Now that he has been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump is entitled to a four-year lease on the White House. Based on his wild start in office, it promises to be a tumultuous and consequential tenancy.
But will Trump still reside in the East Wing four years from now? That’s harder to predict. Whether he stands to take the oath again, or watches someone else get sworn in on January 20, 2021, the chances are good that Donald Trump will at least begin that day as POTUS. But it’s far from a certainty. There are four ways that the Trump presidency could last fewer than four years: (1) death; (2) impeachment by House and conviction by Senate; (3) suspension due to disability under the 25th Amendment; and (4) resignation.
1. Death in Office
Of the 43 men who have completed service as president of the United States to date, eight died in office—an impressive rate of mortality (18 percent). Of those, four were assassinated and four died of natural causes.
Today, however, the risk of death in the presidency has been substantially reduced. Three of the four assassinations took place before 1902, when presidents wandered around in public with astonishing lack of security. The protection now provided by the Secret Service is far more thorough. So, while this danger can never be eliminated, we can remove it from the realm of the rationally ponderable.
The risk of death from natural causes has also declined. The medical care available to presidents has improved dramatically since William Henry Harrison succumbed to pneumonia just one month after delivering his inaugural address in 1841. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt became the last president to die in office of natural causes (1945), presidents have not only tended to complete their terms, but to enjoy impressive life spans as ex-presidents. These include Harry Truman (88), Dwight Eisenhower (78), Richard Nixon (81), Gerald Ford (93), Ronald Reagan (93), and the still-living Jimmy Carter (92), George H.W. Bush (92), Bill Clinton (70) and George W. Bush (70). Lyndon Johnson’s death from heart disease (64) is the only notable exception to the rising tide of post-presidential health. The Oval Office may visibly age its occupants, but it does not stop them from reaching or exceeding average U.S. life expectancy.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump took office at the age of 70 years, 220 days, edging Ronald Reagan (69 years, 349 days) to become the oldest person ever to assume the presidency. That alone means that his survival in office cannot be taken for granted. A 71-year-old American male has an average remaining life expectancy of 13.5 years. This suggests Trump has about a 50% chance of being alive and kicking in 2031 – well beyond the constitutional limit of two terms in office. But the detailed actuarial tables tell us a more complete story. A 71-year-old American male has about a 2.6% chance of dying in the next year. This figure steadily creeps up with each year, to 3.3% in Year 4. The total cumulative chance of succumbing to the actuarial reaper within four years is a far-from-negligible 11.3%. By contrast, Trump’s defeated rival, Hillary Clinton (age 69) has about a 6.7% chance of dying during the same period, mostly by virtue of being female. President Obama (who took office at the age of 47) had only about a 1.7% cumulative chance of perishing during his first term.
Of course, President Trump’s mileage may vary. He will benefit from first-rate medical care and has little risk of losing his health insurance during the next few years. By all accounts, he is a lifelong non-smoker and a teetotaler, both qualities known to give longevity a boost. On the other hand, Trump is at least somewhat overweight and not known to be fond of vigorous exercise. Overall, though Trump may fare slightly better than the average person his age, we know little about his health condition or history. Trump’s doctor released a letter during the campaign proclaiming that if elected, his client “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” – a claim which he later said was inspired by the hyperbolic literary style of his patient. After the election, the physician was more philosophical. “If something happens to him, then it happens to him,” Dr. Bornstein told the medical publication STAT. “It’s like all the rest of us, no? That’s why we have a vice president and a speaker of the House and a whole line of people. They can just keep dying.”
Indeed, as a matter of constitutional law, Dr. Bornstein is correct: that is precisely why we have them.
Estimated chance of death in office from natural causes, 2017-21: 10%
As unhappy a fate as death in office may be, it can strike the greatest of presidents. It necessarily limits future opportunities, but puts no damper on historical reputations. Impeachment is a different story. Although no president has ever been removed from office through this arduous constitutional process, no one wants to be the first. Even getting halfway there badly tarnished the legacies of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon chose the only slightly lesser ignominy of resigning from office to avoid it.
“Impeachment” is the popular shorthand term used for the removal of the president by Congress for significant misdeeds. Technically, however, impeachment refers only to the first step in the process – a simple majority vote by the House of Representatives to charge the president (or another high official) with misconduct. The second step is a trial on those charges, conducted not by a court, but by the Senate (albeit with the Chief Justice of the United States presiding). Only if the Senate votes to convict (by a two-thirds majority) is the president removed from office.
