Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Donald Trump and the stress testing of the American system of government 3

Posted in social networking and business by Timothy Platt on February 28, 2017

This is my 8th installment to a now-ongoing if still occasional series of postings in which I seek to address politics in the United States as it has become, starting with the nominations process leading up to the 2016 presidential elections (see Social Networking and Business 2, posting 244 and loosely following.)

I began in Part 6 and Part 7 of this series to specifically address the questions and challenges, of now-president Donald Trump’s mental health. And as a core element of that I began raising the question of his capacity or lack thereof for being able to carry out his duties and responsibilities of office. As I noted in both of those installments, I find it both profoundly amazing and profoundly troubling that I would ever find myself asking such questions, or raising such issues with regard to a sitting, serving president of the United States. But we are now living in a world where everyone who would look to this country as a source of strength and stability, and world-wide, should be at least considering these issues and regardless of their politics or ideology, and regardless of their and their own country’s relationship with the United States. The issues that I raise here, and that others have increasing come to raise concern over as well, are equally pressingly important for America’s allies and their at least potential adversaries too, and as important for all of them as they are within the United States itself. This overall discussion should involve and include everyone who holds any significant level of interest in the world around them – and certainly everyone who sees value and importance in the reliable and consistent as a basis for creating order and stability in their own lives and in the lives of their families and communities.

I focused in Part 6 of this series on the issues of Trump’s epistemic bubble and on how he has been developing his administration, or at least its inner circle so as to wall himself off from having to acknowledge any possible dissent from his personal world view. And as a part of that narrative, I raised the question and discussed it as to whether he would ever willingly allow a mental health professional to come close enough to make a diagnostic assessment of him, and even just within the restraints of the Goldwater rule as included in the American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s code of ethics, as coupled with legally mandated clinician/patient confidentiality requirements. My conclusion, as argued there was that he never would and for fear of what even word of that taking place would lead to in challenging his entire system of beliefs and his being able to continue in office. And even just the acknowledgement of a potential need for such an evaluation on his part would prove too threatening to him and his self-image, and even if president Trump were to face its possibilities with absolute assurance that word of this evaluation taking place could never become publically known. And that led me to the questions and issues that arise when even contemplating invoking the 25th amendment to the US constitution and its critically important Section 4, as it specifically addresses the process of orderly succession in the event of a sitting president becoming incapacitated – and with that decision at least potentially taken out of the president’s hands.

My goal for this installment is to at least begin a discussion of that complex of issues and challenges, treating the questions of incapacitation itself as open and debatable. In actual practice and in any specific instance, that is exactly what everyone who would have to participate in these decisions would face, and certainly for a president they were working with and serving under, and for those in the Trump administration where any decision making process would begin for this. Then, and with at least some of the more obvious questions and issues that arise from the legal processes that are available considered, I will address at least in general terms, the issues of an office holder being challenged by diagnosable mental health issues and the question of when those issues would rise to a level of severity as to effect ability to serve, or simply persist but without causing significant functional impairment.

Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States and he arrived at his current position of authority in a richly textured and detailed historical context. So there is a lot of material available from the history of this country and of its presidency that can be drawn from, as a source of at least meaningful parallels for better understanding our current state of affairs. So I will at least briefly discuss a number of Trump’s predecessors in office too, who have faced sudden physical illness (e.g. a need for emergency surgery) or mental health-related challenge (e.g. clinical depression or alcoholism.) And after that I will turn to the second path alternative to presidential succession when that compellingly arises during a presidential administration and outside of the more usual quadrennial electoral process: impeachment in the United States House of Representatives, and trial that can lead to removal from office in the United States Senate. I offer this as an at least anticipated outline for this series to come as well as for this specific installment in it, though emerging events might very well lead to my add in new elements for consideration here, or prompt me to alter the order that I address them in.

I begin all of this by quoting the 25th Amendment, Section 4, as the basic underlying text informing all that will follow here, at least for this phase of this overall discussion:

• “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.

“Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days 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. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.”

