Carole Owens: Trump and consequences

STOCKBRIDGE — I am struck by how often the president of the United States is described in terms ordinarily used to describe a child. A U.S. senator called the White House a day care center. A member of the House described the president's displeasure as a temper tantrum. He boasts of behavior for which children are punished in play group: threatening, calling people names, announcing if hit, he will hit back harder, and kicking people when they are down. A White House staffer described his behavior as "inconsistent with that of his predecessors."

Some think he is justified, refreshing, and doing just what the country needs. Others find him cruel, crude, and not fit for office. Whether you think the change is good or bad, no one denies it is happening. No one disputes that things are being said and done that have not been done before.

Potential consequences

The question is this: will this become the new normal or will it remain an aberration? Will the political and cultural landscape of the United States change permanently or momentarily? Those exhilarated by Trump want his behavior to normalize. Those embarrassed or chagrined by it want there to be consequences before his behavior is deemed acceptable.

I know a man who asked: what's the consequence? His position was: if the consequence for breaking the law is insignificant or avoidable, why obey the law? For most his attitude is anathema. Many regretted that there were no consequences for the bankers who had a hand in the 2008 economic meltdown. Absent consequences, they believed it could and would happen again. Similarly, whether this new behavior persists may be a function of whether or not there are consequences. So what are the consequences for a sitting president?

There are two parts of the Constitution that address the issue. The 25th Amendment deals with procedures when the president is unable to carry out the duties of his office. Section IV touches on grounds for removal. The president can invoke the 25th amendment or "the vice president and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments" can declare that the president is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

The 25th amendment was invoked three times since it was ratified in 1967. President Reagan and President Bush sent letters assigning their duties to the vice president three times during the hours they were hospitalized and anesthetized. The grounds for invoking are trickier.

This year, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA.) said, "I think what the authors of the 25th Amendment principally had in mind was some kind of physical incapacity or serious mental illness or breakdown, an inability to function in office." One of those authors, law professor John D. Feerick has explained that the 25th Amendment cannot be invoked for "policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness, or impeachable conduct — none of that is intended to be covered."

Apparently when Schiff says the 25th Amendment relates to physical incapacity he is on firm ground because there are precedents. When he mentions mental incapacity he may or may not be on firm ground. So if a president is conscious, he is assumed to be competent? Or is there more?

A new normal?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that abandoning Puerto Rico would be an impeachable act.

Article II, Section IV defines impeachment. Impeachment proceedings can be instigated by the House of Representatives for treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors. Is abandoning Puerto Rico dereliction of duty, and if so is dereliction of duty a high crime? Is taunting a foreign leader sufficiently to threaten the safety of the United States treason? If so can the president be impeached? To impeach him according to Article II or remove him from office according to the 25th Amendment requires elected and appointed officials to act.

Does his behavior rise to the level of incapacity or criminality spelled out in the Constitution? If so, do the people with the authority to act have the will and the courage? If there are no consequences will "behavior inconsistent with that of his predecessors" become the new normal? If he is rewarded for his behavior with wealth and power, will others emulate it?

It would be nice to believe we are punished by our sins since increasingly we are not punished for them.

Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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