Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have been marked by extreme controversy, divisiveness, and partisan polarization. Many contend America hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War. Shortly after 2016’s election, comedian Cecily Strong played CNN’s chief political analyst Gloria Borger in an SNL skit, repeatedly complaining Trump “is not normal.”
In fact, one of the rare things an overwhelming majority of Americans can agree on nowadays is that Trump and his reign are outside of the presidential norm. Whether you voted for him or not, are a Republican, Democrat, or independent, love him, hate him, or are neutral, there is general consensus among the electorate, media and punditocracy that Trump and his governing style are different from anything we’ve seen before.
Assessing the unprecedented nature of Trump’s presidency and its fate requires thinking outside of politics’ conventional box. Thus it stands to reason Trump may leave the White House in an unconventional, if not a totally unique way. A December 22 article in The New York Times (“For Trump, ‘a War Every Day,’ Waged Increasingly Alone”) quotes Steve Goldstein, who served as Undersecretary of State until his dismissal with Rex Tillerson, as saying, “What I’m trying to figure out is where does it end.”
2019 began combatively with a dubious government shutdown of his own making, generating more hardship, division and uncertainty, inexorably propelling the president on a collision course. How will Trump’s presidency end? Here are seven ways it may. Let me count the ways:
1) Elections: Business as Usual
As 2019 starts, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe; investigations by NY’s new attorney general Letitia James regarding Trump’s emoluments clause violations; secret testimony by close Trump associates; plus a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives; etc., all hang over the 45th President’s head like swords of Damocles.
Trump lost the popular vote by more ballots (about 3 million less votes than his opponent) than any other pretender to the throne. His approval ratings are dismal. His administration has failed to fulfill many signature campaign promises, such as building that “wall” on Mexico’s peso. Trump’s tariff, trade-war and stock market roller coaster rides and overall dysfunctionality generate turmoil. Considering all this, Trump’s reelection to a second term and serving until January 2025 seems like the least likely way he’ll leave power.
Trump could be primaried by a GOP contender, such as Ohio Governor John Kasich or Utah Senator Mitt Romney. But even if Trump wins a primary/caucus challenge or seeks reelection unopposed by a rival Republican, he’s assured of a strong challenge in 2020 from Democrats (and possible third party/independent candidates).
2) Resignation: I’m Fired!
The chattering class has speculated Trump could, for a variety of reasons, simply resign early from office of his own volition. The physical well-being of the 72-year-old obese, exercise-adverse, Diet Coke/junk food junkie is one possibility. And while Trump calls himself a “stable genius,” there’s been more hypothesizing about his mental health than any other U.S. President’s. Add in the stress of his high pressure job, compounded by the Mueller probe, upcoming waves of Congressional investigations plus court cases, Trump could impulsively decide to prematurely step down (or drop dead in office, like Zachary Taylor and Warren G. Harding).
Even if Trump remains physically and mentally healthy, he may just chuck it all to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, to spend more time with his links, porn stars, Twitter, etc. Of course, in leaving the presidency Citizen Donald would no longer be protected by the executive privilege some presume protects him from prosecution while he’s in the West Wing. Also, he’d have to start paying for his own golf trips.
3) The 25th Amendment: Hit the Road, Jack
Section 4 of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment permits removal of a President “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” if so deemed by “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.”
While Vice President Mike Pence hasn’t publicly raised concerns about his boss’ ability to function, various members of Trump’s coterie have. Last September, The NY Times published a rare anonymous op-ed entitled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” by a presidential inner orbit insider, claiming: “many… senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations…Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the President,” wrote the self-identified “senior administration official.”
Given Trump’s grandiosity and delusions of adequacy, it’s possible he’d refuse to accept his inability to rule and defy efforts to constitutionally remove him via the 25th Amendment’s stipulations.
4) Impeachment: Voting Him Off the Island
Another thing fractured America can agree upon is that some truly despise Trump and aggrieved groups—maligned minorities, furloughed federal employees, assorted “Deep Staters”/“Enemies of the People,” you name ’em—have other legal recourse. On the day the new Democratic-controlled House was sworn in, California Congressman Brad Sherman introduced another possible constitutional remedy: articles of impeachment against Trump for obstruction of justice and other offenses. Shortly after taking office Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib proclaimed “impeach the motherfucker.” Certainly, if Mueller’s report concludes Trump, his campaign, and/or regime conspired with the Kremlin and/or other foreign powers as his campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s disclosing confidential polling data to purported Russian operatives indicates, this groundswell could spread. From collusion to corruption to obstruction, there would be more grounds for removing him from the presidency than there were for Andrew Johnson or Bill Clinton.
