I loathe Mike Pence with every fiber of my being. I vehemently oppose just about everything he stands for, and have dedicated most of my professional life to fighting back against that which is made manifest by the unremarkable brain stored within the stony ahead that sits atop the thick neck of Mike Pence.
And yet if he were to become president right now, I would ecstatically dance in a field of flowers. In slow motion.
The Trump presidency is an emergency. A crisis unto itself. The death, the suffering, the lies, the bigotry, the abuse, the corruption, the disinformation, the celebration of ignorance, the eagerness for violence, the determination to crush dissent in any form, even on a ballot. This has to stop.
The impeachment process was one institutional attempt to stop it, but it was doomed to fail from the beginning. But with every passing day, Trump finds new ways to do increasingly unprecedented damage to the republic and exacerbate the destruction he’s already wrought. I keep wishing, without hope, that someone will do something.
The last institutional remedy that exists, outside of an election that may or may not be the final word, is for the administration itself to fall on its own sword. It’s utterly fantastical to even consider this a possibility, and yet I can’t help but wistfully imagine that somewhere in the deep recesses of Mike Pence’s conscience, he knows that the madness has to end, and that he is the only one who can make that happen.
I dream of the invocation of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
For the president to be removed from power by his own administration, the vice president needs to consent of a majority of the heads of the cabinet’s “executive departments,” so eight top-level cabinet secretaries have to agree that the nation is sufficiently imperiled by the president to warrant having him stripped of his powers, and for the vice president to become “acting president.”
As a sort of exercise in hate-fiction, I decided to take a look at the current roster of cabinet secretaries to see if I could get a sense of whether there was even a hint of a possibility that eight of them might join in a revolt with Mike Pence, should he instigate one.
Of course, he never would. But let’s do this anyway.
I didn’t bother considering Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. These three are so clearly in the tank that to even fantasize about their turning on Trump is to give oneself an aneurysm. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao I also deigned unworthy of investigation, because if you can be married to Mitch McConnell, there’s no evil that you cannot countenance.
So let’s look at the rest of the cast of characters, and see if there are any Brutuses or Cassiuses among them. And remember, we’d need eight.
Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin: Maybe
Seemingly generated by a computer algorithm instructed to produce the most comically obvious evil banker stereotype, Steve Mnuchin does not at first blush to be someone who would care enough about the wellbeing of the country to take any extraordinary actions of principle to save it. Trump obviously doesn’t care what Mnuchin does as long as it serves Trump, but I also don’t get the sense that Mnuchin feels any genuine personal loyalty toward the president. Indeed, Mnuchin surely rankled the president when he worked closely with Trump’s arch-nemesis, Nancy Pelosi, to address the economic impact of the coronavirus in the pandemic’s early days.
This kind of pragmatism makes me suspect that Mnuchin would turn on Trump in a second if he felt that Trump was just bad for business, or that the risk he poses to the accumulation of wealth outweighed the benefits of the wide berth he usually enjoys. Mnuchin could perhaps be moved if Pence made him the right promises.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper: Maybe
Esper does not appear to be much of an ideologue, nor does he seem to be an overt Trump toady, which is what one might have expected as the replacement for the mostly-independent Jim Mattis. As Foreign Policyreported, “Esper has earned Trump’s trust particularly by coming into the job without an agenda and striving to present options that meet the president’s goals.”
It sounds to me like he just wants to keep his job and not do anything to make the president notice him. But this is frustrating folks in the defense establishment, as the center of power regarding national security has shifted from the Pentagon to the State Department in the person of Mike Pompeo. During the crisis U.S. strikes on Iran, it was noted with some alarm that Pompeo, and not Esper, had been given the spotlight, and in general Esper does not seem to be inclined to speak up or push back.
As Politico reported in January, “Esper appears to have made the calculation that it’s best to stay behind the scenes in an administration where few people have Trump’s ear, and where anything you say could be easily undermined by a presidential tweet moments later.”
If Esper won’t even stand up to Pompeo, it’s hard for me to imagine that he’d do anything so bold as to help depose the commander-in-chief. As an official told Foreign Policy, “Esper is seen as an excellent manager, [but] he is not a disruptor, he is not a change agent.” I suppose it’s possible that if there were already seven votes from cabinet secretaries to remove the president, Esper could feel secure in being the eighth. More likely is that he’d wait to be the ninth or tenth so no one could accuse him of being the decisive vote.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt: No
Researching this article, I saw a tantalizing headline from a report by the Center for American Progress that read, “David Bernhardt Is President Trump’s Most Conflicted Cabinet Nominee.” Alas, this was not about Bernhardt’s conflicted feelings, but his conflicts of interest as an oil lobbyist and how they make him “vulnerable to corruption.” Vulnerable, you say.
