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'The Resistance Inside The Trump Administration': A Constitutional Crisis?

With Meghna Chakrabarti

The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed Wednesday afternoon from a senior official in the Trump administration who claims to be working with others to thwart the president’s agenda. We dig in.


Kristen Welker, NBC News White House correspondent. ( @kwelkernbc)

Eliana Johnson, White House reporter for Politico. ( @elianayjohnson)

Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at Boston College. ( @HC_Richardson)

Brian C. Kalt, professor of law and the Harold Norris Faculty Scholar at Michigan State University’s College of Law. ( @ProfBrianKalt)

Interview Highlights

On why this op-ed is different from all of the other op-eds in the New York Times of the same sentiment

Kristen Welker: “Why is it so significant in addition to the fact that it comes in the form of an op-ed? Because it’s coming on the heels of that remarkable blockbuster book, the excerpts of which we saw this week — by Bob Woodward, ‘Fear,’ of course, veteran journalist of Watergate fame, and it echoes something that Bob Woodward really honed in on which is that there are some administrations officials here who are, for example, swiping papers off of the president’s desk. He cites Gary Cohn, former top aide Rob Porter as having engaged in that type of activity to prevent the president from signing onto some policies that they deemed dangerous. So it sort of echoes that broader picture that we saw come to life in Bob Woodward’s book. And remember the president has talked about this ‘deep state,’ his concerns about that. Well look the author takes that on head-on, he says ‘this isn’t a deep state,’ but again really tried to put the focus on, we’re trying to protect the country from a president who he describes as unpredictable and at times a threat to the very country that he’s governing.”

On why this is unprecedented

Eliana Johnson: “There’s a history of presidential aides sort of protecting presidents from their worst instincts — it happened in the Nixon administration, and it happened in other administrations. But that occurred to me with Bob Woodward talking about former economic advisor Gary Cohn swiping papers off the President’s desk. These are people, as Kristen mentioned and as Sarah Huckabee Sanders mentioned, who were not elected trying to thwart the actions of the president who was duly elected. And it occurred to me that if the president wants to do his will and the aides around him believe otherwise, it seems to me that the president should be able to behave in the way he wants to behave and the solution for some disastrous result of that constitutionally would be impeachment.”

On whether or not this spells constitutional crisis

Heather Cox Richardson: “Well, we are in a constitutional crisis for sure, and one of the things that astonishes me about the discussions we’re having now is the fact that the people who are in positions of power are ignoring their primary oath, which is to the Constitution. Our Constitution is our body of laws on which our entire society is supposed to operate. And there are mechanisms in place for getting rid of any kind of a leader who is not able to refer his or her duties.

I’m with the people who think that quiet resistance by unconstitutional means constitutes a soft coup. That, in fact, if they believe the president is not able to fulfill his duties they should be invoking the 25th amendment, which is a mechanism that Eisenhower first came up with, although it’s passed later to get rid of a president who is incapacitated and doesn’t realize he or she is. They could either invoke that, or the other great part of our current constitutional crisis is that Congress is refusing to do its duty, which is that it’s supposed to impeach somebody who can’t do the job that he or she is supposed to be doing. And both of those things are not happening, which is deeply problematic. And I’d also like to add another piece here, that we haven’t discussed, and that’s that while this is going on — this profound crisis, this unprecedented crisis in American history — we also have the fact that the Senate is pushing forward with the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice for Brett Kavanaugh. And that strikes me as part of a package and one that we should be looking at as a whole, as opposed to simply looking at the crisis in the moment in the White House. I think we’re looking at a crisis of democracy.”

On why invoking the 25th Amendment is not the proper course of action

Brian Kalt: “I think, as the op-ed writer said, it wouldn’t work. It would make things worse. The 25th Amendment, section four in particular, it was designed to make sure that if the president was incapacitated there was someone who could pick up the reins immediately. And they wanted to make sure it wasn’t used for presidents who were unfit or who were inept or any of those other things. We already have a process to get rid of presidents who are doing a bad job. This was supposed to not supplant that, so they designed it so that if you tried to use it for that, it wouldn’t work.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “ I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” — “President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader.

“It’s not just that the special counsel looms large. Or that the country is bitterly divided over Mr. Trump’s leadership. Or even that his party might well lose the House to an opposition hellbent on his downfall.

“The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

“I would know. I am one of them.”

The Atlantic: “ This Is a Constitutional Crisis” — “Impeachment is a constitutional mechanism. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is a constitutional mechanism. Mass resignations followed by voluntary testimony to congressional committees are a constitutional mechanism. Overt defiance of presidential authority by the president’s own appointees—now that’s a constitutional crisis.

“If the president’s closest advisers believe that he is morally and intellectually unfit for his high office, they have a duty to do their utmost to remove him from it, by the lawful means at hand. That duty may be risky to their careers in government or afterward. But on their first day at work, they swore an oath to defend the Constitution—and there were no ‘riskiness’ exemptions in the text of that oath.”

The Weekly Standard: “ The Four Men Most Likely to be Behind the New York Times Op-ed” — “It’s only been online for a few hours, but the anonymous New York Times op-ed penned by a ‘senior official in the Trump administration’ has set off a frenzy of guessing about who is claiming to be one of the people ‘working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.’

“The White House was out with a response Wednesday afternoon. ‘We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the paper chose to publish this pathetic, reckless, and selfish op-ed,’ reads the statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. ‘The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive, rather than support, the duly elected President of the United States. He is not putting country first, but putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people. This coward should do the right thing and resign.’

“There are some clues within the 965-word essay of who the ‘coward’ (or courageous truth-teller, depending on your perspective) really is. There are indications the writer is a movement conservative, including a line that castigates Trump for not sharing conservatives’ affinity for “free minds, free markets, and free people.” There is a noticeable lack of discussion of any issues of constitutionalism, the law, or immigration. The writing is straightforward, unpretentious, and familiar with the conventions of op-eds.”

CNN: “ 13 people who might be the author of The New York Times op-ed” — “On Wednesday afternoon, The New York Times posted an anonymous op-ed titled: ‘I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.’

“The piece is remarkable. Identified only as a “senior official in the Trump administration,” the piece lays out how the author — as well as other colleagues within the administration — are waging a semi-open campaign to keep the President from doing too much damage to the nation.

“‘Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,’ the author writes.”

Poynter: “ ‘Anonymous’ NYT byline quite rare, often given for reasons of safety” — “On Wednesday, the newspaper’s startling ‘anonymous’ op-ed — which it verified as coming from a senior Trump White House official — caused a firestorm and backed up accounts in Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, ‘Fear,’ about underlings going to extremes to protect America from an impulsive, unbalanced president. The op-ed talked about Trump’s ineffective leadership and moves to prevent his ‘half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.’ ”

Wall Street Journal: “ The 25th Amendment? Forget It” — “Interest in Section 4 of the 25th Amendment is peaking. Multiple amateur constitutional scholars have advocated its use to remove President Trump from office, as an alternative to impeachment. But Section 4 is a tool for a different job. Its use under today’s circumstances has the potential to tear the country apart.

“Section 4 is not a suitable substitute for impeachment. To be sure, impeachment sets a high bar: a majority in the House, then two-thirds in the Senate to convict and remove an official. Section 4 sounds easier: If the vice president and a majority of the cabinet declare the president ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,’ the vice president becomes acting president.”

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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