In a system designed to set the executive and legislative branches at odds, it is striking how rarely the impeachment process has been used against U.S. presidents, with only two votes to impeach by the House and no convictions by the Senate. This is even more remarkable given that Congress alone determines whether the constitutional grounds for impeachment exist (namely, “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” per Art. II, Sec. 4). Congress’ decision on impeachment is not reviewable by the courts, a telling indication that it is a political judgment more than a judicial one.
That was certainly evident in the first impeachment of a president, when Congress attempted to remove Andrew Johnson in a dispute over post-Civil War Reconstruction policy in 1868. Formally, the House impeached Johnson for violating the Tenure in Office Act, which forbade him to remove cabinet officials without Senate approval. After trial, the Senate voted 35-19 to convict Johnson of the charges, falling just one vote short of the two-thirds majority necessary for his removal. Johnson completed the remainder of his term in office, an unsatisfactory president in many ways. But history vindicated his acquittal. The Tenure in Office Act was repealed in 1887, and in the case of Myers v. United States (1926), the Supreme Court gave belated support to Johnson’s position by finding a similar statute unconstitutional.
Johnson’s impeachment may have been misguided, but at least it involved great constitutional issues and affairs of state. The impeachment of President Clinton in 1998-99 was a more sordid affair. During a civil lawsuit relating to events before he took office, Clinton was accused of lying under oath to cover up a sexual relationship with an intern (conducted while very much in office). The House voted to impeach Clinton for this indiscretion, largely on partisan lines. The soiled laundry was aired in an uncomfortable Senate trial, climaxing in a more comfortable acquittal for President Clinton, on votes of 50-50 (on the charge of perjury) and 45-55 (on obstruction of justice). Highlighting the Senate’s discretion in interpreting Art. II, Sec. 4, several senators stated that they considered Clinton to have committed perjury, but voted for acquittal on the grounds that such conduct in a private suit did not rise to the level of a “high crime or misdemeanor” under the Constitution.
In contrast to these two failed attempts to remove a president, the 1974 impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon continue to enjoy an exemplary reputation. After amassing convincing evidence of Nixon’s obstruction of justice, the House Judiciary Committee voted to send three articles of impeachment to the full House. With impeachment certain and conviction extremely likely, Nixon resigned his office two weeks later.
This small historical data set suggests some enduring requirements for the removal of a president. First, the president must face a hostile majority in the House of Representatives that is willing and able to pursue his alleged misdeeds. Second, the president must lose the “firewall” of support from his own party in the Senate that would normally prevent a two-thirds vote to convict.
Donald Trump came to office with a full docket of legal troubles. These include investigations of Russian interference in the election that brought him to power, a web of unresolved foreign and domestic business entanglements, and a remarkable number of pending private lawsuits. Several prominent scholars claim that Trump’s undivested business empire put him in violation of the Construction’s Emoluments Clause (Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 8) from the moment he put his hand to the Bible on January 20. This docket was amassed before the famously impulsive and thin-skinned Trump put his hands on the machinery of government. With many promises of dubious constitutionality to keep, and a history of vindictive behavior toward opponents, the specter of Nixon-like abuses of power (or far worse) already haunts the West Wing.
But even if Donald Trump serves up suitably impeachable crimes, that does not ensure that Congress will take a swing at removing him. An impeachable offense provides the opportunity for removal, but rarely will itself provide the motive. The impeachments of Johnson and Clinton were driven by much deeper animosities than their alleged offenses. Nixon’s actual crimes were more pivotal, but he too had already earned a lifetime’s worth of hostility from his political opponents.
With Trump’s party in control of both houses of Congress at least through the 2018 midterms, the odds of his impeachment and conviction are low — but not zero. No political party sets out with the goal of ousting a president who has just won office under its banner. Given that their political fortunes are closely linked, a normal party will do everything in its power to shield its president from embarrassing investigations, let alone the horrors of impeachment. Only two things can change this equation: a fundamental conflict over principle, or a cold calculation of interest.
