The United States is in the midst of three separate — but not wholly discrete — constitutional crises.
One crisis, perhaps the most obvious and largest, was something neither members of the Constitutional Convention nor any Congress since had thought plausible, let alone necessary to address: the country’s democracy itself is under attack by a hostile foreign nation.
The Director of National Intelligence issued a 2017 report, citing declassified information, saying in no uncertain terms that the Russian Federation launched a campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, a campaign that “demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”
Most notably, the report found that the Russian government “aspired to help (then-) President-elect Trump’s election chances” with a messaging strategy against Hillary Clinton. The FBI, CIA and NSA all agreed with that conclusion.
The Founding Fathers likely did not consider this type of attack on the United States when writing the Constitution. It was, at the time, unthinkable. It still is. But there is increasing evidence that the Trump campaign — if not the president himself — colluded with a foreign government to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
These intelligence agencies are, and have been historically, conservative organizations. The likelihood that any one — let alone all three — would fabricate these findings simply because of a liberal bias is nigh. They are intended to be apolitical agencies and, while that effort has occasionally failed, they should not be accused, without evidence, of political biases simply because the results of investigations are not desired.
Moreover, the investigation into Russian interference is constantly discovering new facts, each more disconcerting than the last.
A grand jury convened by special counsel Robert Mueller indicted George Papadopoulos in October 2017 for lying to the FBI during a criminal investigation — a relatively minor offense. More recently, a February indictment found it is likely that the Russia-based Internet Research Agency attempted to influence the 2016 elections via a disinformation campaign. An indictment filed in July found that a Russian military intelligence unit targeted the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign with cyber attacks.
This is a crisis unlike any seen before in the United States. Even the biggest presidential scandal in American history — the Nixon reelection campaign’s spying on Democratic opponents — did not involve a conspiracy with a hostile foreign nation.
While the Constitution specifies — or at least hints at — how to deal with numerous possible situations, there is no prescribed remedy for the current situation.
The second and third crises are apparent in the wake of the Sept. 5 op-ed in The New York Times.
The column, written by an anonymous senior White House official, claims two things. First, there were talks in the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, declaring the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
The prospect of invoking the 25th Amendment — a constitutionally-prescribed remedy for when the president is unable to perform his duties — is not a threat in and of itself. Rather, the cabinet’s choice to not invoke it describes a danger to American democracy.
In their opinion, the president cannot perform his duties. But they chose instead to ignore that, and focus on subverting the power of the president, ironically enough because “no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.”
This leads us to the third crisis — the ongoing executive coup.
The op-ed writer describes a process in which “many of the senior administration officials” in the White House are working from within the administration to “frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
While the writer does not give details, this appears to confirm reporting by Bob Woodward for his new book, “Fear.” In “Fear,” Woodward writes there is an “administrative coup d’etat” and reports that officials in the White House took papers off Trump’s desk so that he would not sign them and would forget they existed.
Ignoring the president’s apparent lack of object permanence, this is a terrifying prospect for the future of the presidency.
Checks and balances in the United States are inter-branch, rather than intra-branch. The legislative branch, for example, checks executive power — or is supposed to — and the judiciary checks Congress.
These subversions have likely saved the United States from economic, political or foreign disasters. But they also create a dangerous precedent. Now, senior officials have the ability to unilaterally stop the president from exercising his duties.
Currently, they are only doing it to protect the United States from the threat of danger. In the future, however, administration officials may feel free to prevent the president from exercising power in a way they disagree with.
The country will bounce back from its current crises. When it does, the power of the presidency will be different, for better or for worse.
But it is in the hands of Congress, right now, to resolve the threats to American democracy, from home and abroad.