidencies have been swept away, as if by Medici daggers. In the last 238 years, presidents—many as incompetent as Donald Trump, if not worse—have been shot, blackmailed, threatened, and bullied until they left office.
One in three presidencies have ended before their time, which explains how and why many of those who have risen to the highest office have done so on the back of illness, assassination, black ops, and other instruments of the putsch.
I know, I know, you want to believe that American democracy is among the oldest on the planet, and that our leaders are descended from Athenian idealism, not Bohemian defenestration.
The norm for much of American history, however, is that when some elements of the republic don’t like the choice made at the ballot box, they overthrow the president—by fair means or murder most foul.
By Trump’s reasoning, he’s serving on a four-year contract, as called for in the Constitution. In truth, he has the job security of an NFL cornerback, who can be cut anytime “to clear cap space” for the ruling class.
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For those who don’t buy the theory that the United States is a gated, banana republic, let’s have a review of a few presidencies, starting with Abraham Lincoln’s, that came to premature endings:
—As everyone knows, Lincoln was assassinated, and the co-conspirators of gunman John Wilkes Booth could well have filled another Ford Theater, as they included not just fellow assassins (who also shot William Seward), but horse handlers, doctors, and proprietors of safe houses in rural Maryland and Virginia.
—Andrew Johnson, after Lincoln, served out his term, although he was impeached and only survived because his supporters set up a slush fund of $150,000 to buy swing votes at theSenate impeachment trial. (Not something you read about in Profiles in Courage.)
—The presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes was over almost as it began, as true ballot fraud (not those mythical buses rolling into New Hampshire) put him in office.
—James Garfield, who succeeded Hayes, was shot early in his term by Charles Guiteau, who (at least in his deranged fantasies) was closely allied with Vice-President Chester Arthur’s patronage party.
When he pulled the trigger at the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station in Washington, D.C., Guiteau shouted: “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!” And he was, to the delight of fix-it man Roscoe Conkling.
—An anarchist from the Midwest, Leon Czolgosz, murdered President William McKinley in 1901, allowing—in the words of political boss Mark Hanna—“that damned cowboy” (Teddy Roosevelt) to become president.
—Roosevelt, himself, while campaigning in 1912 against William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, was shot but not killed.
—Warren Harding died in office in summer 1923, while barnstorming the country. His quackish doctor, Charles “Doc” Sawyer, at first thought he had eaten bad shellfish in Alaska. Others thought maybe he was poisoned, although later it became evident that Harding suffered from heart disease.
Conspiracists, however, do wonder why the ailing U.S. president got so little professional care in the last days of his life (he died in a San Francisco hotel suite), as was the case in 1945 when President Franklin Roosevelt became ill and died in Warm Springs.
—President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963. Even though his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had connections to the FBI, CIA, Russia, and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (if not Ted Cruz’s father), he was consigned to the dustbin of history as a “lone gunman,” a species of agitation unique to American politics.
—In summer 1974, Richard Nixon resigned during his second term, the victim of his own paranoia and Watergate-related crimes, but with a shove out the door from unelected co-conspirators in the FBI (see Throat, Deep), CIA, the Washington Post, and other stalwarts in the capital.
—The Iranian hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter his presidency, and in 1981 another assassin (also of the lone gunman persuasion) shot and seriously wounded President Ronald Reagan, although he survived and stayed in office.
—Technically a cabal did not remove President George W. Bush but lifted him to power, thanks to the good offices of a compliant Supreme Court, which did not trust Floridians to recount the contested ballots in the 2000 presidential election.
My point with all these examples is that, for a country that prides itself on the so-called “democratic process” and all that Inauguration Day, CNN hogwash about “the peaceful transfer of power,” many presidencies have begun or ended because of assassins, conspirators, plotters, stalwarts, witch doctors, or bureaucratic coups d’état, all of which ought to give Trump pause whenever bad shellfish are on the menu at Mar-a-Lago or an anarchist heads his way.
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What are the chances that someone will shoot Trump? Let’s hope they are poor. In the bloodstream of democracy, assassinations are a toxin, more fit for Czarist Russia or some African country with a near-endless supply of ambitious colonels.
