Within seconds after someone at the New York Times hit the "send" button about 4 p.m. on Wednesday, an op-ed by a supposed senior official in the Trump administration — the identity known to less than a handful of Times editors — instantly became the lodestar, to borrow a suddenly popular word, of those hoping to end Donald Trump's presidency before Jan. 20, 2021.
The most depressing thing about the anonymous op-ed from this high-level Trump insider was not its assertions that the "amorality" of America's 45th president is a threat to the nation's welfare, or that the commander-in-chief is fundamentally antidemocratic, or that The Donald's leadership style is "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective." Nor is it the less-than-"cold comfort" (to steal another hot phrase) that there's some sort of "resistance" within the White House, claiming it's somehow saving America from the absolute worst of Trump.
No, the most depressing thing is that a majority of Americans already knew most, if not all, of these things about the short-fingered vulgarian currently ensconced in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from the day he descended from Trump Tower in June 2015 to launch his hate-laden, xenophobic campaign. And the people elected him anyway. And that now that he's here, President Trump seems impossible to remove.
There's a striking line from the 1960s — it's in several documentaries — in which a Berkeley, Calif., city councilman is asked about the seemingly alarming possibility that the youth revolt is morphing into revolution. "We're already in a revolution," he replies. "The question now is, who's gonna win?"
I thought of that when I read in the op-ed that top Trump officials have even weighed invoking the 25th Amendment — the complicated mechanism for the cabinet and probably Congress to remove a president who's physically or mentally incapacitated — "but no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis."
Really? The thing is, this week's welcome-back-from-summer 1-2 punch of Bob Woodward's explosive book, going deep into the horrors of the Trump White House, and now the op-ed heard 'round the world has revealed that America is already in the grips of a silent coup. Unelected government officials and military leaders are making daily judgments about which orders from our democratically installed president to follow and which ones to ignore.
We're already in a constitutional crisis — arguably the worst since the Civil War. The question now is, who's gonna win? The forces of our long-established-if-imperfect democracy, or the rising tides of Trumpian neo-fascism?
Even if the overall tone of the Woodward book and the Times' op-ed is to confirm what we already instinctively knew about Trump's unfitness for office and the massive dysfunction that stems from that, the post-Labor Day bombshells still raised enough questions for four or five different potential columns. There's the fun but wildly overrated parlor game of speculating who wrote the anonymous diatribe (cough, cough, director of intelligence Dan Coats? … maybe, although he denies it) to questioning whether the Times should have granted anonymity (yes … although other journalists disagree) to whether going semi-public with the view from inside the White House "resistance" was an act of courage … or cowardice (more on that in a minute).
But there's one issue raised by the new Trump revelations that soars above all others, because it's an issue of life and death, for thousands if not millions of human beings, and — in the most extreme worst-case scenario — for the future of the entire planet. And that is the alarming number of times that Trump — invoking the awesome (and not in the good sense of the word) powers that we've ceded to the American president to unilaterally wage war — has pushed America to the brink of spectacularly ill-advised military conflicts, even ones that could ultimately involve nuclear weapons.
— Just one month into his presidency, according to Woodward's Fear, Trump ordered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, to begin drawing up plans for a preemptive military strike against nuclear-armed North Korea — a request that "rattled" the Marine Corps veteran. The fact that, for the time being, Trump has chosen to get along with — if not venerate — North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un is indeed cold comfort, especially as we gain more insight into the dangerous, flip-flopping mind of the American president. Military experts say a war of the type that Trump coveted would kill 20,000 South Koreans a day — and that's before it went nuclear.
— An emotional reaction to a disturbing event — an April 2017 lethal chemical attack traced to the Syrian government — provoked a Trump command that was both troubling and potentially illegal. The president called in the secretary of defense, James Mattis, and issued an order to assassinate the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. "Let's f–ing kill him! Let's go in. Let's kill the f–ing lot of them," Trump said, according to Woodward. The book says the Trump cabinet member assured the commander-in-chief that he'd take care of it, even as he told a top aide he'd do no such thing. Instead, America bombed a Syrian airfield, killing an unknown number of soldiers and civilians. There seems to be little discussion of how any of this might affect the tinderbox that is the Middle East.
— With surprisingly little fanfare, the Trump administration continues to actively weigh a military invasion of Venezuela, where the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro has been imploding, with a sometimes violent crisis bringing economic despair and a growing number of refugees. As with other proposed military interventions, the main proponent of this highly dubious course of action is the president himself — with top advisers continually trying to convince the commander-in-chief that a U.S. invasion would not only destabilize South America but turn much of the region against us. At one point last year, Trump reportedly raised his enthusiasm for an invariably bloody incursion with four top leaders from the region, adding, "My staff told me not to say this."
With good reason. Not only are Trump's ideas about the use of American military power really bad from both a strategic and a human-rights point of view, there are serious questions whether Cadet Bone Spurs' proposed military adventures are even legal. Most notably, a 1975 executive order by President Gerald Ford aimed to bar the assassination of foreign leaders, such as the order that Trump reportedly issued against Assad.
Beyond that, the Founding Fathers vested the power to declare war with Congress — a sound idea that's been completely lost in our post-World War II national security state, even after efforts to rein in the president's war powers after the debacle in Vietnam. Some of that stems from the arrival of the nuclear age — the realization that snap decisions about a war that would kill millions of people might have just a 5- or 10-minute window. But in the last 20 months, the fear that America's "nuclear football" travels with a president that even his close advisers now say is both mentally and morally unfit — and that there's currently nothing to prevent Donald Trump from initiating a nuclear war — has grown palpable.
"Under existing laws, the president of the United States can start a nuclear war – without provocation, without consultation and without warning," Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey told a hearing last year. "It boggles the mind." It's even more mind-boggling the more we know about the ugly state of mind of the current president.
Markey and Capitol Hill lawmakers introduced landmark legislation that would prevent any U.S. president — not just Trump but those who come after him — from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. Not surprising, their bill has so far gone nowhere in a do-nothing Congress dominated by Trump allies. And while there are legitimate questions about how such a law would work in practice (hopefully the world never finds out), the measure would provide a sound legal basis for military leaders to refuse an unlawful and irrational order.
The president is not well. With the Woodward and Times revelations, it's vitally important — not just for America but for the world — that the House and Senate curb the president's ability to unilaterally start a nuclear war, and soon, before Donald Trump's agitated and disturbed mind deteriorates any further. And it's not just the practical thing to do. It would also be the first baby step toward the much harder moves that lie ahead — the courage to acknowledge that Trump is not in any sense fit to sit in the Oval Office, and to take the bold but necessary constitutional steps to remove him.
Let's be honest: Publishing a New York Times op-ed and hiding behind a veil of anonymity is not the kind of bravery we need now, nor is spouting on background to Bob Woodward. The current state of affairs — an "administrative coup," as Woodward describes it, with citizens not knowing who is really making government decisions or why — is both untenable and unacceptable. This alleged Resistance inside the Trump White House is not preventing a constitutional crisis, but merely aiding and abetting one that grows worse by the hour.
The fall of 2018 has become — in the words of Ronald Reagan, no doubt a hero to those in the White House who fantasize they belong to "sleeper cells" — a time for choosing. History will judge the only real heroes as those who speak out in their own voice, regardless of how it affects their paycheck or their probably-nonexistent-anyway political future — and who do so before it becomes too late. I can't help but wonder if this Nike ad with Colin Kaepernick that's getting so much attention isn't really trolling our so-called leaders in Washington, even if it's just a coincidence.