Donald Trump has begun playing a rather bizarre game of cabinet shuffle, which has included everything from trying to force one cabinet member to resign, to shifting another cabinet member to a non-cabinet position. The more I look at these moves, the more I’ve come to conclude that they’re being made in part because Trump is desperately trying to rearrange the math that would be involved in a vote to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove him.
Trump’s ongoing effort to get rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long been assumed to be part of a plot to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But while that may be part of Trump’s motivation, it’s a plan that has little chance of working. Even if Sessions does resign, Congress has already made clear that it won’t allow Trump to have any new AG who would be personally loyal to him. So what if this is about something else? Let’s take a look at the magic number for the 25th Amendment, which is eight.
The 25th Amendment says that the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet can vote to temporarily remove the President. There are fifteen people in the cabinet, which means Mike Pence would need eight of them to back him. Trump appears to have tried to construct his cabinet with as many personal loyalists as he could get away with, in case it ever came down to it. But some key positions were filled by people with no connection to Trump at all, presumably for the sake of appearances. If Trump has concluded that Sessions’ decision to recuse himself means that he wouldn’t remain loyal in a 25th Amendment vote either, then Trump may be trying to weed him out for that reason.
If anything, Trump’s decision to target Sessions has only served to weaken his standing with his own cabinet. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is said to be outraged by how Sessions is being treated and has taken a hiatus from the job. Secretary of Defense James Mattis appears to have taken a hiatus as well (he’s on “vacation”). These two were never personally loyal to Trump to begin with. And now that Trump appears to have unwittingly turned them fully against him, he’s suddenly taking retired General John F. Kelly out of a cabinet position as well.
In other words, though most people have assumed Trump moved Kelly from Homeland Security Director to White House Chief of Staff this week because he trusts him, it’s entirely possible that Trump made the move because he doesn’t trust him. Keep in mind that Trump never liked nor trusted RNC Chair Reince Priebus, and seemingly only installed him as Chief of Staff to keep a close eye on him. In any case, by shifting John Kelly around, Trump has taken a potential “yes” vote for the 25th Amendment off the table.
So let’s say Tillerson, Mattis, and Sessions are all willing to vote to remove Trump. Five more votes would still be needed. But it’s unclear what the stances are of many of the less prominent cabinet members. For instance, while Wilbur Ross and Betsy DeVos have deep and suspicious ties to Trump, people like Alexander Acosta and David Shulkin were far from Trump’s first choices for their positions. And no one has any idea how an erratic cabinet member like Ben Carson might vote.
Does Donald Trump fear there may be eight votes to remove him? Even if there aren’t, in his paranoid mind, he likely thinks there are. This feels like the most logical reason he’s suddenly trying to shake up his cabinet. Trump may be banking on getting personally loyal replacements confirmed to the Attorney General and Homeland Security positions in order to shift the 25th Amendment math. Such confirmations are unlikely in the Senate, but then again, Trump has consistently overestimated his own ability to get Congress to do his bidding. This still leaves a number of questions.
For instance, if those two cabinet positions were left vacated, would the 25th Amendment math remain eight out of fifteen votes, or would it become seven out of thirteen votes? What if Donald Trump began trying to fire cabinet members specifically to try to thwart an imminent 25th Amendment vote? These would be questions for the Supreme Court, because there is no real world precedent. But again, with Trump running out of allies and having long ago run out of high percentage plays for remaining in power, reshuffling his cabinet may be a low percentage desperation ploy at staving off the 25th Amendment. Regular readers, feel free to support Palmer Report
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report