‘The power to persuade’

Resistance Is NOT Futile: Six Ways Donald Trump Can Be Contained

We all know the problem: a president who gives aid and comfort to white supremacists and is thoroughly unsuited for the office. The question is what do we do about it.


Joe Penney/Reuters

In 1946, George F. Kennan, a 42-year-old deputy chief of mission in Moscow, sent Washington a classified cable that came to be known as “the Long Telegram.” There and in a later article in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X,” Kennan outlined a new policy toward the Soviet Union that would guide both parties for nearly half a century.

Kennan’s idea was to “contain” a dangerous Soviet Empire “by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” The U.S. moved aggressively—often too aggressively—to put the Soviet regime under such stress that it would result in “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

“Containment,” though later partially repudiated by Kennan, was a huge historical success. Instead of another World War—a real possibility—we had a Cold War that ended with the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union—once as remote a possibility as impeaching Donald Trump is today.

Now our country faces a crisis of a different kind, though it was bracing to hear former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta say last week that Trump’s brinksmanship over North Korea was bringing the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

We all know the problem: a president who gives aid and comfort to Nazis and white supremacists and is thoroughly unsuited for the office in a hundred other ways.

The question is what do we do about it.

The answer is to move from the justified but nonetheless blind rage of resistance—the Edvard Munch Scream of agony—to the disciplined and coordinated “application of counterforce” necessary to contain and eventually legally remove Trump from the presidency.

The collapse of Trump’s business councils after mass resignations by CEOs is just the latest sign that Trump has lost all moral authority. Now he has nothing to fall back on but the constitutional powers of the office.

Those powers are significant, of course, but they are much more limited than many people realize. The great political scientist Richard Neustadt argued convincingly that the president’s only real power is “the power to persuade.”

He can act rashly, but must persuade the courts that he’s right (which Trump failed to do with the Muslim ban). He can veto a bill, but must persuade the Congress not to override it. He can fire people in his government who resist him, but must persuade others to take their place and persuade the Senate to confirm them.

The most important target of persuasion, of course, is the public. Right now, the president is at least 20 points less popular than all of his predecessors at this point in their tenures—and falling further fast. But that’s not enough. The architects of Trump containment must figure out how to use that unpopularity and other institutional pressure points to weaken him in ways that aid removal.

I know, I know. Republicans are still acting like craven appeasers. They’re denouncing Nazis and white nationalists but not their enabler. A Republican-controlled House won’t impeach Trump, and even if the House goes Democratic next year, the Republican Senate won’t likely convict him. But that’s just the way it looks now. Remember, at this point in the Watergate scandal—August of 1973—Republicans were still sticking with President Nixon, which meant (despite Democratic control of Congress) that he was still safe. A year later, he was forced to resign.

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Political and legal circumstances change. The goal of Trump resisters should be to make them change more quickly and protect the country from further danger in the meantime.

Here are six ways to contain—and perhaps eventually remove—Trump:

1. Impeachment March

Labor Day should bring the largest peaceful marches in American history, all focused on legally removing Trump from office. Nowadays, two and a half weeks is enough time to get millions in the streets. With Trump and his white supremacist thugs hoping for violence from the left, resistance organizers need to revive the training sessions in non-violence that were an important part of the civil rights movement.

Liberals won’t like it, but protesters should be encouraged to carry “Time For President Pence” signs. Yes, Mike Pence is bad, too, but not a direct threat to the republic. As part of the protest, all members of Congress must be repeatedly asked whether they think Trump is fit to be president, and whether Pence would be preferable. Any members ducking should be picketed by constituents—not just at town meetings but wherever they go.

This won’t lead directly to impeachment, of course, but it will help set the stage for the 2018 midterms—and for the release of incriminating evidence against Trump. It will also help popularize the fact that he has lost the moral authority to lead and also more specific critiques—for example, that he has already committed impeachable offenses under the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

2. Boycott

The collapse of the business councils should be a template for all connections to Trump. Any CEOs planning to join one of Trump’s new advisory groups (which he will no doubt form after a decent interval) should face boycotts of their products. Once local business leaders also abandon Trump, Republican members of Congress—who depend on their support and carry their water—won’t be far behind.

At the same time, no one should visit the White House for a photo-op without paying a price. That means artists, athletes, and other celebrities whose approval Trump covets should be on warning that he is toxic and their careers will suffer if they associate with him.

3. Restructure the Command and Control of Nuclear Weapons

While awaiting Trump’s removal, we need to protect the world from his potentially cataclysmic recklessness. Congress should change the protocols for the nuclear codes so that the president needs the support of others in the constitutional chain of succession—the vice president, speaker of the House, and president pro tempore of the Senate—before—launching nuclear weapons. Because this empowers Congress, it shouldn’t be too hard to pass.

4. Re-write the War Powers Act

Long before Trump, Congress relinquished too much of its constitutional power to wage war. The new law should prevent the president from launching pre-emptive war (as Trump threatened to do in response to North Korean “threats”) without congressional approval. Unilateral retaliation would still be permissible. Recent bipartisan support for revising the USA Patriot Act is a good indication that this is doable.

5. Pass a New Independent Counsel Law

After Watergate, Congress created the Office of the Independent Counsel, with a special prosecutor appointed by a panel of federal judges. When a series of investigations into politicians in both parties turned into endless fishing expeditions, the law was allowed to expire in 1999.

But now, with Trump having the power to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Trump’s lawyers are signaling that they will object to Mueller investigating potentially criminal Trump real estate deals unconnected to collusion over the 2016 election. If they stymie this part of Mueller’s probe, the president will effectively be above the law.

Congress should pass legislation strengthening post-Watergate ethics standards that have atrophied over the years. The new law should shift authority over special prosecutors from the president back to the courts and—while being more carefully drawn than the 1978 version—stipulate that the president can be prosecuted just like any other citizen suspected of a crime. Contrary to popular assumption, the section of the Constitution that covers impeachment is silent on the question of whether a president can be indicted and convicted in a court of law and the question has never been adjudicated in the Supreme Court. With a new law, Mueller would have the power to send Trump to jail.

6. Censure

Meantime, support is growing quickly for a congressional resolution censuring the president. This is a rarely-used provision that has no teeth but expresses the will of the Congress and thus the people. When the Senate censured Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 for his irresponsible  comments and behavior, he was finished politically. This was the remedy that many of us felt should have been applied to President Clinton in 1998 instead of impeachment. Censuring Trump for his comments on Charlottesville after Congress reconvenes would be fairly easy to accomplish. It would be hard for Republicans to vote against such a motion at this point without paying a price at home. Censure is necessary but not sufficient. It would, however, be a good first step toward removal.

All that's just for starters. Every thoughtful American should weigh other “pressure points” for containing this president.

Unlike Charlottesville, there are two sides to the pressing question of whether Donald Trump should be removed from office.

This is good, patriotic polarization—the kind that can save the country. Which side are you on?