Editorials of The Times

Posted January 10, 2018 10:08 p.m. EST

Is Trump Nuts?

Is Donald Trump mentally fit to be president of the United States? It’s an understandable question, and it’s also beside the point.

Understandable because Trump’s behavior in office — impulsive, erratic, dishonest, childish, crude — is so alarming, and so far from what Americans expect in their chief executive, that it cries out for a deeper explanation.

It’s beside the point not because a president’s mental capacity doesn’t matter, nor because we should blindly accept our leaders’ declarations of their own stability, let alone genius. Rather, we don’t need a medical degree or a psychiatric diagnosis to tell us what is wrong with Trump. It’s obvious to anyone who listens to him speak, reads his tweets and sees the effects of his behavior — on the presidency, on the nation and its most important institutions, and on the integrity of the global order.

Presidents should not, for instance, taunt the leaders of hostile nations with demeaning nicknames and boasts about the size of their “nuclear button.” They should not tweet out videos depicting them violently assaulting their political opponents. They should not fire the FBI director to derail an investigation into their own campaign’s possible collusion with a foreign government to swing the election. And, of course, they shouldn’t have to find themselves talking to reporters to insist that they’re mentally stable.

This behavior may be evidence of some underlying disorder, or it may not. Who knows? Trump hasn’t undergone a mental-health evaluation, at least not one made public. But even if his behavior were diagnosed as an illness, what would that tell us that we don’t already know? Plenty of people with mental disorders or disabilities function at high levels of society. Conversely, if Trump were found to have no diagnosable illness, he would be no more fit for the office he holds than he is today.

The problem lies in trying to locate the essence of Trump’s unfitness in the unknowable reaches of his mind, as opposed to where we can all openly see it and address it in political terms. As psychiatrist Allen Frances told The Times: “You can’t say enough about how incompetent and unqualified he is to be leader of the free world. But that does not make him mentally ill.”

Unfortunately, a number of psychiatrists, politicians and others who should know better have increasingly taken up the Trump-is-crazy line. In “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” released last October, more than two dozen contributors, most mental-health professionals, concluded that Trump presents a grave and immediate danger to the safety of America and the world. No argument there, but why do we need to hear it from psychiatrists relying on their professional credentials? Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the book’s editors, said the authors are “assessing dangerousness, not making a diagnosis.” Anyone with access to newspapers or Trump’s Twitter feed can do the same.

The psychiatrists say they have a duty to warn the public about what they see as a serious threat to the nation. That’s commendable, but they should consider how their comments will be taken by the vast majority of Americans, particularly in a highly politically polarized time. The language of mental health and illness is widely used yet poorly understood, and it comes loaded with unwarranted assumptions and harmful stereotypes. There’s a good reason the profession established an ethical guideline in 1973, known as the Goldwater Rule, that prohibits psychiatrists from offering professional judgment on public figures they have not personally examined.

In the future, it would be a good idea if presidential candidates voluntarily submitted to a mental-health evaluation, just as they often do a physical one — and in that case, psychiatrists would have a critical role to play. But you don’t need to put Trump on a couch now to discover who he is.

So what’s the right way to deal with Trump’s evident unfitness?

Not the 25th Amendment, despite the sudden fashion for it. Ratified in the wake of President John Kennedy’s assassination, the amendment authorizes the temporary removal of a president who is unable to do the job. Its final section, which has never been invoked, was meant to clarify what should happen if the president becomes clearly incapacitated. One of the amendment’s drafters, Jay Berman, a former congressional staff member who has said Trump “appears unhinged,” still doesn’t believe that the amendment applies to his case.

Even if invoking the amendment were the best approach, consider what would need to happen. First, the vice president, plus a majority of Trump’s Cabinet, must declare to Congress that the president cannot do his job. If Trump disagreed, they would have to restate their case. Only then would both houses of Congress get involved, and each would have to agree by a two-thirds vote. The chances of any of these steps being taken in today’s political environment are less than zero.

Impeachment would be a more direct and fitting approach, if Trump’s actions rise to the level of high crimes or misdemeanors. But this path is similarly obstructed by Republicans in Congress, who are behaving less like members of a coequal branch with oversight power than like co-conspirators of a man they know is unfit to govern.

The best solution is the simplest: Vote, and organize others to register and to vote. If you believe Donald Trump represents a danger to the country and the world, you can take action to rein in his power. In November, you can help elect members of Congress who will fight Trump’s most dangerous behaviors. If that fails, there’s always 2020.

A Grave Warning on Russian Meddling

If there has been any benefit from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, it’s that it has raised awareness about President Vladimir Putin’s broader threat to democracies in Europe and elsewhere.

In the face of complacency from Republicans fearful of what attention to these intrigues might reveal about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have issued a report that appears to be the most comprehensive public accounting of Russia’s war on the West.

It drives home the point that the 2016 election, which every U.S. intelligence agency has said involved Russian interference to help elect Donald Trump, is part of a pattern in which Putin has worked to erode Western institutions and undermine faith in democratic practices.

Few countries in Europe have escaped his malign intrusions. The report should serve as an alert for the United States to work urgently with its allies to protect democracy.