Bernhardt strikes me as a fairly run-of-the-mill lobbyist/grifter who couldn’t care less one way or the other whether the world burns, as long as the burning is fueled by oil. The fact that you never hear about him merely means that he’s doing what he was put there to do, advance oil industry interests, and whatever happens outside of that is of no interest to him. I doubt Trump even knows what the Interior Department does, which I assume is just fine with its secretary.
The recent shocks to the oil market aren’t specific enough to Trump to spur Bernhardt to rebellion. My guess is he’ll keep pushing the oil industry agenda from within the administration for as long as he can, or until it’s time to cash out again.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue: No
Sonny Perdue’s stance on Trump may boil down to what he told the National Press Club in 2017. “I don’t think he wants a sycophant as a secretary. He wants me to give him my best counsel, my best advice, and he wants me to be right about that.”
This we know, and knew then, to be false. I assume Perdue did as well when he said this out loud to people who also knew it to be false, and knew that he knew.
Perdue also said that Trump has the “essense of a great leader.”
Perdue parrots Trump’s climate change denial and has reportedly kept in Trump’s good graces by speaking with expertise but never disagreeing with the president. Just a couple of weeks ago, Perdue was doing a public event with Ivanka Trump.
Purdue is happy where he is and he’s liked by the president. He’s a no.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross: No
Ross got on the president’s bad side when he couldn’t deliver on Trump’s desires to have the U.S. Census include a citizenship question, and the two have had some other trade-related disagreements. It was reported that Ross’s head was on the chopping block, but so far his head remains intact.
Ross is a curious case. He and Trump actually go way back to Trump’s casino bankruptcies in the 1990s. “For more than 25 years, the two socialized across marriages and states, with both owning nearby residences in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida,” reported NBC News earlier this year. “In June of 2016, Ross, a registered Democrat, endorsed Trump for president, saying, ‘We need a more radical, new approach to government.’”
His clashes with Trump are belied by his willingness to lie for him. So blatant were his dissemblings, the New York Times did a whole editorial just about that. “Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, appears set on distinguishing himself again as the most compromised member of an administration that at times seems defined by ethical and moral flexibility.” Wow!
Perhaps most notably, Ross is a primary vector for Trump’s public endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Ross is in too deep. He’s a no, at least until Trump hints at firing him again.
Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia: No
The spawn of Antonin, Eugene Scalia, probably hates his job right now, as unemployment has gotten so bad that graphs about it become art.
But as his job gets more complicated, it also becomes more important, and he becomes more powerful, as he holds the fates (and checks) of millions of Americans. I’ve seen nothing to suggest any conflict with the president, and he seems happy to go right along with Trump’s push to reopen all the things, so I have to assume that Scalia is a no.
Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette: No
Similarly, Brouillette is making no waves, doing what he’s told and promising to shovel money to the oil industry. If he’s in a mood to disrupt anything, he’s not showing it. Nope.
Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf: No
Chad Wolf (wouldn’t you kill for a name like that) seems like he’s also performing as a functionary, fulfilling the demands of his bosses. The New Yorker reported that there’s some disagreement between he and white-supremacist Stephen Miller, but not so much that it’s worth risking his neck. He’s a no. But as an “acting secretary,” as yet unconfirmed by the Senate, it’s not even clear that his vote would count in such a circumstance.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Azar: No
No one in the president’s orbit must feel more diminished than Mike Azar. Trump didn’t even feel the need to inform him that Mike Pence would be heading up the administration’s pretend-efforts to deal with the pandemic, and other embarrassments led the White House to inform reporters that they were thinking of replacing him. And yet Azar continues to grovel and toady to his majesty at the snap of a finger.
Azar seems to be devoid of spine or principle. His back against the wall, he might do something rash, but he’s not joining any revolution.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie: No
Wilkie is a toady among toads. He helped push hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, made up the claim that it helped veterans get better, and denied the veracity of studies showing its dangers. Earlier this year, it was reported that he tried to dig up dirt on someone who reported she’d been sexually assaulted at a VA hospital.
I don’t think he’s too concerned with the well being of the nation, veterans or otherwise. He’s a no.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson: No? Probably?
What does Ben Carson do all day? What thoughts go through his head? When he prays, which I assume he does a lot, what does he pray for?
Who knows. We know that he’s defended Trump’s handling of the pandemic. He recently thanked the president, I assume with a straight face, for being “a champion for all Americans, especially our low-income and minority communities.” So whatever is going on in the mind, his gifted hands are not going to be dispatching Caesar.
You knew how this would turn out, right? Two maybes and a lot of ha-ha-ha-are-you-kidding-me’s. Earlier in the presidency, perhaps a Jim Mattis or a Rex Tillerson could have marshaled something of a rebellion for the sake of the nation, but even that would have been nearly unthinkable.
In other words, we’re stuck, at least until January 2021, when I hope to god a soundly defeated President Trump just gets the hell out of town. But my hopes don’t often come true.