But even if Trump was impeached in the House, his fate would be decided by a trial in the Senate, which remains controlled by Trump’s party, presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee. It appears unlikely that, as constitutionally-mandated, two thirds of the Senate would vote to convict and throw Trump out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
5) Social Revolution: Sharpen the Guillotine Blades
Denied constitutional redress of their grievances the resistance could turn to extralegal means to rid itself of this troublesome prez. Unnerved by a president frequently braying about “executive privilege,” a “unitary presidency,” threats to declare a “national emergency,” hobnobbing with despots, and his lack of transparency (when Mueller’s report is finally finished he may declare that, like his taxes, it’s “under audit”), desperate opponents anxious that Trump could seize dictatorial powers might resort to extreme measures.
Residents of what Gore Vidal called the United States of “Amnesia” may have forgotten, but America was founded in a revolution. The people didn’t vote King George out at a town hall meeting or impeach him—they overthrew him by force. Historically, the world has periodically been rocked by revolutions: Trump trauma could ignite another one.
With U.S. inequality at historic levels and King Don personifying the 1%, the masses could stage a people’s power uprising—an “American Spring.” Revolutions have happened before and will happen again; surely, the objective conditions exist to incite insurrection and class war. And if anyone doubts that sparks can spread like wildfire, I have two words: “Rodney King.” Donald, Don Jr., Eric and Jared may end up like France’s King Louis XVI and Melania and Ivanka like Marie Antoinette – with their heads on the people’s chopping blocks. History is a practical joker—you never know what it will pull out of its unpredictable sleeve.
6) Assassination: Sic Semper Tyrannis
Being America’s President is extremely risky business. Since John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in 1865, about 19 out of our 45 presidents—more than a third—have been the targets of assassination efforts and plots. About one out of every 11 Oval Office occupants has been shot to death, while Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and others were subjected to shooting incidents. Former presidents Clinton and Obama just had explosive devices mailed to them and so on.
Trump has repeatedly referred to violence as a defensible response to frustration, issuing statements and tweets some say directly contribute to an increase in violent acts. Might this turn against him? An attempt could be made by a deranged “lone gunman” or from the armed and extremely dangerous organizations he often excoriates, from MS-13 to the CIA and other factions of what Oliver Stone calls “the secret state” (which literally train assassins). Of course, as with impeachment, the chief executive has an insurance policy more ironclad than anything offered by Allstate – the fact that according to constitutional rules of succession, Vice President Pence would replace Trump if he was whacked.
7) Military Coup d’État: Domestic Regime Change
The most powerful entity Trump frequently picks fights with is the Pentagon. He often disrespects the U.S. armed forces, campaigning by claiming he “knew more about ISIS than the generals”; missing a centennial ceremony marking the end of WWI in France; then a no-show on Veterans’ Day at Arlington Cemetery last November; justifying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and so on. Trump dispatched soldiers to the southern border on a fool’s errand as an election stunt, on the pretext GIs were protecting America from a migrant invasion, which was just a ragtag refugee caravan including children. After almost two years in office, around Christmas the heavily guarded golfer-in-chief finally found a spare three hours to spend in a war zone, briefly visiting U.S. troops in Iraq—but, of course, turning it into a photo op full of politicking, MAGA caps and all.
Trump’s precipitously ending war games at Korea; announcing withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan; plus declaring ISIS defeated could also irk hawks. A dubious “national emergency” declaration to build the wall he promised Mexico would pay for—and diverting precious Pentagon funds to do so—could rile the top brass, too.
It’s true Trump has lavished massive spending of taxpayer dollars on the military. But over and over again, an effete snob who avoided the draft on the pretext of spurious “bone spurs” has dissed and dismissed the high command, including retired Army General H.R. McMaster, his former National Security Advisor, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former Marine Corps four-star general. After Trump fired him in late 2018, “Mad Dog” Mattis wrote a scathing departure letter, excoriating Trump for, among other things, disrespecting America’s traditional alliances and for not being “resolute and unambiguous” vis-à-vis Russian authoritarianism on the world stage.