Citing the lines of argument and evidence that I have already presented in Parts 6 and 7 of this series, Donald Trump has very intentionally and specifically surrounded himself with a coterie of inner circle cabinet officers and other senior appointees who would be unlikely to turn on him with a vote of no confidence in his being able to serve in office. So as long as he remains as arguably functional and capable in office as he is now, with his inner circle demanding that all is actually well, we will not see a motion coming out of his administration itself to invoke Section 4. That leaves the first paragraph of that constitutional amendment section that would in principle be triggered by concern of mental incapacity, up to the US Congress where they would have to find both the political and personal will to select and appoint an alternative decision making body that met with their approval for making this type of determination. And Congress would of necessity and by law be the sole ultimate deciding body in any attempt to enact and enforce any aspect of the second paragraph of Section 4 too – and certainly if president Trump were to challenge a decision to declare him at least temporarily unfit for duty due to mental health problems.

Section 3 of that amendment allows for voluntary withdrawal from active service and that has, as I will discuss later in this series been invoked by a sitting US president when for example they were going to be anesthetized for surgery and unable to actively serve at that time. The relevant text there, is much briefer and much easier to apply and then reverse, as a sitting president voluntarily steps aside from serving in office for what would be a time limited duration and with a return to actively serving in office again fully expected by all:

• “Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”

A Donald Trump would not, and in a fundamental sense could not accept that type of resolution and simply step aside under the terms of Section 3. And as argued above, he would just as vehemently challenge any effort to effectively remove him from office, and even just temporarily that would be made without his express consent and approval too, and at his own request. And this brings me to the undeniable fact that the 25th Amendment has never been tested for its Section 4 processes, even if there is historical precedent for a sitting president to take temporary recourse to its Section 3 provisions. And the 25th Amendment has never been tested at all in a mental health incapacitation context or in anything significantly like that where a sitting president’s judgment or reasoning were in question. This lack of precedent can only be expected to create greater levels of conservatism and concern in making sure that this type of option only be invoked if absolutely necessary for the safety of the nation. And that raises the threshold of resistance that would, and I add will be faced if this is forced upon Congress and the nation, and with all of the inter-Party conflicts and disagreements that now exist between Republicans and Democrats in office there, coming to the fore and in their most extreme forms.

The only way that a bipartisan consensus could be reached to invoke and apply Section 4 here, would be if President Trump were to become so overtly, undeniably incapacitated that even his most ardent supporters would have to acknowledge a compelling need to take action – and as stated in the text of the amendment itself with at least two thirds majority of all elected members of both houses of Congress agreeing to that in the face of president Trump’s denials and all of the pressure they would face to simply support their political parties. And this brings me to the question of what actually qualifies as incapacitating mental illness, and that is the next area of consideration that I will delve into in all of this.

I begin that line of discussion here with two historical examples of US presidents: one who did in fact exhibit explicit mental health challenges and another who suffered from a condition that would at the very least hold potential for impacting on judgment and capacity to serve effectively.

All evidence available indicates that Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was able to effectively carry out his duties of office, and he was in fact the serving president of the United States at a time when that nation faced its greatest peril and its greatest uncertainly of survival that we have seen to date for it: the United States Civil War. It is also widely considered that Lincoln chronically and repeatedly suffered from what by today’s diagnostic standards would qualify as mental depression and even an overtly diagnosable major clinical depression. His country was going through a process of tearing itself apart. His family faced what from a more individually personal perspective had to seem equally severe trauma and challenge. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln had health issues that only began with severe recurring migraine headaches and personality issues, if not overt mental health issues too. And all of this drew public scrutiny and she, by all accounts suffered from her own depression challenges among them.

Some of Lincoln’s political opponents in Congress, fueled at least in part by accusations coming from a then assistant to Lincoln: William Osborn Stoddard, even tried to use his wife against Lincoln by literally raising a challenge of charging her with treason as a Confederate sympathizer and probable spy. The Congressional body that led this charge was the United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and was led by partisans who were so virulently anti-Lincoln that they would stop at nothing to block and thwart and limit him in his effort to actually do anything. Their chairman and leader, Senator Benjamin Wade saw this as a particularly appealing vulnerability that he might exploit, and particularly as many from Mary Todd Lincoln’s family were from the South and even actively supportive of it – even as she herself was an anti-slavery emancipationist and a supporter of the Union and the Northern cause. To put all of this into perspective, Lincoln himself has been said to have spoken of Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade as being the equivalent of giving the South an extra army for the stress, discord and damage that he contributed to any effort to more systematically and effectively conduct the war. And all of this, of course added to Lincoln’s stress and to his having to face at least something of the challenges of depression.