It is at least possible to imagine an ideological split between Trump and the Congressional GOP. After all, Trump happily departed from traditional Republican orthodoxy throughout the campaign. Yet on many fundamental issues (such as tax cuts and judicial nominations), Trump and his party are already fully aligned. On others (such as immigration and trade), the gravitational pull of Trump’s power is drawing the party into his orbit more than the other way around. With the president commanding firm devotion from its base, the GOP will increasingly become Trump’s party, and the potential for an ideological split will fade.
The most likely exception is the ongoing investigation into Trump’s Russian connections. Although Republican criticism has been muted so far, there is surely great disquiet in the generations of the party that grew up steeped in the Cold War. If hard evidence emerges that Russia not only aided Trump’s candidacy, but did so with his campaign’s connivance, the shock to the GOP could be severe. If coupled with personal financial benefit to Trump, the revelation would be even more explosive. The Republican Congress will have strong incentives not to probe too deeply in search of such evidence. But the evidence may emerge nonetheless. And then Sen. Howard Baker’s famous Watergate question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” could yet emerge from the lips of his Republican successors.
If mortal ideological conflict with the GOP Congress is unlikely, that leaves self-preservation as a potential motive for impeachment. The question is whether Trump becomes sufficiently unpopular that Congress is compelled, for reasons of self-preservation, to launch serious investigations of his conduct. Here the significance of public opinion is felt at last. A president can preserve authority over his own party indefinitely with approval ratings in the mid-40s. But when those numbers slip into the mid-30s, that means the party’s base support is eroding. This is more than enough to endanger congressional seats in close districts, and perhaps even in “safe” ones as well. During the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s approval ratings bottomed out at 24 percent, clearly endangering his party. By contrast, Bill Clinton’s approval ratings actually rose during his impeachment saga, while his party gained seats in the midterm election of 1998. More than any legal argument, Clinton’s 73 percent approval rating assured his acquittal by the Senate.
With Trump’s approval ratings already falling into the mid-30s, the Congressional GOP faces a difficult choice. They can distance themselves from an unpopular president by investigating, or even impeaching him. But exposure of the president’s wrongdoing risks demoralizing their own core supporters, while energizing their opponents. The longer they wait, the stronger will be the temptation to try to “ride it out” by brazening through Trump’s scandals rather than spotlighting them through hearings. This dynamic is already evident in the GOP’s indifference to Trump’s financial conflicts of interest.
The odds against Trump’s impeachment by the House are further stretched by the so-called “Hastert Rule”. Named for the disgraced former Republican Speaker of the House, the Hastert Rule is not a constitutional principle, or even a formal rule of the House. Rather, it is an informal rule of the GOP caucus that no proposal will go to the floor of the House unless it first has the support of a “majority of the majority”. It is designed to ensure that moderate Republicans cannot break away to join the Democratic minority to pass legislation opposed by a majority of the GOP representatives. Thanks to the Hastert Rule, it would not be sufficient to persuade 25 Republicans to join the 193 House Democrats to vote for impeachment, even though that would provide the simple majority required by the Constitution. Instead, impeachment must first obtain the support of a majority of the 240 House Republicans before it can even be considered. In other words, 121 GOP votes would be sufficient to block the question of impeachment from ever coming to the House floor. House Speaker Paul Ryan could decide to ignore the Hastert Rule in the case of impeachment. But since the Speaker can be toppled by a majority vote of the GOP caucus, that scenario is unlikely.
So as long as the Republicans control the House, the deck is stacked against impeachment. Trump would have to become extraordinarily – even toxically—unpopular before the idea would even be considered.
Nevertheless, those holding out hope for a GOP-initiated impeachment have one ace in their hands: Vice-President Mike Pence. Before serving a single term as governor of Indiana, Pence was a member of Congress for 12 years. In his politics, demeanor, and style, Pence is almost a composite sketch of a House Republican. In contrast to the unpredictable Trump, the House GOP would know exactly what they were getting with a President Pence: a hardline conservative with a reassuring manner. If facing steep losses in the 2018 midterm election, the likelihood of a losing the presidency in 2020, and maybe a white-knuckle foreign crisis or two, the GOP might decide they are better off weathering the storm with a steady Pence at the helm.
But it is one thing to realize the Republican Party would fare better with Pence than Trump, quite another to make it happen. From the beginning of Trump’s rise, his Republican opponents have faced a crippling collective-action problem: they want something to be done, but they want someone else to do it. Impeachment would be no different. Would pro-impeachment members wilt in the face of a barrage of Trump’s tweets? Would Trump’s die-hard supporters abandon the GOP (perhaps forever) if it dumps their hero? The track record of Republican resistance to the Trump candidacy does not bode well for how it will fare during his presidency.
