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Trump's Fitness To Serve Is 'Officially Part Of The Discussion In Congress'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the many things that makes the Trump presidency unprecedented is that some members of Congress, as well as some ethicists, legal experts, psychiatrists and scholars, are already talking about possible paths to impeachment or how to remove the President from office through the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. My guest, Evan Osnos, has written an article in the current edition of The New Yorker titled "How Trump Could Get Fired." It examines these efforts and considers the feasibility of ending Trump's presidency.

During the past few months, Osnos interviewed several dozen people about the subject, including some of the president's friends and advisers, lawmakers and attorneys who have conducted impeachments, physicians and historians and current members of the Senate, House and intelligence services. Osnos has been writing about Trump since Trump announced his candidacy in 2015.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How seriously are President Trump's opponents pursuing impeachment or removal from office through the 25th Amendment?

EVAN OSNOS: At the moment they're not pursuing it. And I use that term advisedly because they would use that term carefully. And what I mean is that at this point, they are aware - both Democrats and others who are talking about the possibility of Donald Trump's removal from office - they're aware that there is a perilous element to talking about it publicly and actively because in some sense that can become a rallying cry for Donald Trump's supporters.

So what they're being is judicious. And what they're saying is, we don't believe right now that there are firm grounds for impeachment. If we did, then we'd be introducing that in Congress. What we believe is that there are the precursors or the indicators of types of behavior and standards in the White House that expose him to extraordinary risks legally and politically.

So there are members of Congress now who have begun to talk about in private the fact that they believe that some of Donald Trump's actions, both in terms of how he talks about other branches of government, how he talks about the courts, the ways in which he has sought to de-legitimize the decisions of federal courts, that those could become the basis for a serious critique and ultimately a charge that he is undermining the norms of democracy or abusing the powers of his office.

But at this point, they are not prepared to go public in a formal sense. And - but it was pretty clear. You know, I work in Washington. I am talking to a lot of people who are involved in politics day-to-day, either as office holders or as, you know, the people around those office holders who in many ways hold a lot of power, deciding where the future of politics is headed.

And what became clear to me over the course of the last three months of the Trump administration was that this was not just water cooler conversation at the office or sort of late night monologue jokes about whether this president is fit for office, that there was, in fact, a much more formal conversation going on that doesn't really make the newspapers on a day-to-day basis but is in fact very serious and scholarly. And people are beginning to try to understand what are the legal boundaries for a president who is in so many obvious ways unlike any president we've had before?

GROSS: Well, some people have been challenging President Trump's mental fitness to serve in office. And that's where the 25th Amendment comes in. Let's start there. First of all, what does the 25th Amendment say?

OSNOS: The 25th Amendment was created after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when people in government realized that the Constitution was pretty good at dealing with the possibility of the death of a president. That's what vice presidents are for. But the Constitution was not well-equipped for another scenario, which was a president who, in Kennedy's case, had he lived from a gunshot wound, was comatose perhaps. There was no legal way for the duties of the office to be discharged by anybody else, so the government would be paralyzed.

And so in 1967, they introduced this amendment which created under Section 4 a pretty remarkable set of legal capabilities. And what it says is that if a president is determined to be mentally or physically unfit, unable to discharge the duties of the office, then he or she can be removed. And the determination about whether or not the president is unfit, that can be made by the vice president and the Cabinet.

So if a majority of the Cabinet secretaries - and a majority eight people - if they decide that the president is showing the signs of instability, is really not able to do the job, all they do is write down on a piece of paper, and they give it to the leaders of the Senate and the House. And at that point, the president is no longer legally endowed with the same rights and legal authority, particularly over the nuclear arsenal, that he or she had before. But a president can object.

It's a scenario - a sort of nightmare scenario that scholars describe as contested removal, in which a president would object to the idea that he's been determined to be unwell. And at that point, then Congress has three weeks to decide the issue. And you can just sort of imagine. It's kind of amazing to step back and think about what that would actually be like in practice, that you would have Congress actively, openly, publicly discussing the question of whether or not the president of the United States was mentally fit to return to the presidency.

During that three-week period, the vice president would be what's known as acting president. And it would be up to the Senate and the House to decide by a two-thirds majority to remove the President. And if they don't meet that two-thirds threshold - which is artificially high, it's designed to make it very, very hard to do - well, then the president goes back to the job.

