The unusual behavior of Donald Trump during the campaign, following the election, and in recent days, has generated considerable comment focusing on his mental health. For example, a U.S. News article, “Temperament Tantrum,” reported that “Lawmakers and experts say they are troubled by Trump’s extraordinary focus on his own brand and popularity, including frequent and angry insistencies that his crowds are bigger and more enthusiastic than anyone else’s and that, despite official vote counts to the contrary, he really won the popular vote for president.” The article quoted a well-known psychotherapist, John D. Gartner, who had concluded Trump “has ‘malignant narcissism,’ which is different from narcissistic personality disorder and which is incurable.”
Although numerous other psychiatrists and psychologists had offered similar opinions, Gartner acknowledged that such expressions violate an ethical stricture of the American Psychiatric Association that “it is wrong to provide a professional opinion of a public figure without examining that person and gaining consent to discuss the evaluation.” Gartner and others, however, believe that the Trump case warrants breach of the ethical code. There is a good deal to be said for the restraint called for by that provision of the ethical code, and there is inevitably a danger that a gratuitous diagnosis might be swayed by strongly held political convictions on the part of the observer. Nevertheless, concern as to Trump’s mental health has given rise to speculation among several observers that at some point he might even be removed from office pursuant to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Amendment provides that if the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives “a 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.” In the event of an opposing letter from the President, however, the removal can only be sustained by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress. It is difficult to conceive of an initial removal, let alone a confirming vote in Congress, barring conduct that is bizarre even in the context of the “new normal” that Trump has established.
Setting aside clinical analysis, many of Trump’s actions have struck many as “madness” in least the popular sense. Beyond Trump’s preoccupation with crowd size, and his insistence that millions of illegal immigrants had cast votes for Hillary Clinton, some of his policy proposals may also qualify. For example, in the case of the border wall, and the idea of financing it with a 20% tariff, a Vanity Fair article was titled “Trump’s Border-Wall-Tax Idea Is Bonkers, Says Everyone.” And Trump’s travel ban on citizens of Muslim-majority countries was described as “crazy” by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggested that, while acting crazy might sometimes be a strategy to put foreign adversaries off stride, Trump’s actions could not be justified on that basis: “[A]ll we’ve seen from President Trump is the wrong kind of crazy: capricious, counterproductive, cruel and dumb.” Stephens then added a brief bill of particulars:
So much was evident with the president’s refugee ban on Saturday. And with Steve Bannon’s elevation to the National Security Council, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s demotion from it. And with the announcement Wednesday that Mexico would pay for the wall. And with the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on Monday and the aggressively protectionist themes of his inaugural. And with his performance at CIA headquarters. And with his incontinent fixations on crowd size and alleged voter fraud.
Come to think of it, nearly the only thing the president did in the past week that conveyed any appearance of measure and moderation was his phone call Saturday with Vladimir Putin—itself another instance of the wrong kind of crazy.
Two of Stephens’s particulars merit brief additional comment. Neither the proposal for a border wall, nor a travel ban for Muslim-majority countries appears to be a rational solution to a real problem. Improving border security is a legitimate aim, but there is no evidence that a massive wall, built at enormous cost, is necessary or would be effective. The most recent study of cross-border traffic found that more illegal immigrants are returning to Mexico than coming to the United States. Republican Congressman Will Hurd, whose district is on the border, wrote a telling piece in the Washington Post. Hurd, who is clearly well-informed, described in detail why the wall envisioned by Trump would be the least effective means of providing border security and would be largely a waste of taxpayer money.
The cost of the wall is currently estimated at fifteen to twenty billion dollars but other estimates suggest that the ultimate cost could be as high as forty billion dollars. That is a ludicrous price to pay for a structure that would be more political symbol than serious safeguard. Moreover, the President has failed to come up with a remotely credible plan to have Mexico pay for his boondoggle as he has repeatedly promised. The notion of a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico was floated but quickly walked back and described as only “one of the options.” The quick retreat was not surprising; as pointed out on CNN Money and elsewhere, such a tariff would essentially be a tax on American businesses and consumers.
The travel ban ordered by President Trump is equally divorced from reality. One portion of the order suspended issuance of visas to, or entry by, citizens of of seven Muslim-majority countries. It covered businessmen, tourists and students alike. As numerous observers quickly pointed out, there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States from natives of any of the countries that are the subject of the order. Rudy Giuliani, who took to the Fox airwaves to claim credit for having devised a “legal” way of imposing the “Muslim ban” Trump had promised, asserted that the ban is “based on places where there are substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country.” Notably, however, neither Giuliani nor the Trump administration have given the slightest indication of what that “substantial evidence” might consist of. If there is any such evidence, it will presumably surface in the course of the pending litigation challenging Trump’s order. Until it does appear, however, it may be fair to regard its existence as simply another “alternative fact.”
Equally unjustified was the total ban imposed on admission of Syrian refugees. The ban on such refugees ignored the facts that a) no acts of terrorism in the United States have been associated with any Syrian refugee; b) the existing vetting procedures for Syrian refugees is extremely thorough, taking 18-24 months; and c) the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are women and children. Thus, the ban is one that plays on the fears of Trump’s nativist base but does nothing to enhance the nation’s national security. It is a small wonder that a dissent cable has attracted the signatures of approximately 1,000 foreign service officers and diplomats in the State Department, urging that Trump’s executive order would not make the nation safer. Indeed, it is almost certain to make the nation less safe by providing a ISIS and other jihadists with a glittering tool for recruiting new adherents.
In addition to lacking any sound factual foundation, the executive order is subject to serious legal objections on both constitutional and statutory grounds that will be litigated in the courts over the coming weeks and months. Those objections will be assessed in another blog, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that the legal confusion surrounding the order is a further reason why its adoption was so feckless. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision of the Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, in refusing to enforce the order, it was clearly an extraordinary circumstance in which she found herself.
While this unfortunate scenario has been unfolding, Democrats have made vociferous protests but Republicans have been largely silent. Few if any of the supposed deficit hawks in the party have objected to the border wall or even voiced serious qualms about the price tag. In the case of the Muslim travel ban, several have grumbled about the manner in which it was implemented, but have failed to point out that the basic concept is fundamentally ill-conceived. David Brooks wrote on Tuesday that the Congressional Republicans have made a Faustian bargain with the Trump administration. In exchange for having a hand on the levers of power, they have tacitly agreed to overlook noxious ideology, incompetence, bigotry and cruelty. It is an essay that deserves to be read in full.
Late breaking News: On Wednesday evening, the Washington Post reported on a belligerent telephone call between President Trump and the Prime Minister of Australia:
It should have been one of the most congenial calls for the new commander in chief — a conversation with the leader of Australia, one of America’s staunchest allies, at the end of a triumphant week.
Instead, President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.
At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”
The subject that upset Trump was an agreement by the Obama Administration to accept 1,250 refugees presently being housed in Australian facilities. Not content with a highly unpleasant phone call, Trump then doubled down on Twitter, “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!” Characteristically, the tweet was not only angry but inaccurate: the agreement in question did not include “thousands” but 1,250, and the persons were not “illegal immigrants” but refugees.
Trump’s behavior toward an intimate and important ally was, to borrow one of the President’s favorite words, unbelievable. Madness or undiluted stupidity? Neither alternative is reassuring.
The madness of King George III provided the basis for an entertaining 1994 movie. I doubt that the madness of King Donald will yield so attractive a byproduct, but perhaps one should not underestimate the talents of Alec Baldwin.