Mattis’ stinging rebuke prompted Trump to accelerate his termination date by two months. One doesn’t have to be an officer who went through the Trump wringer to disdain him: On ABC’s This Week retired four-star Army General Stanley McChrystal stood by Mattis, saying December 30 he wouldn’t serve under Trump, who he suggested was an immoral liar. In a typical tit-for-tat tantrum Trump tweeted that McChrystal was a “dog” with a “big, dumb mouth.” In late December Retired Army General and ex-CIA Director David Petraeus also said he wouldn’t join Trump’s administration. (Trump nominated former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan – who, like Trump, never wore his nation’s uniform – to replace Mattis at DoD.) In 2018 Trump also became embroiled in a dispute with Retired Adm. William McRaven, commander of the raid that took out Osama bin Laden.
Retired four-star Marine General John Kelly was likewise forced out of Trump’s circle and left disgruntled. According to a December L.A. Times’ interview with Kelly, “When Trump picked him to head Homeland Security, and then serve as White House chief of staff, officials from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill expressed hope that Kelly would be one of the ‘adults in the room’ to manage a mercurial president.” Now that most if not all of those so-called “adults” have left the room and been voted off the island of Trump’s bizarre reality show, if they are frustrated in their quest for legal recourse to get rid of Trump, what will these Pentagon top bananas do?
If all other means fail to extricate Trump from the Executive Mansion and he refuses to resign (perhaps even pardoning himself?), the armed forces may decide they have no other choice but to take up arms against an erratic, renegade misbehaving as if he is above the law. Defense Department co-conspirators may come to agree with radio host Stephanie Miller’s assertion: “Job one is getting the traitorous lunatic away from the nuclear codes, getting him out of office as soon as possible.”
Worst and most terrifying of all, military commanders could reach the conclusion that their commander-in-chief’s manic behavior may not just be the product of ignorance, imbecility or even insanity. Pentagon leaders could deduce that Trump’s endless lying, swampy, scandal-ridden cabinet, divisiveness at home, pitting Americans against one another and our allies, disrupting our trans-Atlantic alliances, etc., are not mere accidents but instead, the precise reason why he was installed in office by enemies foreign and domestic: To be our divider-in-chief, deliberately sowing discord and chaos. The brass might diagnose all this pot stirring, such as failing to take any reasonable gun control measures to reduce mass shootings of our fellow citizens, as part of a plot against America requiring them to act out of a sense of patriotism and national honor.
Perhaps Pentagon putsch-ers could deploy the Emergency Alert System to do so (was January 2018’s false alert about an inbound missile attack at Hawaii a test run?). Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II’s 1962 novel Seven Days in May envisioned a military coup, what fictional President Jordan Lyman called “A regular damn South American junta”—in the USA.
It Can’t Happen Here? Think Again
Those who believe “it can’t happen here” and that a military coup d’état in America is impossible and just the stuff of fiction (like Seven Days in May) should consider this. Especially after the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was at loggerheads with the CIA and Pentagon, including with rightwing zealots Army General Edwin Walker (who distributed John Birch Society propaganda to servicemen) and Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay (racist George Wallace’s running mate during 1968’s presidential election). In Seven Days in May the raison d’être for the Pentagon plot against Pres. Lyman is a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union that was similar in tone to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty ratified in October 1963 by Washington and Moscow.
According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Pres. Kennedy was such a fan of Seven Days in May he urged John Frankenheimer (who’d made 1962’s conspiracy theory thriller The Manchurian Candidate) adapt the novel for the screen. The movie was made—but JFK never saw Frankenheimer’s 1964 film version, as he was liquidated the month after he signed the Test Ban Treaty in what many suspect was a kind of coup. Abroad, U.S. intelligence agencies and the military have overthrown and imposed regime change on countless countries—is it outside the realm of possibility that given enough provocation they might bring the war home?
Richard Levak, the psychologist who consulted for The Apprentice, the reality TV show that propelled Trump to fame, told The New Yorker in a 2019 story: “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined—it’s so macabre that you have to watch it… And you keep waiting for the comeuppance.”
It seems inevitable that the man who gained fame snarkily proclaiming “You’re fired!” will eventually get fired himself—one way or another, perhaps even by a firing squad. The above are the most likely scenarios for Trump’s constitutional or extralegal departure from office, the seven ways it may happen, via: elections; resignation; 25th Amendment; impeachment; revolution; assassination; military takeover.
Trump’s presidency is clearly business as unusual—prognosticators, pundits, analysts, and citizens-at-large must expect the unexpected when considering how it may end. Will the man who would be king survive or finally get his long-awaited comeuppance? All hell could break loose in 2019, when the unthinkable is thought, the unspeakable spoken, and the unimaginable happens.