But I'll mention one other piece of this which is important and has become, in some ways, the sort of leading official edge of this discussion about mental health. And that's that under the 25th Amendment, the Congress is legally allowed to create another body beyond the vice president and the Cabinet to make the determination of the president's mental health. That body could be, for instance, a set of medical professionals, doctors, or it could be former presidents or vice presidents. That's never actually been created.

But since the beginning of the Trump administration, at least two members of Congress - Democrats from Maryland and from Oregon - have introduced bills explicitly, they say, in response to their concerns about Donald Trump's mental health. And those bills would create this legal body which would have a greater say in assessing the president's stability.

So in that sense, the question of whether or not Donald Trump is, you know, mentally stable is now a matter of public policy. It is now officially part of the discussion in Congress. And I think it's there to stay.

GROSS: Do you know if anybody in Congress or in Trump's inner circle has questioned his mental health?

OSNOS: In Congress, they certainly have. Look. I've talked to - I've talked to a lot of members of Congress over the course of the last few weeks. And most - let's be clear, mostly it's Democrats who, say, well, six months ago, this was a joke. This was a late night monologue matter, the question of whether or not Donald Trump's - you know, is delusional when he says things like that there were 3 to 5 million illegal votes against him. Of course, there's no basis to support that. Or when he says that he had the largest Electoral College victory in history, things like that which are quite easily and verifiably false.

You know, that is no longer - it's no longer a joke. And what they say is that this is now a very serious matter. And, look. A number of Democrats who I spoke to, including Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Jamie Raskin of Maryland who is a constitutional law professor, as well as a member of Congress, you know, what they told me is that they have had long conversations with Republican colleagues about their concern and some of their colleagues' concern about the president's behavior.

But their Republican colleagues, at this point, none of them have gone public or gone on record as saying anything more than, you know, what might be a kind of rhetorical critique, people like John McCain or Lindsey Graham who will say things like this president doesn't seem normal to me. But they are not at the point of talking about the president's mental health as a matter of public policy the way that some Democrats have begun to.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker who has been writing a lot about President Trump dating back to the campaign. And his new article is called "How Trump Could Get Fired." And it explores the different paths that his opponents are taking to use the process of impeachment or the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. We're going to take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, who has been following President Trump and, before that, candidate Trump. His new article is called "How Trump Could Get Fired." And it looks at the path that his critics are taking to use the process of impeachment or the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.

The president's health records have ranged between totally opaque and incredibly vague and prone to generalizations (laughter) very positive generalizations. But a group of 35 psychiatrists sent a letter to The New York Times questioning President Trump's mental fitness to serve. What did that letter say?

OSNOS: You know, that letter was extraordinary, partly because there are a lot of reasons why mental health professionals do not go public with their concerns about the mental health of politicians. You know, for a long time, this has been a taboo. They really do not talk about it.

GROSS: Well, actually violated a kind of ethical standard within the psychiatric profession...

OSNOS: Exactly.

GROSS: ...That's been the rule since 1973. Do you want to describe that?

OSNOS: Yeah. Yeah, well - so in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running for president, a magazine called Fact asked psychiatrists, psychologists and others whether they believed that he was fit for the presidency. And more than a thousand of them came forward and said they did not. Goldwater, who lost the race, ended up suing for libel. He won, and as a result, the American Psychiatric Association created this ethical taboo against publicly diagnosing people who you have not directly examined and have not received their permission to talk about publicly. And that's known as the Goldwater Rule.

And for years, it really was - it obtained without question. You just did not see psychiatrists opining in the press about whether or not a political persona was - suffered some sort of psychiatric problem. Donald Trump has changed that completely. There have been more than 50,000 mental health professionals who have come forward and signed a petition using their names, exposing themselves professionally to some sort of, you know, potential sanction, to say that they believe that he is - poses a risk to the public because, in their view, he demonstrates many of the characteristics of psychiatric disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder or what's known as malignant narcissism, which is a combination of grandiosity, sort of hypersensitivity to criticism, an aggressive personality, sadism of one kind or another.

And so you have this really fierce debate going on right now in the psychiatric community, in the mental health community, about whether or not it's appropriate to be talking about Donald Trump's mental health. But what you hear from the people, like the 35 mental health professionals who wrote to The New York Times, is that they believe that above and beyond the Goldwater Rule that they have a more urgent ethical commitment. And that's what's known as the duty to warn. What that means is that if they in their practice come to believe that somebody, either a patient or somebody that they've encountered, poses an urgent risk to others, to the public, well, they have a responsibility to talk about that.

