World

A dispatch from the near future

Once upon a time in America… when the Constitution brought down Donald Trump

Once upon a time in America… when the Constitution brought down Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

After Donald Trump’s humiliating defeat in the 3 November election, an unlikely hero emerges to help bring an end to the derangement – politically, at least – in the US. Come with us to the near future to see how it could unfold.

Section 4. 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. – From the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution

Following the torturous, but definitive defeat by challenger Joe Biden of Donald Trump, in an election whose final, complete results were only available a week after Election Day, it had become clear to virtually every senior official in the US government (and to foreign observers and governments as well) that the president’s stability had become increasingly tenuous – and even unmoored.

This was reinforced by the defeat of several of his key presidential allies in the Senate, such as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. Final electoral tabulations also showed a further increase in the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Taken together, the results were a startling repudiation of Trump’s politics and policies.

Meanwhile, the Biden camp had begun its transition preparations in the standard manner, operating from temporary office space in a federal government building adjacent to Lafayette Square, across from the White House. As usual, there was also a special budget supplied for this purpose by the federal government.

Biden had put in charge an experienced team, co-managed by long-time Democratic operative Ron Klein and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and co-chaired by Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The transition staff were, of course, quickly inundated with hundreds of résumés, CVs, and personal contacts from people – including submissions from well-experienced “Never Trumper” Republicans – all of whom were eager to serve in the incoming Biden administration. All of this, too, followed standard peaceful transition practice. What was happening inside the White House, though, was not standard practice.

For the president-elect, there were briefings from the designated intelligence community representatives, and calls from his team for submissions from the many government agencies for their briefing memoranda on their current issues and programmes. All as usual. 

The internet quickly filled with scholarly articles and policy advocacy pieces, all advocating new or revised policies the incoming Biden administration would be well-advised to follow, and challenges to be addressed. There was, in fact, a great deal to do, not least the mending of ties with traditional allies and the clear delineating of “red lines” to antagonists and opponents internationally, as well as documents on the full range of domestic issues in the Biden team’s overflowing inbox.

What was not SOP, however, were the unrelenting, splenetic attacks on the president-elect and his running mate, as well as their supporters and policies, emanating from the incumbent president, now in his final two months in office. The attacks were coming in a near-24/7 stream of profanity-laced tweets, spontaneous, acrid call-in comments on talk shows on Fox News, the One America News Network, as well as several other outlets, and via YouTube and Instagram videos. 

Egged on by these words and the harsh realisation of Trump’s electoral defeat, armed “militia” groups staged angry public demonstrations and marches in cities across the nation, as their leaders vowed to prevent the swearing-in of the new president. There were increasingly violent confrontations between these militias and ostensibly unarmed opponents, some directly supportive of the president-elect, and others with less clear allegiances.

Columnists as varied as Max Boot, Bret Stephens, John Judis, David Brooks and Heather Cox Richardson were writing about the dire parallels between contemporary America and Weimar Germany with its fights between Spartacist and Freikorps militias, along with the continuing economic contraction, the rising pandemic body count, and a stock market now suddenly in a nervous free-fall. The most-watched television documentary on the History Channel covered post-World War 1 German history.

Meanwhile, the Defence Department began reviewing its planning exercises for possible ad hoc deployments during the remaining two months of the Trump administration. This time, however, it was in deliberate conjunction with the planning of Washington, DC’s, several police forces over how best to maintain public order in the run-up to Inauguration Day on 20 January, and then during the actual swearing-in ceremonies. (Some senior clerics even began praying for divine intervention in the form of a major blizzard that would keep nearly everyone in the Washington, DC, region and beyond at home, rather than brawling in the streets. The Weather Channel even offered predictions on the likelihood of such a storm, based on forecasting models and historical experience such as the 20 January 1961 blizzard.)

***

In the early morning of 17 November, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was up before dawn, getting ready for the Cabinet meeting scheduled for later that morning. Coffee in hand, he was debating whether his necktie should be sombre or bright – and whether either choice could be read as a sign by others of things to come. In his nearly four years in office, Carson had learned to keep many of his opinions about the president and his increasingly bizarre behaviour very close to his chest. Carson had actually come to enjoy his tenure in office, dealing with a whole set of issues beyond his previous work, even though these new issues had been far from his widely acknowledged skills, education and experience as an internationally renowned neurosurgeon.

But, crucially, Carson still remained a physician, and he was well aware of the graver import of the symptoms he had been observing in his president’s behaviour. As a result, he had been holding very careful, very quiet, sometimes veiled conversations with some of his Cabinet colleagues. (Although, importantly, not with all of them. By this point, the ones prepared to die in the metaphorical final bunker with their leader had openly betrayed their sympathies and, as a result, Carson had been exceptionally circumspect about casually revealing too much, too soon.)

He picked up two typed sheets of paper from the night table, folded them separately, and then put them both in his inner suit coat pocket. One had a small Post-it attached to a corner, in order to help him easily identify the two different documents by touch. He had signed the one and dated it, while the other had a series of signature lines typed below the concise text.

Then, in his small, trim briefcase (actually one of those fancy leather, tablet computer cases), he placed 25 additional copies of the one document. He took one last look at the passages he had underlined in a copy of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s The Final Days that had been sitting on his nightstand, especially the description of the roles of Henry Kissinger and the three Republican senators who had visited Richard Nixon one night before the end. That book had been lying on the nightstand, together with a small printed copy of the Constitution, for well over two weeks.

By the time he reached the White House, had passed through the security protocols and Covid safety procedures, he had already thought through how he would introduce his key item of business for the meeting. A poker face was important today, but he was good at that.

