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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Cabinet members discussed removing Donald Trump from office, according to unnamed senior figure

Anonymous administration member writes in the New York Times of moves to trigger the 25th Amendment

 Donald Trump responded to a damning book about his presidency by journalist Bob Woodward by suggesting that Congress change US libel laws. AFP Photo
 Donald Trump responded to a damning book about his presidency by journalist Bob Woodward by suggesting that Congress change US libel laws. AFP Photo

Faced with an erratic, impulsive president, members of Donald Trump’s cabinet discussed triggering extraordinary constitutional safeguards to remove the commander in chief from office, according to a senior administration figure.

Writing in the New York Times, an anonymous author claims they decided not to risk a constitutional crisis by using the 25th amendment – designed for use when the president is incapacitated – but instead are working to frustrate Mr Trump’s more “misguided impulses” or “worst inclinations”.

The bombshell revelations will further enflame concerns about Mr Trump’s state of mind and fitness to govern, and come on the heels of Bob Woodward’s new book that paints a portrait of an administration hurtling towards a “nervous breakdown”.

The result is a White House firmly on the defensive as Republicans ponder November’s midterm when they are expected to lose control of the House of Representatives.

The account offers the most explosive description yet of concerns at the very heart of American democracy and a band of insiders trying to protect the president from himself.

“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,” writes the anonymous author, described as a “senior administration official” by the paper. “But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.”

The use of the 25th amendment was at one time discussed frequently by Mr Trump’s opponents as a last-resort tool for the removal of a leader who displayed mental instability. But there was never any hint it was being mulled by members of his own team.

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What is the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution?

Removing a president between elections is meant to be tough. Here's how the 25th Amendment to the Constitution works:

It came into effect in 1967 as a way to clarify the Constitution's lines of succession after a crisis like President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. It wasn't intended to replace unpopular or incompetent presidents but to set a clear process of continuity if a president is disabled, temporarily or permanently, or otherwise unable to fulfill duties.

Its use has been noncontroversial, guiding Gerald Ford from the vice presidency to the presidency when Richard Nixon stepped down and Ford's successor as vice president, for example.

It enabled a vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to sideline a president temporarily. For that to stick and a vice president to finish out a president's term, it would require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of Congress.

A massive loss of confidence in the president from Trump's aides and fellow Republicans in Congress would be required.

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The writer says the trouble stems from the president’s “amorality”. His decision-making is bereft of first principles that could anchor key policies, he or she writes, and his leadership style is “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective”.

“Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back,” the author continues.

Meanwhile, figures who have been portrayed as villains in the media for their position in the White House are actually working to keep things on track.

“It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room,” the piece says. “We fully recognise what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

The result is a two-track system of government. While Mr Trump shows preferences for autocrats and dictators, meeting Kim Jong-un and pushing back against sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s Russia, other departments pursue more conventional policy.

The account will set off a guessing game about the identity of its author. But the details coincide neatly with anecdotes related in Mr Woodward’s book.

Gary Cohn, Mr Trump’s former chief economic adviser, is reported to have boasted of removing papers from the president's desk to prevent Mr Trump from signing them into law, including efforts to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and from a deal with South Korea.

After Syria's Bashar Al Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians in April 2017, Mr Trump called Jim Mattis, his defence secretary, and said he wanted the Syrian leader taken out, according to the book, saying: "Kill him! Let's go in."

Mr Mattis reportedly assured Mr Trump he would proceed but then told an aide they would do nothing of the sort. Instead national security advisers drew up plans for limited airstrikes which Mr Trump eventually pursued.

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the details revealed during the past 24 hours would send shockwaves around the world.

“The anonymous op-ed coming on the heels of the Woodward book and all the tweets will reinforce questions around the world as to what is going on in the US and whether it can be relied on for the foreseeable future to act in a recognisable dependable manner,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mr Woodward had previously written books about every American president since Richard Nixon, whose resignation was triggered by his reporting of Watergate. But despite a stellar reputation and numerous attempts to gain access, the reporter hit a wall when he tried to speak to Donald Trump for his latest look at life inside the White House.