And that goes beyond their other commitments because they have to protect the public. And so what they say is that they believe that Donald Trump, because he is so impulsive and so sensitive to criticism and is now in possession of such extraordinary power, both in national security terms and in legal terms, they're concerned that he could use that either in national security to start a war or in some ways to harm Americans. And that's why thousands of them have come forward. And for that, we are really in an unusual territory because that doesn't - we haven't seen that before.

GROSS: So in response to this letter that was signed by 35 health professionals and published in The New York Times questioning the president's mental fitness to serve, the psychiatrist who wrote the entry for narcissistic personality disorder in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which kind of defines all the psychiatric disorders, he challenged that. He said that President Trump does not have the kind of problems associated with a mental illness.

OSNOS: Yeah, yeah. Allen Frances, exactly as you say, he wrote in response and said that he did not believe that Donald Trump showed the level of impairment, meaning that basically how do you become president if you're suffering from a psychiatric disorder? That you just - he does not seem incapacitated to the degree that you would typically expect from somebody who was diagnosable. The response to that has been forceful. They have said no, we see high-functioning people with psychiatric problems a lot. And so, you know, that debate is going to continue.

One of the interesting points that I think this brings up is if you look back over the course of the presidency historically, the fact that somebody is suffering terribly from something has never prevented them from becoming president. There was a study done by psychiatrists at Duke University that was published a few years ago which looked back at the medical records for presidents reaching back decades. And what they concluded was that 49 percent of United States presidents have suffered from an illness that would satisfy the standards of a psychiatric disorder. That includes depression, anxiety, substance abuse. Many of them abused alcohol at one point or another. And this was - you know, some of these are well-known. Abraham Lincoln, of course, as many people know, was depressed for much of his life. But there were others that it was not known at the time. It was largely hidden.

Lyndon Johnson, for instance - we don't often talk about Lyndon Johnson's mental health, but since his death, it's emerged that two of his aides were so concerned about his own paranoia in the midst of the Vietnam War, as he felt growing political opposition around him, that they actually consulted psychiatrists to try to figure out what they could do to help him. And Lyndon Johnson had begun to carry statistics in his jacket pocket, which he knew were false. But these were statistics that he would use to recite to people to try to defend his policy choices, defend his positions. He was convinced that there were enemies, as he put it, around him who were trying to encircle and prevent his presidency from succeeding.

So what this says is that there are both reasons why presidents are able to get into office. They're possessed with these extraordinary political gifts. But there is almost a unique level of stress associated with that job that means that they may not, in fact - that they may satisfy some of the characteristics of a psychiatric disorder while still at the same time succeeding in some obvious ways by simply being in the presidency.

GROSS: But the ways that President Trump is being challenged in terms of his mental health are different in the sense that some of the kind of grandiosity and narcissism that some people have attributed to him precede the campaign, let alone assuming office.

And, you know, for example, in terms of defining what some of his critics see as the problem, Laurence Tribe, who's a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, said - and you quote this in your piece - he thinks that the inability to discharge the powers and duties of office should include an inability that can be manifested by gross and pathological inattention to or indifference to or failure to understand the limits of presidential powers or the mandatory nature of those duties.

OSNOS: Yeah, this is one of the things that's really interesting about the 25th Amendment and Trump's mental health. I think, you know, if you ask most people what they imagine about what would be required for a president to be relieved of duty for mental health, they think, well, you know, he has to be essentially incapacitated. We have to be talking about somebody who's really just - who's had a break with reality in all obvious ways.

And what Laurence Tribe - who is a constitutional scholar, as you say, at Harvard - what he points out is that actually no, the framers of the 25th Amendment were very clear about their intent. They said this is not a medical strict standard. This is a combination of medical and political characteristics, meaning that at any given moment, you have to be able to take in the full totality of whatever the challenges are the president is facing and decide whether or not that president is really capable of discharging their duties.

And if they show that they are simply so incapable of maintaining a reasonable command of the facts or understanding or reading the material that's presented to them, well, then that can qualify as what professor Tribe calls pathological inattention. And he cites as an example the fact that just recently in the midst of this growing tension with North Korea over its nuclear arsenal, Donald Trump said publicly that the United States had, as he put it, an armada that was steaming towards North Korea.

