Ethics & Public Policy Center

Trump, Mrs. Wilson and That ‘Senior Official’

Published in The Wall Street Journal on September 7, 2018


It was a little less than a century ago that Woodrow Wilson suffered his disabling stroke. He was on the presidential train on a siding near Wichita, Kan., in the midst of his exhausting cross-country whistle-stop tour. He was trying to sell the League of Nations to the American people over the heads of the U.S. Senate and Henry Cabot Lodge. If Twitter had been available in 1919, Wilson might have skipped the tour, avoided the stress, and escaped the stroke.

As the tragedy played out, Wilson was more or less confined for the rest of his second term to the twilight of his sickroom, protected from visitors except for carefully arranged audiences meant to fool Congress and the public into thinking that all was well, or anyway not so bad. For 16 months, First Lady Edith Wilson, presidential physician Cary Grayson and private secretary Joseph Tumulty in effect exercised the powers of the presidency.

It was a strange interlude. The country survived. The election of 1920 proceeded in due course, and—not that it was much improvement—brought forth the brief, corrupt presidency of Warren G. Harding.

Now a “senior official” in the Trump White House—in league with the New York Times—has attempted, in effect, to inflict a stroke and a twilight upon the 45th president, and to declare publicly what Mrs. Wilson kept private: that the president is disabled (given to “instability” and “erratic behavior,” according to the anonymous senior official) and that, in his stead, the sane and steady ones will manage Mr. Trump and govern the world, as if in saintly reminder of George Eliot’s lines at the end of Middlemarch: “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Yond “senior official” has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much—or perhaps he thinks too little and too smugly. The official and the Times are perhaps conjuring episodes of “Mission Impossible,” in which the IMF (the Impossible Missions Force) surrounds a target person (the president, in this case) with the illusion of an Oval Office and a Rose Garden and limousines and all of his constitutional powers, while in actuality the office of president is being conducted by a secret Committee of the Wise and Sane and Just, with the advice and consent of the Times editorial board.

The ploy is unconstitutional—a mutiny against the democratic process. But is it necessary nonetheless? If so, how is the great danger (an incompetent or radically unstable president) to be handled? Who makes the call?

Before answering, one should consider a subsidiary puzzle: If it is true that the senior official and his colleagues have quietly set themselves up as the Edith Wilson and Joe Tumulty of the Trump administration, why on earth would they jeopardize the task they had set themselves—to contain Mr. Trump and keep the country from running off the rails—by publishing an article in the New York Times announcing that they had done so? Does he imagine that only fellow members of the “resistance” read the Times? The article will surely lead to the identification of its author; it could not possibly have any other effect than to further destabilize the White House and further enrage the besieged president. If the senior official truly had the best interests of the country at heart, he would have kept secret what he is doing, not only his identity.

Publishing the essay makes the author look like a partisan phony whose purpose is not to advance the interests of the American people but rather to inflame voters against Mr. Trump in advance of the November elections. The timing of the op-ed is more than suspicious, coming at just the moment when the contents of Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” (the title itself is pure propaganda) were fed to world-wide media—filled with anecdotes supporting the senior official’s version of a mad and incompetent king.

The moment is enriched by the Kavanaugh hearings, with their background theatrics, which themselves might have been arranged by the IMF people: hysterical screamers, and women dressed up in costumes from “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I suspect that the entire performance—the Woodward book, the unidentified senior official’s usurpation by op-ed, the screaming, the Handmaids—will be greeted, out in the still-flourishing regions of common sense, as a gaudy, disgraceful example of jumping the shark.

Woodrow Wilson never should have been permitted to remain president after he was disabled. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in disastrously bad health, should never have sought a fourth term in 1944. There were plenty of people inside the Lyndon B. Johnson White House (the late Richard Goodwin was one of them) who believed that, toward the end of his presidency, Johnson was clinically paranoid—deeply unstable and virtually disabled. Richard Nixon’s sanity at the end was questioned by those closest to him.

Almost always in these cases, loyal White House people step in, quietly and selflessly, to protect the country’s interests. Meantime, certain constitutional processes may come into play. We are not there yet.

In the current case, the anonymous senior and self-canonized saint in the White House seems to be involved in some other game, more partisan, complex and craven.

Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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