The Cabinet meeting conference room had all the officials with Cabinet rank arrayed around the table with nameplates in front of them, and senior aides sat on chairs next to the long wall opposite the president’s usual chair. His chair was flanked by the national and presidential flags and the scene was framed by a large window, the city of Washington, DC, beyond it. In addition to the official attendees in the room, as usual, the White House photographer and videographer hovered, ready to document the meeting.

After a few moments of pleasantries, the meat of the meeting began with the president’s review of current events. Like his other post-election meetings, this presidential talk was laced with scathing comments (and the now-inevitable profanity) about the president-elect and the vice-president-elect. That soon veered into the president’s patented observations about how he had actually been cheated of his rightful second term of office and about the layers of conspiracies that had made such an appalling deed happen. There was all the despicable lying, the traitorous fake media, the millions of fraudulent ballots dumped into the system by nefarious foreign forces, the deep state with its tendrils extending right into this very room, the illegal connivance of his rivals in both the 2016 and 2020 elections in those frauds, his perfect phone calls to world leaders in contrast to the ways of the nefarious Chinese, the UN and WHO, those epidemiologists who kept trying to make it harder and harder to overcome the pandemic… the list was endless. This was Captain Queeg stuff, for sure.

Finally he ran out of steam (or enemies or breath), and a semblance of meeting decorum took over as the vice-president quickly reviewed the arrangements for the necessary minimum cooperation with the Biden transition office (to the accompaniment of severely dark looks, scowls and muttering from the president). The vice-president then passed the baton on to each of the Cabinet members, in the usual order of precedence, beginning with the secretary of state. Each one offered a few cursory comments about their respective, grudging transition efforts, and a verbal note or two about some key, pending decisions that still required action, especially a resolution to the still-undecided Covid-19 stimulus package.

Eventually it was Carson’s turn to speak. He reached into his folder and pulled out the multiple copies of the document he had brought with him and then drew the original from his suit coat pocket. He read it slowly and carefully, his voice soft but firm. The core of the text was drawn from section 3 of the 25th amendment to the Constitution, with a further paragraph that called for a formal Cabinet vote on implementing this provision. 

Thousands of Trump supporters attend a mass caravan named ‘Anticommunist Caravan’ in front of Versailles Cuban restaurant in Calle 8, Little Havana, Miami, Florida, USA, 10 October 2020. The Anti-Communist Caravan started from the Magic City Casino protesting against the supposed growing presence of communist and socialist ideology in the United States and the Western Hemisphere. EPA-EFE/CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH

“All those in favour of this resolution, please signal by a show of hands,” he said. Carson turned to the Cabinet secretary and said, “The Cabinet secretary will record that a majority of those members of Cabinet duly confirmed by the Senate supported this resolution. As a result, in accordance with the Constitution, this decision will be reported to the appropriate individuals in the Congress, and the vice-president will now immediately assume the duties, authorities, and responsibilities of the presidency. Mr Acting President, I hope you will permit me to have President Trump respectfully escorted from this meeting so that he can be placed in the care of appropriate medical personnel at a secure facility located on the grounds of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.”

Several medical personnel entered the conference room from a side door. They gently, carefully, but firmly eased the president from his chair, whispering into his ear about how much easier it would be if he would accompany them in order to get the rest and help he so urgently required. Slowly and with a bemused look flickering across his face, the president rose, turned towards Carson and whispered one word: “Traitor.” Carson looked away but replied softly, “Mr President, this has been done for the best of everyone in the nation and for your future legacy. I hope you will eventually understand.”

Carson then turned to Mike Pence, now the acting president, as the original copy of the resolution was circulated around the table to the respective Cabinet members, save for two who refused to do so, signing on the lines next to their names. The acting president asked the Cabinet secretary to take possession of the document as a key part of the governmental record and immediately forward notarised copies to the leadership of the Congress, per the 25th amendment. He then turned to address the senior staff who were also in the room and asked them to publicly demonstrate their loyalty to the constitutional process they had just witnessed. Ivanka Trump burst into tears, but nodded her assent, along with all of the others.

With that, Carson removed the second document from his coat, and handed it to the acting president, who looked down at the two-sentence letter that read, “Dear Mr Acting President: I hereby resign my position as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, effective immediately. I wish you every success in the extraordinarily difficult tasks you have before you. With respect, Dr Ben Carson.”  

Turning to Carson, Pence nodded his acceptance and said, “I understand, Ben. Thank you. And your nation thanks you for your service – and your courage.”

Pence told his staff to immediately schedule telephone calls to Biden, to the leaders of the Congress, to a list of the leaders of major US allies, as well as to the leaders of China and Russia. The Department of Defence must send immediate messages to all US military forces, noting the change in leadership in accordance with the Constitution. The staff must also put together a speech to the nation that he would give by television and radio in a few hours’ time. In the meantime, however, the communications staff were tasked with creating a media advisory that briefly described what had occurred, that it was entirely in accordance with constitutional processes, and that all wished Trump well in getting the rest he so urgently needed.

Acting President Pence, meanwhile, began jotting down other urgent items to be done, including reaching immediate agreement with Congress over a new stimulus package; drawing up a full pardon to the president for any and all high crimes and misdemeanours; and then in making some very difficult calls to prosecutors in New York City and to the head of the IRS to ask them to reconsider any actions leading towards prosecutions of the president over tax issues or financial crimes. Pence realised he suddenly had a tremendous headache. He felt the urgent need, as never before, to pray for guidance over what he must carry out in the next two months. DM

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