Lincoln’s beloved son William “Willie” died in the White House of an infectious disease that he was powerless to in any way affect, and during the darkest days of the civil war as it was being waged and seemingly all around him. Lincoln had a great many very genuine and understandable reasons for finding himself confronted with depression as a challenge. But he was, nevertheless still able to function. So while by today’s standards he might have been diagnosable as having and suffering from a specific mental health challenge and even a severe one at times, he would most probably not have qualified for even temporary removal from active office under a 25th Amendment and its Section 4, if that constitutional provision has been enacted and in place at that time. Mental health challenges in and of themselves do not automatically create justifying grounds to invoke let alone enforce 25th Amendment, Section 4 processes. This example, and others like it that also raise issues of specific prior US presidents and their mental health issues that could also be cited here, simply raise the stakes in how a determination of true incapacitation would be determined and agreed to, and as a societal decision and as a political one as we face our current Trump presidency realities.

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, was an alcoholic. There are those who argue about the severity of Lincoln’s depression, and about how often and I add precisely when he was most impactfully suffering from that. But Grant was very overtly and very publically an alcoholic and from well before he became the president of the United States. Alcoholism creates both medical and mental health challenges in and of itself. And when alcohol is resorted to as a form of self-medication, that can be strongly indicative of deeper mental health challenges that a sufferer is trying to manage and cope with, on their own – and that can in fact indicate a level of functional impairment and even a very significant one.

Grant drank, and a lot and often when he was serving as a general officer in the Union Army under Lincoln’s presidential command. And as an apocryphal-sounding but nevertheless true story, coming out of that period, Grant had his detractors and even staunchly vehement ones who did not like his strategies or his approach to leading the Army. And they did not like the way he had sidelined them from the decision making process in all of that, or his drinking and personal life. A number of the more prominent members of that group went to Lincoln to appeal to him and to try to persuade him to remove Grant from his position as commanding general in the field. They argued that his incessant drinking rendered him unable to carry out his duties, which should sound familiar in the context that I am addressing here in this posting and series, and certainly as they sought to challenge Grant with accusations of his being unable to perform and function effectively in his appointed office. And Lincoln listened to them and asked questions and gave them an opportunity to speak. Then he asked them if anyone knew which brand of whiskey Grant preferred, because it might make sense to send cases of it to all of this other generals. Grant was an alcoholic; he got drunk, he was more than just a bit slovenly and probably from that as well as from actively serving in the field. He could be abrasive to those he disagreed with and he had made enemies. But his military campaigns and his overall strategic approach were working; they were succeeding. So since he was able to carry out his duties of office as a general officer, and certainly much more effectively than any of his predecessors had when attempting to lead the Union forces in this so uncivil a civil war, Lincoln kept him on. And election to the presidency did not cure or even alter Grant’s drinking. He remained an alcoholic. But he was in fact able to effectively, functionally serve out two terms of office as president.

This second historical example also highlights how a mental health challenge, or in Grant’s case a contributing factor and possible indicator of them, and of possible loss of capacity to function, does not always mean that a perilous threshold of incapacitation has been reached. And this brings me back to today and to our current president Trump and his publically visible issues. And this brings me to two starkly different possibilities that arise when contemplating all of this in our current, and as of this writing still ongoing news:

• Donald Trump exhibits tendencies, propensities, and even eccentricities, that while perhaps noticeable and certainly to his detractors, would not necessarily limit or affect his capacity to serve in office.
• Or more ominously, Donald Trump exhibits deeply impactful indications of underlying mental health challenge that would so limit or thwart his capacity to effectively function in office.

I am going to continue this narrative in a next installment, planned as of now to go live on this blog in about four more days, starting with the issues that this set of possibilities raise. And I will at least begin that next step in this discussion with an at least brief note on what has to actually be considered there: specific behavioral traits as they can be diagnostically identified and characterized for presence and severity, and the more overarching and perhaps misleadingly easy to state categorical diagnostic labels that tend to be discussed and applied in debates of this type.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Social Networking and Business 2, and also see that directory’s Page 1.

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