What is remarkable in American history is that the republic has survived so many gun attacks on its highest elected officials. Overall, there have been more than twenty attempts on the lives of American presidents.
The hope is that the president travels safely in the bubble of Secret Service protection. That said, I am sure Trump’s erratic behavior, in his first month of office, has given pause to his protectors, who no doubt have had to scramble whenever he decides to dump his press pool and, say, play golf or head to a local restaurant.
Nor can I imagine that the Secret Service is happy that his weekend residences are a Florida beach club (still raffling membership to anyone with two-hundred grand) and a New York apartment building, where it must be difficult to endlessly check visitors and their guests (as opposed, say, to Camp David on its own military reservation).
I could well imagine that a growing preoccupation among Trump’s security detail is how to keep him safe from armed drones, which presumably can find U.S. officials as easily as they can the ISIS or Taliban leadership. If Amazon or UPS can send a drone to your front door, so, too, presumably, can other retailers of anarchy.
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More likely than a physical attack is that Trump will find himself at the sharp end of a silent coup, the kind of sting that the FBI and others in Washington ran against Richard Nixon. In that case, an embarrassing series of leaks were orchestrated to agitate the press and Congress to remove the President from office.
Who might organize such a plot against Donald Trump?
At the moment high on the list of potential conspirators would be the so-called Deep State of the intelligence agencies and corporate black holes around Washington that have a variety of grievances against Trump.
For starters, both the NSA and the CIA are now subject to criminal investigations over leaks that revealed compromising phones calls between General Flynn and the Russians.
Someone in one of the agencies leaked the contents of a phone call between Flynn and the Russian ambassador to Washington, revealing that the general had, in fact, discussed sanctions against Russia that the Obama administration had imposed after election tampering was confirmed in an FBI investigation.
I assume that nearly all of the intelligence agencies around Washington (there are some seventeen) are tapping the phone of the Russian ambassador (why else have bugs?), so that the search for the leaker will not be easy.
But when the usual suspects are rounded up and paraded to the stockade, you can be sure that the conflict will draw even sharper battle lines between Trump and the Parallax Corporation, the deadly front company at the center of the 1974 Alan Pakula political thriller.
More accomplices to the intrigue? Democrats in opposition—despairing that they don’t have the votes in the House to impeach (i.e., indict) or the votes in the Senate to convict—will no doubt turn to far-flung sources to find a “throw-down gun,” that is, “supplied” evidence that would make a conflict-of-interest conviction a lot easier.
For some conspirators the lowest-hanging dirt is probably the dealings of the Trump campaign in Russia, which is already the subject of an FBI investigation and various headline-chasing congressional committees. FBI Director Comey’s limousine, parked ominously in front of the capitol, cannot have been reassuring to the administration.
Some cabalists are hopeful that, by forcing the release of Trump’s taxes, other smoking guns might be found. Personally, I doubt anything in his taxes will bring down his presidency. Embarrass him? Sure, especially if he is not as rich as he boasted to those eager apprentices or if his taxes are a mountain of losses carried forward, from those moments when the “art of the deal” was to con shareholders, hedge funds, banks, et al. into paying for his many blunders.
The release of his tax forms would, however, give Trump’s opponents a road map to his fortune or to favors outstanding, especially if any foreign governments view the president as an in-the-money option.
More likely, there is be found among his many partners (his business model is to franchise the Trump brand name for a 30 percent stake in large projects) quasi-governmental pools of money from the Persian Gulf and Asia, so-called “sovereign” funds, which is how many emerging nations stash their money along Fifth Avenue.
What better place to hide money than in New York real estate, and who better to front the transaction than cable’s-own Donald Trump?
The emoluments clause in the Constitution, drafted in 1789, did not understand the essence of Russian flight capital in 2017 or how a New York real estate empire could be built on hot money from around world. But James Madison was well acquainted with earlier Donald Trumps, as when he wrote:
The stockjobbers will become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it, by clamours and combinations.
Madison might have the explanation why the speculator is now betting on politics.