At the time, that armada, as he put it, an aircraft carrier and the vessels around it were not. They were actually going the other direction. And what professor Tribe says is that that kind of casual disregard for the responsibility and capability the office, which, you know, that that constitutes in and of itself a level of concern that would - that qualifies consideration under the 25th Amendment. Because if the president is not able to understand the consequences of making a statement like that which could inflame North Korea, could lead it reasonably to assume that it is facing imminent attack, well, then that's not discharging the offices of the presidency in the legal way.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article, "How Trump Could Get Fired," is in the current issue of The New Yorker. After we take a short break, we'll talk about whether the president might be at risk of impeachment. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Evan Osnos. We're talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker titled "How Trump Could Get Fired." It's about the fears being expressed by some members of Congress, as well as some psychiatrists, legal experts and scholars that President Trump is unfit to serve. The article examines the two constitutional paths by which a president can be removed from office - impeachment and the 25th Amendment.

Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker and has been writing about Trump since the start of his presidential campaign in 2015. When we left off, we were talking about Osnos's interviews with people who are questioning the president's fitness to serve.

Of course, one of the president's most powerful powers is to order a nuclear a attack. And somebody's always accompanying the president with the nuclear football that has, like, a nuclear plan attached to it and the ability to start a nuclear war. You spoke with Bruce Blair, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton. And he told you that if Trump were an officer in the Air Force with any connection to nuclear weapons, he'd need to pass the Personnel Reliability Program. What is that?

OSNOS: The Personnel Reliability Program is administered to anybody in the chain of command up to a certain level, which is to ensure that if they have their hands anywhere in the process of firing a nuclear weapon - so meaning if they're a launch officer at a silo in the - you know, deep underground in the Midwest, or if they're somebody in the Pentagon who's involved in the process of considering and relaying nuclear orders - that they have to be assessed for their emotional stability, their financial profile so that the Pentagon knows that they are not in debt to anybody, so that the Pentagon knows that they do not have serious financial risks that might shade or guide their judgment.

So they answer a set of questions. And on that list of questions are things like have you ever been close to bankruptcy? How well do you sleep at night? Are you prone at all to losing your temper? And what Bruce Blair - who is a scholar at Princeton now and was for many years an ICBM launch officer in the Air Force, he's a scholar who looks at the intersection of national security and science - what he says is that everything that he knows from his own Air Force career makes it quite clear that Donald Trump would not pass that Personnel Reliability Program test because he has not released his tax returns.

We don't know what his financial commitments are and also because he has not released the health information that most presidential candidates have released. We don't know, for instance, whether or not he has had emotional instability in the past. We don't know a lot of details about his overall health. So for that reason, the irony here, of course, is that in order to be president, you don't have to pass that test. But if Donald Trump was lower in the chain of command, he - as Bruce Blair puts it - would have almost certainly not been allowed to be involved in the nuclear chain of command.

GROSS: So let's talk about what you're hearing about impeachment. Let's first define what impeachment means, what the standard for impeachment is.

OSNOS: Yeah. Impeachment is one of the very first things that was written into the Constitution. And it is the legal right of the public through Congress to remove a federal officer. Of course, the president is who we're talking about. And in order to do that, the president would have to be found to have committed treason, bribery or what's known as other high crimes and misdemeanors. That's a term that came out of English law.

And what's important about that is that it's not the same as an ordinary legal standard. It's not as if you have to violate the U.S. criminal code. It is a very specific thing. High crimes and misdemeanors was defined by the framers of the Constitution as being a violation of the public trust. So it's not, you know, it's not that it has to be that you, you know, did some very specific crime that would land you in an ordinary court. It's that you have essentially committed a crime against the country - a crime against your own office.

And, you know, we sometimes think of an impeachment as a prosecution. It has in some ways the aroma of a court about it. You know, it uses terms like charges and verdict, but that's not what it is. It does not put somebody in jail, obviously. What it does is it removes them from office. So it is a - it's a tool of political accountability. It's a way of holding the office of the president to account when there is no other way of holding the office of the president to account.

GROSS: OK, so it's not a criminal trial. It's not about violating the criminal code.

OSNOS: Exactly.

GROSS: But on the other hand, President Trump faces dozens of civil proceedings. And if he's found guilty in civil court, does that affect the possibility of impeachment? Does that come into play? Is that taken into consideration?