There is a significant impediment, however, and that is Trump and the congressional leaders who enable him. Trump persists in his bizarre fascination with Putin and refuses to acknowledge that Russia poses a security threat, even though his own recently released national security strategy says Russia, along with China, seeks to “challenge American influence, values and wealth.” Republicans in Congress have expressed more concern about those who revealed Russia’s meddling than about the meddling and have done nothing to ensure it cannot be repeated.

According to the report, the Kremlin is spending far more on foreign propaganda outlets, and on nongovernmental groups and political parties opposed to the European Union and NATO. It enlisted organized crime groups to launder money and commit other crimes and used its control of energy supplies to spread corruption, the report said.

Russia used cyberwarfare, disinformation and military force to inhibit ties to the West by Georgia and Ukraine. The Kremlin is also trying to undermine Serbia’s efforts to integrate with the West by exploiting connections between the Russian Orthodox Church and Serbians and through its near monopoly on energy supplies.

Russia has weakened democracy in Hungary and Bulgaria, both members of the European Union and NATO, and has drawn them closer to Putin’s orbit. The Kremlin is spreading its reach into Mexico and the Middle East.

This activity would be troubling at any time but more so now when the president has denied there has been Russian meddling, refused to criticize Putin and seemed more interested in rewarding Moscow than confronting it.

The report was produced without Republican input, which gives it a partisan cast it does not deserve, especially since it acknowledges that the threat posed by Putin existed before the current administration came to office.

Democrats hope the report will increase pressure on the administration to put into effect sanctions Congress overwhelmingly enacted last year with a deadline of Jan. 29.

“Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter attached to the report.

By contrast, Europe, as the report notes, has begun to push back. Germany pre-empted Russian interference in its elections by warning the Kremlin that meddling would bring consequences, by forging an agreement among political parties not to use bots or paid trolls, and by ensuring cybercooperation between the government and campaigns. Spain has led Europe in cracking down on Russian-based organized crime groups. The Baltic States have beefed up defenses against cyberattacks and disinformation and diversified energy supplies to avoid overreliance on Russia. NATO and the European Union have focused on cyberdefense.

As the report points out, there are many things besides sanctions that should be part of a comprehensive U.S. strategy, including helping to strengthen democratic institutions in vulnerable European countries, exposing and freezing Kremlin-linked dirty money and building a coalition to counter Russian hybrid threats.

But most important is leadership, which so far Trump has refused to provide. On Twitter, he denounced the Democrats for releasing the report and, once again, said he had not colluded with Moscow. “Russia & the world is laughing at the stupidity they are witnessing,” he wrote. He’s right, but he doesn’t realize who is being laughed at.

When Mercy Collides With the Law

A man’s home may be his castle, but even castles are governed these days by zoning codes and other local ordinances. An Illinois man named Greg Schiller had that lesson reinforced after he opened his basement to homeless people, letting them sleep there overnight during the recent deep freeze that enveloped much of the country. No way, said city officials in Elgin, the Chicago suburb where he lives. They shut down Schiller’s “slumber parties,” as he has called them, on grounds that they violated a fistful of municipal regulations, among them ventilation and fire-safety requirements.

This is a situation that has arisen in various jurisdictions from time to time, with inherent tensions between a human instinct that many people would deem admirable and government codes that many of the same people would regard as sensible. At some point, courts may have to determine which value can claim to promote the greater public good.

Schiller, 53, says that he earns his living as a mechanic but that his real calling is “working with the homeless as much as possible.” He was a founding member of a nonprofit group called Matthew 25:40, named for the New Testament passage that says in part, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

What he did — on a half-dozen occasions, by his count — was to let homeless people sleep on cots in his basement when the windchill factor dipped below 15 degrees. Schiller provided hot drinks and simple meals like ramen. He showed movies, G-rated fare like old “Lassie” films and Christian-themed works. Typically, he said, 10 people stayed overnight. Come morning, they had to leave. There were no untoward episodes during the sleepovers, he said. “These people are my friends,” he told a Chicago radio station, insisting on his right to have friends over to spend the night.

That’s not how Elgin officials viewed it. To them, Schiller in effect had created a shelter of his own and blatantly flouted various ordinances, for instance by not having enough exits from the basement in case of a fire. “We understand where he’s coming from,” Laura Valdez, the assistant city manager, said, “but we do have shelters for the homeless.” At any given time, she said, her city of about 110,000 has about 100 men and women in need of shelter.

Not everybody in need, though, wishes to spend the night in a municipally sanctioned facility, whether out of safety fears or out of innate resistance to the rules. That is as true in Elgin as it is in a vastly larger city like New York. So a fair question would seem to be whether Schiller’s offer of a place for these people to lay their heads in severe weather outweighs city codes governing full-time shelters.

One person who thinks so is Jeff Rowes, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, a public-interest firm in Arlington, Virginia, with a libertarian bent. He has been in touch with Schiller. “Fundamentally,” Rowes said, “you have a right to rescue people unless there’s evidence you’ll do more harm than good.” He called it “the right to be a good Samaritan.”

After this dispute became the focus of news articles, Schiller and Elgin officials discussed ways in which the city might work harder to shelter all the homeless on the coldest nights, perhaps even allowing them to sleep in the lobby of a police station. Satisfied for now, Schiller said he would drop his plan to sue the municipality. In a way, that’s too bad, because a court case might help clarify how far the sanctity of one’s castle extends.

“I respect the city codes,” he said. “But I do believe a little leeway, a little grace, could have been in order.”


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