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Is There A 'Soft Coup' Happening At The White House?

President Trump walks away after an event with sheriffs from across the United States, in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 5, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Trump walks away after an event with sheriffs from across the United States, in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 5, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Some political observers are asking whether there’s a “soft coup” underway at the White House, after The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by “a senior official in the Trump administration” describing “a quiet resistance” among members of President Trump’s inner circle.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer), professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. They are joined by David Frum (@davidfrum), staff writer at The Atlantic and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who writes the situation represents a “cowardly coup” and constitutional crisis.

Interview Highlights

On whether the situation described in the op-ed represents a coup in the White House

David Frum: “Things will be worse after this op-ed, not better. The president’s paranoia will be inflamed. It will be harder to give the president good advice against destructive action. The op-ed writer said, ‘We’re here to thwart him.’ So the next time somebody says to President Trump don’t do this or that unwise thing — and they are genuinely unwise things — the president will think, ‘Does this person have my interests at heart or not?’ And meanwhile, everyone in the administration will be hastening to produce professions of loyalty to the president, independent thought will be even more snuffed out, and the relatively normal people will be under greater suspicion and the time-servers and weirdos will be empowered.”

Julian Zelizer: “Well, it is and it isn’t, in that it’s clear that it seems, at least, high-level officials are working to subvert the president or to trick the president or to distract the president. The president, which I think David is reminding us, still has power. So in some ways it’s the worst of all worlds, and that’s why this is an inbetween situation where I do think the publication of the op-ed — which I’m not sure what the aim really was of the person writing it — will simply make matters that much more volatile. The op-ed’s a little like the Republican Congress these days: It’s warning about what’s going on, it’s complaining a little bit about what’s going on, but in the end, I’m not sure it’s going to actually constrain the president.”

On the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president who can’t fulfill their duties and obligations

JZ: “There is a mechanism in place, and the op-ed even discusses the fact that this was contemplated, but they didn’t want to precipitate what they say is a constitutional crisis, so they haven’t moved forward with this. The cabinet has the ability to move forward with a recommendation that the president isn’t fit to serve, and Congress can allow this to move forward and the vice president would take power. But they didn’t do that.

“So what we have instead is, you can think of the picture of this room full of officials taking things from the president and trying to prevent him from taking actions they are telling us are dangerous. So I don’t know what the answer is, but if what they say is true, then there’s a strong argument that that mechanism should be invoked. It’s a little like impeachment. There are mechanisms that can be used, so I’m not sure why, if this is true, they’re not being used.”

On members of the Trump “resistance” described in the op-ed saying their aim is to keep the government afloat

DF: “Look, we all thank the relatively normal, relatively honest, relatively patriotic, relatively uncompromised members of the Trump administration for their service. Obviously it could be a lot worse. We’re glad to have people who are trying to do their best and who remember the great traditions of this country.

“But let’s also understand how much harm is being done right now: We have a global trade war. We have NAFTA that is about to be dissolved. No thoughtful South Korean can feel safe after learning that the president wants to abandon the defense of South Korea and wants to tear up the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement. And what this op-ed has produced are declarations of loyalty to the president from Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis, Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo, [House Speaker] Paul Ryan denounced the op-ed writer as a coward. Even the first lady, who never speaks and obviously has very little time for this president, even she gave a statement of loyalty today. The president … I think he’s impaired with public opinion, but he’s a little stronger, with a somewhat tighter grip on power today than 48 hours ago.”

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