OSNOS: It is. And actually, even before you reach the question of a ruling in civil court, you know, that Donald Trump is right now, as you say, facing a vast range of different kinds of civil proceedings. He's been sued by somebody who was thrown out of a rally in Louisville, Ky., who accuses him of inciting violence. He's been accused of sexual harassment, is facing a proceeding in state court in New York and a whole range of other cases.

The reason why these are enormously risky for Donald Trump is that when a president is deposed, meaning that when they give a deposition or when they ever appear under oath, then they are at risk of perjury. And we know from the experience of Bill Clinton, who was ultimately impeached for two charges - perjury and obstruction of justice - that any time a president is under oath, that is a very, very risky moment.

This is one of the reasons why just before the Trump administration came into office, he and his lawyers settled cases, including the Trump University case in New York which was a fraud investigation, in which he agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars to his accusers. This is designed, in part, because they're trying to make sure that Donald Trump does not need to go under oath.

GROSS: You write that many scholars believe that the most plausible path for a Trump impeachment is based on corruption and abuse of power. For example?

OSNOS: Traditionally when we think of abuse of power, we think of, for instance, Richard Nixon, who used the IRS or the CIA to target his opponents. But abuse of power is actually much broader than that. And Donald Trump has exposed himself to that accusation in a couple of very specific ways. Number one, when Donald Trump issued an executive order that banned immigration from Muslim majority countries, that order was stalled by a judge in Seattle, a federal judge.

And Donald Trump went public, as you remember, and he said that a, quote, "so-called judge," unquote, has now put the country at risk because he said if there is an attack on Americans, you should blame that judge. I'm paraphrasing there. But this is what he said publicly. And, you know, some of us, I think we just sort of chalk it up to Donald Trump's speech, that that's the sort of things that he says.

But actually, if you're somebody who is involved in the federal government and in the basic architecture of a democracy, that's deeply concerning because what he's doing is fundamentally seeking to discredit a co-equal branch of government. The judiciary, after all, is no less or more powerful than the presidency. But what he's doing is using the exclusive power of the president, this bully pulpit, this power to be able to speak to 310 million Americans, and he is seeking to say that that judge is illegitimate and in furthermore, that if Americans are harmed, that that judge is responsible. That kind of statement in and of itself could be used as the basis for an abuse of office accusation.

GROSS: Is there another example that's been cited of President Trump denigrating or defying an equal branch of government?

OSNOS: There is, and I think this is the one that is probably the most acutely vulnerable to him. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, former attorney general of the state of Connecticut - so somebody who is deeply fluent in the law of the land - said to me that he sees on the horizon a constitutional crisis. That's his term, and he means it very specifically. He's referring to the possibility that the Trump administration will resist the efforts of other parts of the government to obtain information.

So if they issue a subpoena in the Russia investigation, if the FBI or if the intelligence committees in the Senate and the House ask the White House for information and if the White House refuses to provide that information, that right there is exactly what a constitutional crisis is. And it's worth remembering that that's the moment in Richard Nixon's presidency when things began to unravel. In October of 1973, the appellate court ordered Richard Nixon to provide secret tapes that he had made of his own conversations to the special prosecutor. And he resisted. And as a result of resisting the court's order and of trying to fire the special prosecutor, he began the process of his own undoing.

And Richard Blumenthal, who is, after all, a very measured, careful communicator on the subject of the law - doesn't talk about this stuff casually - said to us on the record in this story that he believes that we're heading towards a similar scenario because the White House has already started to resist the disclosure of documents. You saw just recently that Republicans and Democrats overseeing the House Oversight Committee have said that the White House has rejected their requests for documents related to the hiring and firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. It's one of those moments that sounds incredibly bureaucratic and esoteric but is in fact a very significant landmark because it represents the White House stonewalling efforts of an equal branch of government to do its job.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about paths some people in Washington are pursuing toward trying to impeach President Trump. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his new article is called "How Trump Could Get Fired." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He's been writing about Donald Trump since Donald Trump was a presidential candidate. His latest article about the president is called "How Trump Could Get Fired," and it's about Washington insiders, including people in Congress, who are considering pursuing the path of impeachment or using the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to remove President Trump from office.

