The predictably ever-worsening scandal surrounding the Hollywood sexual predator Harvey Weinstein has me also thinking about President Trump. It’s not just because both men are in double digits when it comes to women willing to go on the record to accuse them of gross sexual misconduct – although that’s incredibly important, and it’s a huge indictment of the American body politic that Trump has been able to get away with it.
But we should also ponder this context: How Weinstein’s lechery and abusive behavior was an open secret in the movie community for decades, and how a climate of fear and intimidation allowed the studio head to continue that reign of terror. Indeed, some did call Weinstein out in different ways – grunge singer Courtney Love (!) publicly warned women on video more than a decade ago, while Weinstein’s misconduct toward women became the fodder, famously, for jokes on TV’s 30 Rock and by Seth McFarlane at the 2013 Academy Awards. Today, those jokes don’t seem so funny, since they certainly did nothing to slow down Weinstein’s pattern of abuses that continued to psychologically scar young women and thwarted the careers of talented people who rejected his advances.
Pssst … wanna hear another open secret – one that’s more widely known and of even more consequence than Weinstein and his prey? Donald Trump is clearly not fit – temperamentally, intellectually, or, it seems increasingly clear, psychologically – to continue serving as president of the United States. Just like Weinstein, there are days when it feels like it’s only the comedians who are willing, in a time of broken politics and broken journalism, to tell the nation that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Just like Weinstein, the Trump unfitness-for-office story has its own Courtney Love figure in retiring Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker, who did go public to express his worries that the president’s top aides, such as chief of staff John Kelly, are babysitting a commander-in-chief who could launch World War III.
But unfortunately, also like Weinstein, we’re told by the media that there are many, many more Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who feel exactly the same way Corker feels – that Trump’s unfitness for the Oval Office not only endangers the country, but risks a catastrophic war – but who are afraid to speak out for many of the same reasons people in Hollywood have stayed silent. Trump could retaliate against them. It could hurt their careers. It’s a lot safer to keep your head down and say nothing. Right? Yet it’s all but guaranteed there will come a day for Trump, exactly like the moment we’re experiencing with Harvey Weinstein, with a flood of people suddenly going public with their behind-closed-doors Trump stories that things were even worse than anyone imagined.
Not to downplay the very real crimes of Weinstein for those who suffered, but with Trump, the enormously high cost of doing nothing is much, much greater. People are already dying because of our off-the-rails presidency, in Puerto Rico, where the response from Washington has been woefully inadequate. Many more will die as Trump’s campaign of petty spite against former President Barack Obama causes a million or more Americans to needlessly lose their health insurance. And many, many more will die if Trump’s dangerous impulses on North Korea cannot be restrained – a fear punctuated on Sunday morning when Secretary of State (for now) Rex Tillerson told CNN that America is committed to diplomacy “until the first bomb drops.” Feeling better now?
Let’s be clear: We just went through the worst week of Trump’s presidency, and we’re naive if we don’t think there are even worse weeks ahead. The plan to kneecap the Affordable Care Act through executive actions that will throw an estimated one million people off their health insurance and raise rates for older and sicker patients, while costing taxpayers more money, is arguably the most petty, hurtful, and reckless action undertaken by an American president in our lifetime, perhaps ever. And yet the ink was barely dry before Trump doubled down by undercutting the Iran nuclear deal – ratcheting up war pressure on a brand-new front – with a string of half-truths and outright lies about the Middle East that made the fundamentally dishonest George W. Bush administration seem like an overdose of truth serum. Then there were the tweets about Puerto Rico – implying the island of suffering American citizens will soon be on its own, even as some citizens are getting their water from EPA Superfund sites – and his ongoing threats to a free press. The system that should be responding to these repeated shocks is overwhelmed, even as Trump’s own aides say he is “unraveling.”
Words – like those of Sen. Corker – are not enough. Something needs to be done … but what? The options are grim, or unlikely, or both – but let’s look at them:
The 25th Amendment. The president’s erratic behavior has led to a flurry of talk that Trump could somehow be removed under the 1967 constitutional amendment that lays out a procedure for determining when a president is mentally or physically unfit. The initial action would require the active involvement of the Cabinet – Trump loyalists, supposedly – and Vice President Pence, which is why I’ve long thought this has zero chance of happening, despite the irrational exuberance for the idea on Twitter.
But now, I’d give this option a 2 percent chance of happening, after reading of the alleged “suicide pact” between Defense Secretary James Mattis, Tillerson, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, as well as rumors that Mattis and other aides might “tackle” Trump if he went for the “nuclear football” to order a first strike on North Korea. But that’s the thing – the 25th Amendment exists as a kind of a military coup on the brink of a World War III, and we can’t afford to let things deteriorate that far. Which leads to …
Impeachment. Here, the bar is lower than the 25th Amendment. Just half of the House could vote to impeach Trump, which would force a trial in which two-thirds of the Senate would need to vote for a conviction to remove the 45th president from office. The grounds for Trump’s impeachment and removal are hiding in plain sight, both under traditional definitions of high crimes and misdemeanors (Trump and the First Family enriching themselves off the presidency, obstruction of justice in the Trump-Russia probe) and more expansive ones (the neglect of Puerto Rico’s crisis, for example).
Yet in spite of mounting proof of Trump’s unfitness, the sheer spinelessness among Republicans in the House of Representatives – who are terrified of facing a Steve Bannon-style primary on the right, whose members won’t even criticize a move that strips their own constituents of health insurance – makes it hard to imagine even 25 of them joining Democrats to vote for impeachment right now. Senators are a little bit more insulated from these pressures, yet even Senate critics such as Corker seem to limit their resistance to mere words. So there’s …
The 2018 elections. For the majority of those vehemently opposed to Trump – Democrats and some independents – the only options have been a short-term resistance that’s had some real successes, such as pressure on Congress that so far has thwarted legislative repeal of Obamacare, and a forward look toward electing more anti-Trump candidates in 2018. But recent Trump tantrums on the Affordable Care Act and Iran, and his war posture on North Korea have shown the dire limitations of that strategy.
As for 2018, there are certainly signs the GOP will lose seats but – given the current crisis of legitimacy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – the lack of unity among progressives who should be leading the opposition to Trump is a little astounding. You’d think that people would be marching in the streets, South Korea-style, over the president’s new assault on citizens’ health care. But on social media, the big conversation last weekend among liberals was over whether Sen. Bernie Sanders should be addressing a women’s conference. You’d think the threat to democracy posed by an American autocrat in the White House would unify the factions that supported either Hillary Clinton or Sanders in the spring of 2016. But you’d be wrong – and that’s one more reason that Trump is getting away with this.
The fourth option is the status quo, and this week was painful proof of that American open secret since Nov. 8, 2016 – that the status quo is simply untenable. Maybe we should call this option the Harvey Weinstein plan. Because increasingly, it feels that people with the power to do something won’t have the courage to denounce Trump’s predatory assaults on America’s fundamental values until it’s really much too late.