If the Democrats can pick up 25 seats and recapture the House in 2018 (a tall order, but possible), the situation would change dramatically. Armed with control of committees and subpoena power, a Democratic majority could launch enough investigations to make the Trump White House a miserable place. They could even vote to impeach Trump on a party-line vote; by that time, the Democratic base might well demand one. In this scenario, the odds that a Democratic House would vote to impeach Trump would dramatically increase in the last two years of his presidency, to something close to 100%.
Impeachment, however, does not automatically mean removal from office. That requires a trial and conviction by the Senate, by no less than a two-thirds vote. With the GOP currently holding 52 Senate seats (out of 100), that means all Democrats and at least 19 Republican senators would have to vote for conviction. The Clinton impeachment showed how difficult it can be to get senators to vote to convict a president of their own party; in that case, not a single one did. Trump’s Senate firewall would consist of 34 senators – that number alone would be sufficient to keep him in office.
While the odds of impeachment would invariably rise if Democrats regain control of the House, so, paradoxically, would the odds of Trump’s acquittal in the Senate. For the House to overcome the Hastert Rule and impeach Trump in 2017-18, his stock within the GOP would have to have fallen so far that his Senate firewall would probably fail as well. But if the House is under Democratic control in 2019-20, impeachment could (and probably would) proceed without waiting for much Republican support. Even if the Democrats overcome a highly unfavorable map and gain the three seats needed to capture control of Senate, there’s no imaginable scenario in which they would approach a two-thirds majority. This could set the stage for an acquittal in the Senate, after which both sides would grumpily take their case to the voters in the 2020 election.
Impeachment and removal of a president are much easier in theory than in practice. Finding evidence of an impeachable offense will not be the key obstacle. That determination is well within the discretion granted to Congress by the Constitution. But all the constitutional math boils down to this: a president cannot be ousted unless the bulk of his own political party abandons him first. Given this reality, the chances of Donald Trump’s impeachment and removal from office depend more on political alignments than legal revelations.
Estimated chance of impeachment and removal from office, 2017-18: 10%
Estimated chance of impeachment and removal, 2019-21 (if GOP controls House): 5%
Estimated chance of impeachment and removal, 2019-21 (if Democrats control House): 25%
Overall estimated chance of impeachment and removal, 2017-21: 15%
Impeachment is not the only way a president can be dislodged from power. The Constitution has always recognized the possibility that a president could become physically or mentally incapacitated. The original Constitution stated that “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.” (Art. I, Sec. 1). Left ambiguous was who would decide when the president could not “discharge the Powers and Duties” of the office, and how.
This led to some serious difficulties. For example, when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a serious stroke in 1919, the White House covered up the fact that he was completely incapacitated for months. First Lady Edith Wilson quietly ran the government until her husband was able to resume some minimal duties. Although Wilson’s true condition became known within the administration, no one was willing to take responsibility for certifying his constitutional incapacity, even at a time of pressing foreign and domestic troubles. Wilson managed to complete his term, but with little of the energy or success that marked his first seven years in office.
The constitutional ambiguity was tolerated until the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Concern about continuity of government at the height of Cold War tensions led to a significant re-write of the presidential succession provisions, which were ratified in 1967 as the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. The Amendment included two sections dealing with presidential incapacity. The first is quite straightforward, a “voluntary” incapacity provision that allows the president to declare himself temporarily unable to perform his duties:
Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
This clause has been invoked three times, always by presidents undergoing planned medical procedures. In each case, it was a presidential colonoscopy that led to the brief Acting Presidencies of George H.W. Bush (1985) and Dick Cheney (2002 and 2007).
But a president will not always have prior notice of a pending incapacity, nor the capacity to recognize that incapacity when it comes. So the drafters of the Amendment also tackled the tougher task of an “involuntary” incapacity provision. This is a text that Americans may soon come to know very well, so it is worth quoting in full:
Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
To remove a president from power, the advantages of the involuntary incapacity provision should be immediately evident. First, it is probably easier for the president’s party to acknowledge his gathering mental incapacity than to accuse him of impeachable crimes. Second, while the impeachment process can take weeks or months, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment can be invoked in an afternoon. If the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet are willing to put their names on a paper declaring the president incapacitated, the president’s powers will vanish the moment that paper finds its way into the hands of the Speaker of the House and the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate (currently Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah). Anyone worried about twitchy fingers near nuclear launch codes should find some comfort in this.
