Trump's atrocious judgment
Imagine our president making a decision on a grave matter. Then shudder in fear.
President Trump may have brought an unprecedented level of corruption to the nation's highest office. His campaign may have colluded with a hostile foreign power to manipulate the election that landed him in the White House. Members of his inner circle (and family) may be guilty of financial crimes. And even if no smoking gun of scandal is uncovered at the end of the numerous ongoing investigations of the president, Trump may well have committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice by attempting to thwart those probes.
Trump could end up facing impeachment and removal from office for any one of these issues. But none of them, either individually or collectively, warrants removal from office as much as the president's consistently atrocious judgment.
That's the implication of a recent Ross Douthat column that's received remarkably widespread pushback from a range of his fellow conservative writers. Douthat argues that the time has come to accept that Trump may need to be removed from office using the 25th Amendment's mechanism for replacing a president who has become incapacitated — on the grounds that Trump lacks the capacity to govern with even a minimal level of competence.
In reply, Douthat's critics contend that the response to a president who regularly shreds liberal-democratic norms should not be an act that shreds even more of those norms. If the FBI or congressional investigations uncover evidence of criminal acts, then impeachment and removal from office may well be called for. But short of that, Trump's critics need to keep their passions in check, stop flirting with treasonous talk, and allow the system to contain the often reckless and irresponsible commander in chief.
It's a perfectly sensible reaction. But it's also one that fails to wrestle adequately with the depth and gravity of the problem — which is that the United States has placed in a singularly powerful position a man singularly incapable of exercising the judgment needed to do the job at the highest level. America and the world can survive a presidency marked by corruption and continual scandal. They may not be able to survive a president who is unable to make wise decisions about the gravest matters that may come before him in the Oval Office.
We understandably view presidents and their role in our political system through lenses of electoral politics and managerial oversight. A president does more than any other person in Washington to set an agenda for the federal government, which he seeks to implement in various ways — by signing executive orders, by making appointments and setting regulatory priorities across dozens of executive branch departments and agencies, and by leveraging an electoral mandate and public opinion to encourage Congress to pass specific laws and a budget.
Each of these tasks requires multiple skills or capacities, and Trump is deficient in all of them. He has very few firm or settled views. He is utterly lacking in knowledge of history and policy. He has no ability to take in, synthesize, and prioritize the vast quantities of information and intelligence that flood into the Oval Office. And he's much better at using rhetoric to polarize and antagonize than he is at deploying it for the purpose of persuasion.
All of that is bad. But none of it represents the presidency at its true peak — which is in the realm of judgment.
Judgment is the faculty of weighing various actions and the possible consequences of each, no one of which is obviously right or wrong, and ultimately striving to make a wise decision. Abraham Lincoln used his judgment when he decided not to allow the Southern states to secede from the union without a fight. FDR used his judgment when he defied strong anti-war sentiments to push Congress to approve military and other aid for Great Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany in the months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. JFK used his judgment to maneuver his way through and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Political philosophers since the ancient Greeks have recognized the decisive role of judgment in statesmanship — and noted how mysterious it is. For Aristotle, political judgment (prudence or practical wisdom) is both a moral and an intellectual virtue. It's the capacity to size up a situation, weigh various conflicting considerations, deliberate about the range of available choices, and then make a decision about which is best. It's a kind of vision or seeing — one that often can't be properly evaluated until long after it is made. Two years into the Civil War, with the North and South locked in a bloody stalemate and the dead piling up on both sides, it wasn't possible to say with any certainty that Lincoln's judgment in April 1861 had been sound. That evaluation only became possible later, and some still dispute it even today.
In the four months since his inauguration, Trump hasn't been forced by circumstances or events to exercise his judgment on anything near the highest levels. We can all hope and pray that in the remaining 44 months of his term he never will be — though that doesn't mean it won't happen. And remember, presidents have immense powers to follow through on what their judgment tells them, apart from what circumstances and events force on them. (Nothing about the world situation in the months following the September 11 attacks required George W. Bush to contemplate starting a war to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. He and his advisers alone decided that it was a good idea.)
All Americans should consider this a deeply chilling prospect, given the series of atrocious decisions about comparatively trivial matters Trump has made in the months since his election victory. He insisted on hiring Michael Flynn to serve as national security adviser despite the fact that he was under federal investigation. He asked FBI Director James Comey for a pledge of loyalty and tried to get him to drop his investigation of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. He fired Comey and then contradicted the official White House account of the reasons for the firing by admitting that he did so to impede the FBI's investigation. He divulged classified intelligence to the Russian ambassador, in the process revealing the source of the intelligence (Israel). He then made the situation worse by volunteering that he hadn't said the word "Israel" in his meeting with the Russian ambassador, which no one had alleged and which confirmed that Israel was indeed the source.
Is this really the person we want in charge when North Korea test-fires a long-range missile that could hit the U.S. mainland? Or when China makes provocative moves toward Taiwan? Or when Russia flexes its military muscles in the Baltics? Or when ISIS pulls off a major terrorist attack in an American city? Or when some other unexpected international event confronts the president? Or perhaps just when he gets especially frustrated with his declining approval rating and angry at the rising tide of critics in his own party?
This is ultimately what Douthat and others have in mind when they suggest that it may be necessary to remove the president from office using unconventional means. Those who reject this path may well be right to do so, but the case on the other side is not frivolous. On the contrary, every informed and responsible American should be pondering the possibility with great seriousness.
In the end, that decision is a matter of judgment, too.