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Will Donald Trump survive as president?

By
Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are welcomed with bouquets of flowers on Saturday upon on their arrival in Saudi Arabia. White House Photo by Andrea Hanks/UPI
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are welcomed with bouquets of flowers on Saturday upon on their arrival in Saudi Arabia. White House Photo by Andrea Hanks/UPI | License Photo

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution reads: "No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state."

Article II, Section I states: "The executive power shall be vested in the president."

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Virtually every new president since John F. Kennedy has had a very rough start. Kennedy presided over the Bay of Pigs debacle; Nixon Vietnam and a financial recession; Clinton the healthcare spectacle; Bush '43 Sept. 11th; and Obama two wars and a financial meltdown. Yet, no president has gotten off to a worse beginning than Donald J. Trump except William Henry "Tippecanoe" Harrison, who contracted pneumonia at the inauguration and died after holding office for only 31 days.

The litany of self-imposed damage done by Trump defies credulity. But a combination of ignorance and indifference to fact and truth and a personality defined by five decades of authoritarian control over his businesses and a disposition to attack when under siege or criticism has led to a witch's brew of chaos and incompetence in the White House. Whether the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate allegations of Russian interference in America's elections and any collusion with the Trump team leads to indictments or exoneration remains to be seen. However the lack of credibility and competence of the administration have given rise to serious warnings of impeachment and imposition of the 25th Amendment to remove the president for "high crimes and misdemeanors" or for incapacitation after only four months in office.

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The latest controversy stems from a memo written by fired FBI Director James Comey recording that the president asked or suggested that the investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn be dropped. That by itself raised the specter of obstruction of justice charges. However, the larger issue is that the president's conduct is challenging the Constitution and hence could provoke a real political crisis in at least three ways.

First, the president is most likely in violation of the "emoluments clause" cited above, which prevents government officials from receiving compensation from foreign governments. That the president has not separated himself from his business holdings, nor has made his income taxes public, appears to be directly contrary to this clause.

Second, because the president is granted "the executive power" by the Constitution, is he legally entitled to ending any investigation? Of course, the president can issue a pre-emptive pardon if he believes that Flynn should not be investigated. President Gerald Ford pardoned an unindicted Richard Nixon after his forced resignation over Watergate triggering a political tsunami that may have cost Ford the 1976 presidential election. Yet, there is surely ambiguity in defining what "executive power" means or does not.

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Third, a president leaves office early for only four reasons. The first is impeachment and conviction. While Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached, neither was convicted by the Senate.

The next means of removal is through the 25th Amendment on grounds of incapacitation. This amendment was ratified in the nuclear age so that if a president were temporarily incapacitated, for example, under anesthesia for a medical procedure, continuity of government remained. A majority of the Cabinet and the vice president can declare a president incapacitated.

The last two means are through death. FDR died in office of natural causes. JFK was assassinated.

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On the current trajectory, it seems inevitable that Trump is headed for a collision with the Constitution over his conduct in office. Many have argued or have hoped that Trump will learn and learn quickly to change his ways disciplining his most tempestuous and volatile instincts and taming his reflex to attack any and all who do not agree with him. Further, the president must become better informed on key issues and on how government works.

Unfortunately, it is hard to see how such a transformation will take place. The president has been accused of lying on many occasions and of having only a passing acquaintanceship with truth and fact. It may well be that the president defines truth and fact as to what he believes at a particular moment. Thus, when he readily changes his mind, ipso facto, he changes what he believes to be facts and truth.

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My guess is that the president cannot and will not adapt to the realities, constraints and pitfalls of his office or to the need to restrain his excesses in behavior. The prospect of provoking a constitutional crisis over his presidency is no longer trivial. More likely is a political crisis erupting when the Republican rank and file cannot tolerate the disruption swirling around the White House that could turn the 2108 by-elections into a Democratic sweep of both houses of Congress. The metric of Republican despair will be the president's approval ratings.

When Trump's approval ratings drop to the 20s or lower and his political base begins to evaporate, Republicans will have little choice except to consider his removal. Compounding this potential crisis will be, of course, the reaction of Democrats. If that party behaves responsibly, then perhaps, some political resolution will be possible. But if Democrats react as they have so often before on a highly partisan and vindictive basis, then the nation faces a crisis that could exceed the destructiveness of Watergate.

The stakes are enormous. And the outcome is very much in doubt if the president continues to stumble along his present course.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. His next book, due out this year, is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Wars It Starts," which argues failure to know and to understand the circumstances in which force is used guarantees failure. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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