I encountered many approaches to faithfully executing the law during my more than two decades in government. I saw officials seek to bend the rules to achieve their desired outcomes, and I saw officials demonstrate reverent respect for the law as they performed their elected and appointed functions. Never in my career have I witnessed anything on the magnitude of the tale told Wednesday by an anonymous senior administration official in a New York Times op-ed. I imagine I am far from alone.
The nearest historical analogy I can name ― and it is a poor one ― for the efforts of the author and others to “thwart” President Donald Trump’s “agenda and worst inclinations” is Edith Wilson’s assumption of power following President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919. Her abrogation of political power was, in fact, one of the historical events that drove passage of the 25th Amendment to regularize and codify how the republic deals with an incapacitated president.
I have many differences of substance and opinion with the current administration. Its divisive social policies render offense to Americans of every race, creed, color, gender, orientation and group. To call its management of foreign policy, my particular area of expertise, appalling is a vast understatement. President Trump has gone out of his way to coddle and consort with our adversaries, offend our oldest and staunchest friends and allies, undermine American credibility and global leadership, and demean our fundamental values of democracy, freedom of expression, dignity of the person, and respect for individual and political rights.
That said, President Trump is correct about one thing: The senior administration official who wrote that op-ed is gutless. Worse, he or she is violating his or her own oath to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States.
The writer avers that Cabinet officials did not want to invoke the 25th Amendment in order not to precipitate a constitutional crisis. Unfortunately and perilously, when unelected staff appropriate the mechanisms of national policy and fail to use proper constitutional procedures, they per se create a constitutional crisis.
I can appreciate the official’s stated patriotic intentions, and his or her call for Americans to reach out to each other and repair our national divisions. That does not alter the fact that his or her actions are wrong. They are undemocratic and unconstitutional. The Constitution does not empower unelected staff — no matter how much they are “adults” and no matter how well-meaning — to decide that they will govern in this manner.
If the president is not competent to do his job, do not improvise. Follow the Constitution and remove him from office.
Steven Pike is assistant professor of public relations at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2016 after a 23-year career as a diplomat and public affairs practitioner.
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