Well, Sally Yates is going to testify before a Senate panel on Monday, and she was the acting attorney general who was removed from office by President Trump after she refused to enforce his travel ban. She apparently warned White House Counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn, who was the brief national security adviser to President Trump, that Flynn lied when he said he hadn't discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia in conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign. And Yates apparently told McGahn that Flynn spoke with Russians and could be compromised and that this was a very serious issue. And she apparently implied that as a result Flynn should be fired. It took three weeks for Flynn to be fired from that position, and the reason that was officially given was that he lied to Vice President Pence about the nature of his conversations.

So if Michael Flynn is found to have colluded with the Russians, does that reflect on President Trump in a way that might be impeachable?

OSNOS: Yeah. This is a classic demonstration of the principle you hear very often when it comes to presidential scandal or investigation, and that is what did the president know and when did he know it? So the question that the - that will be under consideration when Sally speaks to Congress is, how high did her information reach into the White House? Were others aware of the fact that Michael Flynn was potentially exposed to compromise, was potentially exposed to blackmail by the Russians? And were actions taken either to cover that up or to defer action to remove him?

What this gets to is, I think, one of the most powerful lessons of the history of impeachment, and that is that investigations lead to investigations. And what I mean is that Donald Trump came into office in the already very unusual position of having an FBI - active FBI - investigation around his associates into the - whether or not they colluded with Russia to interfere in the election. But that may ultimately not be his biggest problem. His biggest problem may be that that investigation produces other probes of other things. And we've really already begun to see that process.

So Devin Nunes, who was the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, was forced to remove himself from the investigation of the Russia case because it had become clear that he had acted inappropriately to look at classified information with the White House and then went public with that information in a way that was certainly not appropriate. And he's now under an ethics investigation by the House.

So, you know, one of the things that's so interesting here is that all of this may have begun with an investigation into how and why Russia interfered in the U.S. election. But by the time this is over, you are going to see that there have been all of these additional side processes, additional investigations, that spin off of that main process. And it's impossible to know at the outset which one of those is the one that is most potentially damaging to a president.

GROSS: Well, you know, continuing with the kinds of investigations that are going on, there's an investigation into Paul Manafort, the former campaign chair for Trump who received millions of dollars in cash from pro-Russian groups in Ukraine, Carter Page, former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Investigations into his connection to Russian agents are ongoing now. So there's - as you said, there's all these investigations that could lead to more investigations of things we don't even know about.

OSNOS: Yeah. That's the lesson of really the Clinton impeachment, which is if you remember, that began with an investigation into a failed real estate deal in Arkansas called Whitewater. And nobody would have guessed in 1994 when that investigation began, that it would have ultimately led more than four years later to the impeachment of a president for covering up an affair with a White House intern.

That's the dynamic that is worth paying attention to now because it's really difficult to know which one of these different strands is going to be the most relevant. But he is already just within his first three months in office facing a scale of ethical skepticism and formal investigation that he's really unlike any president that we've seen before.

GROSS: Because impeachment has to be passed through the House and the Senate, you need to be politically unpopular with people in Congress. Republicans control the House and the Senate. And so it seems unlikely that they would impeach a member of their own party. Republicans are also in the majority of the Supreme Court. So does that lower the odds that the impeachment process would ever succeed because what are the odds that Republicans would impeach one of their own?

OSNOS: You're absolutely right that a Republican president is unlikely to be subject to an impeachment proceeding initiated by Republican leadership in the House and the Senate. But a president needs his own party to survive impeachment in a couple of very specific ways. Number one, if the Republican House goes into Democratic hands in 2018, then it is really - this becomes not a theoretical question, but becomes an immediate political question.

So Democrats have already indicated in one form or another that they would be prepared to move ahead with a serious consideration of impeachment of this president, if not yet prepared to say formal resolutions to that effect. So what that means then is that for Donald Trump to defend himself against a Democratic-led process pursuing impeachment, he would need Republicans because the Republicans in the House would have to stay on-side and support him in a vote. It's a simple majority meaning that if 51 percent of the House votes for impeachment, then the president is impeached. And so he needs every Republican he can get to stay with him in that case. Then it would go to the Senate.

And in order for a president to be removed from office, two-thirds of the members of the Senate would have to side against him. And in order to meet that two-thirds threshold, that means that a number of Republicans would have to vote against Trump. So for that reason, he needs Republicans on his team.