But the president’s powers are not necessarily gone for long. In the case of physical incapacity, the president may simply recover and reclaim his duties as well as his office. In the trickier case of mental infirmity, if the president is still sentient enough to convey his objections to Congress, the odds are good that he can claw his powers back from a presumptuous vice-president. Unless Congress backs up the declaration of incapacity by a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate, the president can dive back into the Oval Office and recover the nuclear football. In this respect, the involuntary incapacity provision is harder to invoke than impeachment, which only requires a majority vote in the House before a two-thirds vote in the Senate. So either 145 members of the House or 34 members of the Senate would be enough to reverse a declaration of incapacity. This requirement is only slightly higher than the number of GOP House members needed to block impeachment under the Hastert Rule, and the same as that needed to block conviction for an impeachable offense in the Senate.
So how might the Twenty-Fifth Amendment play a role in the Trump Administration? For anyone of Trump’s age, progressive physical or cognitive impairment is a serious possibility, particularly under the inevitable strains of office. In Trump’s case, we must add a possible genetic susceptibility to Alzheimer’s (his father was diagnosed with the disease at age 87, six years before his death).
Many Trump critics have no need to wait for further signs of mental impairment. They have seen enough strange behavior in the campaign, the transition, and now his brief presidency to worry aloud about whether “the president is barking mad”. Yet if this be madness, it is hard to distinguish from the method that led Trump to capture a solid majority of electoral votes on Nov. 9. We need not attempt to settle that question here. But Trump’s obsessions about the size of his inaugural crowd — and ungrounded certainty that 3 million illegal votes were cast for his opponent – have hardly set these concerns to rest. Even more than the president’s policies, his very connection to reality has been put in doubt, and will likely remain there so long as he holds office.
Trump’s critics, however numerous, can’t trigger the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. That power is entrusted to the group of people mostly likely to express boundless confidence in Trump’s capacity and judgment: his vice-president and cabinet. After all, they owe their present prominence to Trump, and their political futures are linked with his. Moreover, they may not have enough regular contact with the president to know much more about his mental state than anyone else. Nothing in the Constitution requires the president to hold regular cabinet meetings. In most administrations, second-tier cabinet officials struggle to get any face time with the president.
But let’s imagine something happens that forces the cabinet to take notice. It could be a foreign crisis, driven by presidential neuroses rather than national interests. It might be a dramatic resignation by a high-level White House staffer, announcing to the world that the president is not in his right mind. Or it could just be a president visibly cracking under the strain of the office and the pressure of his critics, in a way that shocks even his most loyal adherents.
That’s when things get hard. Yes, it’s time for some game theory. How does a letter declaring the president’s incapacity even get written? Who proposes it to the cabinet? Who gathers the signatures? And what happens if the cabinet is not unanimous, and the effort becomes known before it is complete? Would the effort collapse in the face of a tweetstorm from the POTUS?
The most likely ringleader would have to be Vice-President Pence, for two simple reasons. First, he is the only official whose signature on the letter is absolutely required by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. The vice-president cannot passively await succession (as in the case of impeachment), but must actively seek to wrest powers from the president. Second, the vice-president is the only relevant official who cannot be dismissed by the president. Any cabinet official who starts musing about invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment could be called into the boardroom for a “You’re Fired!” scene before the effort even gets off the ground.
The vice-president does, at least, have something to gain from invoking the procedure: an acting presidency of uncertain duration. Members of the cabinet, by contrast, already have their positions. They are unlikely to improve them if the president is ousted, but are certain to lose them if they fail and he hangs on to power.
Vice-President Pence would also face a high-risk political calculation. If he invokes the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in contestable circumstances, he will likely be branded as a traitor and an opportunist by pro-Trump die-hards, whose numbers within the GOP could remain considerable. Pence’s acting presidency could quickly be extinguished by minorities in either house of Congress. If so, that would likely be the end of his political career. Although Pence could not be ousted from the vice-presidency, he would lose all influence for the remainder of his term–and along with it, any chance of continuing on the ticket or being elected president in his own right. His fate might be one of serial humiliations, of the like not seen since Roman triumphs, or at least the captivity of Chris Christie.