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How does Trump go down?
For starters, expect to see street demonstrations continue to flourish (some may be spontaneous, others may have sponsors) and that many will target members of the House and Senate in vulnerable constituencies.
At the same time articles will circulate, mostly on the Internet, about Trump’s mental incapacities—his narcissism, fragmented speech patterns, paranoia, and detachment from reality. Get ready for a parade of online medical experts testifying about his dictatorial fantasies.
Aides will do their best to keep him from looking like Charles Foster (aka Citizen) Kane (“There’s only one person in the world who’s going to decide what I’m going to do and that’s me…”) or Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”), but the real Trump will never be offline for long.
Meanwhile, the White House will increasingly come to resemble Fort Apache or Little Bighorn, a lonely redoubt in Indian country. By that point, all those corporate CEOs in the cabinet will be taking long lunches and gossiping with their staff, while the government becomes a subsidiary of Trump, his immediate family, Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and the Steve Miller band of one true believer.
Every day in the press will come various leaks and documents all of which will be designed to make Trump look like a Russian dupe, swindler, inside trader, riverboat gambler, or confidence man.
Some of the leaks will become subject to congressional investigation at which point the many officials that Trump has fired (Flynn et al.) will take to the microphones with primetime anecdotes about his vanity, use of the Oval Office to peddle influence and condos, or sweethearts.
Just so the storyline is clear to a majority of Americans, Ben Affleck will direct a blockbuster movie about a president gone mad in office (Original Intent), and the country saved only by a crusading CIA agent (Ben Affleck), who has orders from shadowy bosses to take down the tyrant (Michael Douglas) and his mole of a Russian wife (Angelina Jolie, but without all the tatts).
Lacking a smoking gun indicating that the President actively conspired with Russia during the election or that he was personally aware of a Putin shell company with investments in a Trump development, Congress will cite numerous presidential aides for contempt of Congress until an independent prosecutor, Benjamin Civiletti, of Watergate fame, is appointed. (The revenge of the Democrats for Whitewater and Monica’s dress.)
On slow days for news, tearful women with Flashdance hairdos who now work as “personal trainers” will parade before the cameras and tell how Trump tried to entice them into the steam room at Mar-a-Lago.
Fed by every Trump-hating agency in Washington, the special prosecutor will have a field day picking apart the offal of Trump’s real estate speculations, not to mention the public company that fleeced investors of almost $1 billion.
Trump will refuse to allow either his family or senior staff to testify before Congress or the special prosecutor, citing executive privilege and even Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus to justify his refusal to cooperate, in what he deems to be “wartime”. To emphasize the point he will start wearing a uniform.
Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be long gone, the Bannon praetorian guard will announce that Iran has concrete plans to attack Israel with long-range missiles, some of which—no one is quite sure—might be tipped with tactical nuclear weapons.
Several U.S. Navy fleets will be dispatched to the Persian Gulf while a Marine Corps brigade is flown into western Pakistan, between Quetta and the Iranian border. At the same time the CIA and several other intelligence agencies will leak to the press that the Trump administration has fabricated the readiness of Iranian missiles or that government’s rumors of war.
With the Supreme Court hearing evidence in the case Trump v. United States of America about the extent of executive privilege and how it applies to members of a president’s immediate family, the swing vote in the case will belong to the newest Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, who has made it known to his clerks that James Madison thought presidents “ought to be accountable” to the people (original intent?), through the Congress.
Before the Supreme Court gives its opinion, Trump will resign, blaming the Clintons, Barack Obama, CNN, the “failing” New York Times, the Washington Post, the CIA and NSA, the FBI, the Democratic leadership in Congress, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, “overrated actress” Meryl Streep, Jake Tapper, Oprah Winfrey, Paul Krugman, mullahs in Iran, and the Russians. It’s the mother of all rants.
In the last scene of the movie, after Ben Affleck has brought down the president (although for whom and why he’s unsure), the camera focuses on two men talking quietly about Trump at the bar of the Cosmos Club in Washington.
“You know,” one of them is heard to say, “he’s right.”
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.