And in some ways, that's one of the things that is - that's one of the indicators that suggests that he is at risk in ways that the public doesn't fully appreciate yet because Republicans in Congress are at this moment less privately satisfied with Donald Trump than they publicly admit.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article in the current issue is titled "How Trump Could Get Fired." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos about his article in the current issue of The New Yorker titled "How Trump Could Get Fired." So looking historically, two presidents have been impeached - Andrew Johnson who took over as president after Lincoln was assassinated and Bill Clinton who was impeached in the House, but the Senate did not convict. So, you know, he remained in office. So if we look historically at those two examples, are there lessons to extract from the past that might be relevant to the impeachment process?

OSNOS: Yeah. There are lessons, actually very important ones in some ways. The number one most important lesson is that, you know, the single greatest most important ingredient in figuring out who gets impeached and who doesn't is popularity. The simple fact is that Congress tends to not impeach popular presidents, and that's because this is - you know, it goes back to the very, very most important point about impeachment, which is it is not a prosecution. It is a political process. It's designed to try to remove somebody from office who has been determined to be both, you know, through this kind of an ineffable process of divining the public's support. It's about trying to decide whether that person is no longer capable of doing the job.

So if you lose political popularity, then you are acutely vulnerable. That's point number one. Point number two is that Congress itself is very powerful in curtailing the powers of a president, either by, you know, by hobbling them through impeachment, even if they don't remove them from office by subjecting them to that level of investigation, humiliation. It is a way of holding them to account. And in both of those cases - in Andrew Johnson's case, in Bill Clinton's case and also in Richard Nixon's case - though he was not ultimately impeached because he resigned, he is very much a sort of object lesson in the process of impeachment. All three of them lost the support of their own party in Congress to some degree. And as a result, that made them vulnerable.

And, you know, strangely enough when we talk about impeachment, we often think, well, the most important thing is the, quote, unquote, "smoking gun." You know, it's this piece of evidence that you have to have that shows that they did something that breaks the law. And, you know, it certainly is helpful. It may in fact be necessary. But everybody who has studied this process closely agrees it's not the most important thing.

You know, the most important thing is who controls the House of Representatives? If the opposing party controls the House of Representatives, then a president can be investigated. And through that process, they begin to chip away at a president's public approval. They begin to expose potential acts of wrongdoing that have been concealed. Therefore, you know, the single most important thing in Donald Trump's political survival right now is the 2018 midterm elections.

GROSS: So because impeachment is a political process that requires passage in the House and then conviction in the Senate - Republicans control both the House and the Senate now, but in the midterm elections in 2018, there is the possibility that Democrats will win a majority in the House. That might be a remote possibility, but it is a possibility. So if Democrats won a majority in the House, how would that affect the likelihood of impeaching the president?

OSNOS: I think there's no question if Democrats control the House of Representatives as a result of the 2018 midterms, that significantly raises the likelihood of an impeachment process because all of a sudden they would have subpoena power. They would have the ability to convene hearings and subcommittees and special committees dedicated to investigating ethical conflicts or abuses of office or civil complaints against the president. All of those would suddenly become active, live political issues.

And then on top of that, there is the problem of whether or not the White House would cooperate. And if the White House did not cooperate, then that's an additional risk. So really there is just a tremendous amount riding on the 2018 midterm elections when it comes to this president's political future.

GROSS: So Democrats are only 23 members away from having the majority. Like, what do you think the odds are that they would take over the House?

OSNOS: Well, I assumed at the outset of this project that Republicans are in very firm territory and control the House. Because of gerrymandering, they've basically created a lot of very safe seats for themselves. And there's some truth to that. But actually Republicans told me - these are people who look at long-term trends in electoral results - they said actually that the party needs to be much more concerned than it is because historically if one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, they tend to lose 35 seats in the next midterm election.

Right now, that would be a big enough loss to give control of the House to Democrats. Republicans control it by 23 seats. And so, you know, from a member of Congress Republican named Tom Davis who ran the Republican congressional election operation on multiple elections told me of his former colleagues very bluntly. He said they are living in la-la land right now. They don't fully appreciate the risks that they're facing. If Democrats take the House - and he thinks that they stand a good chance of doing so - this president is exposed immediately to investigation.

GROSS: Well, Evan Osnos, thank you so much for talking with us.

OSNOS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article "How Trump Could Get Fired" is in the current issue. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with comic W. Kamau Bell, writer Richard Ford and Richard Rothstein who wrote a new book about policies that mandated housing segregation, even in the north, check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan returned to FRESH AIR today to direct the show. Thanks, John. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.