As long as President Trump remains able to contest a determination of disability – and has enough control over his thumbs to tweet – invocation of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment would be a deadly serious business for Pence and the cabinet. That does not make this scenario impossible. But if it happens, it won’t be the result of long public debate. Pence would have to build confidential alliances in the cabinet with the greatest of care, especially with the secretary of defense and attorney general. He would have to be confident of his standing with the GOP in Congress. Then he would have to act swiftly and decisively, leaving Trump with little opportunity to react. Pence and his co-conspirators would need to be prepared to press their claims of presidential madness to the Congress and the public – particularly if Trump took to friendly airwaves to make a case for his undiminished competence.
But even that is an optimistic scenario. What if Trump refuses to accept even temporary suspension of his powers? What if the acting president issues orders to oust the president from the Oval Office, while the president orders the acting president’s arrest? Whose orders will the Secret Service obey? What about the police and the military? As a matter of constitutional law, Acting President Pence could rightfully claim to be the lawful authority. But unlike the impeachment scenario, there will have been no time to prepare the country psychologically for a transition. Would Pence’s claim be persuasive to the men and women holding the guns? Or to those looking to their political futures? After all, President Trump’s powers could be restored within days or weeks. With the decision in the hands of Congress, we could expect mass demonstrations from all sides. And in the nation’s capital, we would find a tense standoff at best, bloodshed at worst. No matter who prevails, the result would start looking less like a constitutional procedure and more like a coup.
As painful as it would be to conclude that the president has lost his mind, that could just be the beginning of the story. The country might lose its mind as well.
Estimated chance of suspension of Trump’s presidential powers due to incapacity (2017-2020): 10%
It is admittedly hard to imagine Donald Trump voluntarily renouncing power under any circumstances. So why even consider it as a possibility?
Trump showed considerable energy and drive in his run for the presidency. His ultimate victory — confounding skeptics and enemies at every turn – offered him tremendous gratification. But apparently not satisfaction. At what should be the moment of his greatest triumph, Trump is visibly troubled by a sense of underwhelming adulation.
Although Trump clearly wanted to win the presidency from the beginning, his effort often seemed to be aimed at more realistic goals: to build his brand and influence, and to earn the respect of important people who had previously scorned him. Now that he has unexpectedly checked in to the Oval Office, Trump continues to send signs of ambivalence. He was reluctant to move from Trump Tower to the White House. His wife and young son are staying behind in New York, at least temporarily. He refuses to cut ties to his business empire in any meaningful way. He declines to engage in many of the necessary mechanics of his new job (including presumably fascinating ones, like intelligence briefings). All this suggests an unusual sense of temporariness about Trump’s presidency. Perhaps it will fade as Trump becomes more comfortable in the job.
But it might not. Trump could get bored with the duties of the presidency. He could continue to get extraordinarily annoyed with critics. He might find himself deeply, persistently unpopular. Mass demonstrations could unnerve him. Investigations might tie his administration in knots and put him under tremendous pressure. The international situation could fall apart and he might find himself unable to cope with the stress of the situation. Having won the presidency, and enjoyed its perks for a spell, and yet finding further validation unobtainable, Trump just might quit.
That’s only one possibility. A more realistic view is that the more pressure Trump is under, the more he will dig in and fight to win the elusive validation he has sought throughout his life. Even if threatened with impeachment and removal, or a declaration of mental incapacity, it is easier to imagine Trump doubling down than folding. Nevertheless, if President Trump can somehow be persuaded that his work is done and there are no more points to score, it is only just possible to imagine him taking a graceful retirement. A soft pillow in Trump Tower beckons.
Chance of Trump’s resignation (2017-2020): 10%
Prepare for Four Years, But Prepare To Be Surprised
Alone, none of these scenarios for President Trump’s early departure seems likely. They are all to some degree in the president’s control—but only if he can first control himself. Even the risk of death from natural causes could be moderated with a program of diet and exercise, and regular sleep in lieu of tweeting. But Donald Trump has shown little capacity so far to manage his own impulses. If he continues to challenge the American constitutional system, in the same way he has overturned the American political order during the past two years, he may yet find a way to force it to act. Although the odds still suggest Trump should wake up as president on January 20, 2021, he faces a formidable risk of evicting himself from the White House well before that date.