The transcript of their subsequent phone call, released on Tuesday, provides an extraordinary insight into a chaotic administration where only one man’s decision counts.

In the conversation, Mr Trump initially claims he would have been open to an interview but knew nothing about Mr Woodward’s requests.

He lays the blame with his staff.

“Well, a lot of them are afraid to come and talk - or, you know, they are busy. I'm busy,” said the president, offering hints of a dysfunctional office before his story gradually begins to change.

Fear, to be published on Tuesday by Simon Schuster, describes a White House racing toward a “nervous breakdown”, where key aides have taken to removing papers from Mr Trump’s desk to prevent dangerous policy decisions, and where senior figures, such as John Kelly, the chief of staff, refer to the president as an “idiot”.

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Read more:

Twitter and DC abuzz with big question: who is the New York Times’ anonymous author?

Donald Trump wanted Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad killed, says Bob Woodward book

Trump escalates attacks on his attorney general

White House counsel Don McGahn latest to head for the exit

After a series of devastating blows, the legal walls are closing in on Trump

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On Wednesday Mr Trump called once again for a change to libel laws to make it more difficult to publish such accounts.

“Isn’t it a shame that someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost,” he wrote on Twitter. “Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?”

Yet the recording of his 11-minute phone call with Mr Woodward reveals how the president twisted and turned when offered a chance to give his side of the story. The veteran reporter – who had permission to record the conversation – explains how he passed requests through a string of senators and senior aides, such as Kellyanne Conway.

“It's really too bad, because nobody told me about it,” said the president. “You know I'm very open to you. I think you've always been fair.”

Ms Conway is one of the aides with direct access to the president.

He then admits that Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, had raised the request, and puts Ms Conway directly on the line after she entered the Oval Office.

“I put in the request,” she said. “But you know, they – it was rejected. I can only take it so far.”

By the end of the call the mood had soured.

“We're going to have a very inaccurate book, and that's too bad,” Mr Trump concluded.

The result was that the White House appeared to be badly wrong-footed on Tuesday as the first excerpts of the book emerged.

1973 Pulitzer Prize winner, Bob Woodward, arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York in January 2017. EPA
1973 Pulitzer Prize winner, Bob Woodward, arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York in January 2017. EPA

Based on hours of interviews with second-hand sources, Mr Woodward claims that Mr Mattis said the president had the understanding of a “fifth or sixth grader”, reveals that Mr Trump failed a practice interview about the Russia investigation – "Don't testify. It's either that or an orange jumpsuit,” his then lawyer John Dowd is reported to have said – and did not understand why US troops were deployed in South Korea.

“The operations of the Oval Office and White House were less the Art of the Deal and more often the Unravelling of the Deal,” writes Mr Woodward in a paragraph that summarises the tone of the book. “The unravelling was often right before your eyes, a Trump rally on continuous loop. There was no way not to look."

The White House was slow to respond, amid reports that officials struggled to obtain a copy of the new book.

The result was that they could only start pushing back hours after the story first broke, releasing a slew of statements from figures quoted indirectly by the book.

Mr Kelly said: The idea I ever called the President an idiot is not true, in fact it's exactly the opposite.”

Mr Mattis, like other figures, tried to spin Mr Woodward’s picture of chaos as a symptom of healthy debate.

“While responsible policy making in the real world is inherently messy, it is also essential that we challenge every assumption to find the best option,” he said in a statement. “I embrace such debate and the open competition of ideas.”

Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief of the Washington Post, said the denials failed to address plenty of other lines in the book, such as Mr Kelly saying the presidency was in “crazytown”.

“They are not litigating very many details of the reporting and there’s a feeling inside that the president is really upset about this – verging on paranoia – that he’s very bothered about what’s been said about him to Woodward,” he told MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

With midterm elections looming in November and the Russia investigation continuing to secure convictions, the result is a White House locked firmly in crisis mode.