What to do when the president is, er, off his rocker

Basically, at the moment, nothing — even though the guy has his finger on the nuclear button.

The New Yorker has a piece by Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard law professor, asking the question “Will Trump be the death of the Goldwater rule?”

“The class of professionals best equipped to answer these questions”, she writes,

has largely abstained from speaking publicly about the President’s mental health. The principle known as the “Goldwater rule” prohibits psychiatrists from giving professional opinions about public figures without personally conducting an examination, as Jane Mayer wrote in this magazine in May. After losing the 1964 Presidential election, Senator Barry Goldwater successfully sued Fact magazine for defamation after it published a special issue in which psychiatrists declared him “severely paranoid” and “unfit” for the Presidency. For a public figure to prevail in a defamation suit, he must demonstrate that the defendant acted with “actual malice”; a key piece of evidence in the Goldwater case was Fact’s disregard of a letter from the American Psychiatric Association warning that any survey of psychiatrists who hadn’t clinically examined Goldwater was invalid.

There’s something comical about this, in the sense that if any of these august professionals did indeed conduct an examination of the president, then they would be bound by patient confidentiality and so would be unable to contribute to a public discussion on his mental state.

Not being a psychiatrist, I am unfettered by these considerations and indeed performed my own examination of the question some time ago. I dug out the Mayo Clinic’s list of the symptoms and causes of ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’ (aka sociopathy) and concluded that Trump ticked most of the boxes. I also quoted the only commentator I could find who openly approached the question of whether Trump is unhinged — Andrew Sullivan — and who had also concluded in the affirmative.

Now here’s a good Freedom of Information request

CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] have lodged a Freedom of Information request with the US Treasury Department. They are seeking:

  • copies of all records concerning authorization for and the costs of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of a government plane to travel to Lexington, Kentucky on Monday, August 21, accompanied by his wife Louise Linton.
  • copies of all records concerning authorization for and the costs of Secretary Mnuchin’s use of a government plane for any purpose since his appointment as Treasury Secretary.

The rationale

On August 21, 2017, Secretary Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton travelled to Lexington, Kentucky, purportedly for the Secretary to present remarks along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a luncheon sponsored by the Louisville chamber of commerce, Greater Louisville Inc. Afterward, Secretary Mnuchin and his wife “headed to Fort Know…to tour the bullion reserve at the Army post and view the eclipse.”

The requested records would shed light on the justification for Secretary Mnuchin’s use of a government plane, rather than a commercial flight, for a trip that seems to have been planned around the solar eclipse and to enable the Secretary to secure a viewpoint in the path of the eclipse’s totality. At a time of expected deep cuts to the federal budget, the taxpayers have a significant interest in learning the extent to which Secretary Mnuchin has used government planes for travel in lieu of commercial planes, and the justification for that use.

Footnote This all stems from a spectacular own goal by Mrs Mnuchin (aka Louise Linton).

So there goes the WSJ…

Interesting, but not surprising. Gerard Baker, the Editor in Chief of the Wall Street Journal, has apparently been castigating some of his reporters for being unduly opinionated about Trump.

This goes back a while. For example,

In February, Mr. Baker fielded tough questions at an all-hands staff meeting about whether the newspaper’s reporting on Mr. Trump was too soft. Mr. Baker denied that notion, and he suggested that other newspapers had abandoned their objectivity about the president; he also encouraged journalists unhappy with the Journal’s coverage to seek employment elsewhere.

Hmmm.. I wonder why. Could the explanation perhaps be found in the transcript Politico published of a White House interview conducted by Baker and some of his hacks? “Unusually”, says the NYT,

Mr. Baker took a leading role in the interview and made small talk with Mr. Trump about travel and playing golf.

When Ivanka Trump, the president’s older daughter, walked into the Oval Office, Mr. Baker told her, according to the transcript, “It was nice to see you out in Southampton a couple weeks ago,” apparently referring to a party that the two had attended.

The Wall Street Journal is owned by the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who speaks regularly with Mr. Trump and recently dined with the president at the White House.

En passant, it occurs to me that the moment we will know that Trump is doomed will be when Murdoch abandons him.

Our existential ‘what if?’ question

Yeah, I know Brexit is a big deal, but this is a lot bigger: James Clapper, a former Director of National Intelligence, commented yesterday on Trump’s rant in Arizona:

“Having some understanding of the levers that a president can exercise, I worry about, frankly, the access to the nuclear codes,” Clapper told CNN, pointing to the current stand-off with North Korea.

If “in a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”

Clapper did not mention Richard Nixon, who was involved in a tense stand-off with North Korea in 1969, after the regime shot down a US spy plane. Nixon is reported to have gotten drunk and ordered a tactical nuclear strike, which was only averted by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Nixon’s biographers Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan quoted a top CIA official, George Carver, as saying: “The joint chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.”

This is the first moment that I’ve ever been glad that Henry Kissinger existed.

Oh, and btw, here’s the process for launching a nuclear strike. The whole logic of Mutual Assured Destruction is that both sides must believe that the other side might actually do it. But it’s also built on the assumption that the US president is not unhinged. Kissinger was so close to Nixon that the military accepted his judgement. The only people in the current White House who might be called upon to exercise the same kind of judgement are members of Trump’s family and John Kelly. But Trump doesn’t drink, so he would need to be incapacitated first.