(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Official Washington is buzzing about whether Donald Trump is mentally fit for the presidency. This concern has plagued him since he emerged as a major candidate for the White House in 2016. It has persisted since he became president in January. And the question took on fresh urgency this week because of a new book, “Fire and Fury” by author Michael Wolff, that argues Trump is a dysfunctional leader who is too erratic, angry, unstable and disruptive to do the job.
This may seem new and very disturbing to many Americans, but actually the country has lived through a similar dynamic before. It happened during Ronald Reagan’s second term from 1985-89. He left office at age 77, and toward the end of his tenure, his memory lapses and his failure to keep control of rogue operators in his government, as epitomized in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, caused him enormous problems. His critics speculated at the time that he was losing his mental faculties and might be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but this was never proven during his time in office. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s years later, long after he left the White House.
But Reagan and his team handled the suspicions, the accusations and the speculation much differently than the 71-year-old Trump and his advisers. As journalist Jane Mayer has written in The New Yorker, “By early 1987, several top White House advisers were so concerned about Reagan’s mental state that they actually talked among themselves about invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which calls for the Vice-President to take over in the event of the President’s incapacity.” Mayer covered Reagan for the Wall Street Journal while I was covering him for U.S. News & World Report, and I found a similar reality as she and her colleague Doyle McManus did in their 1988 book, “Landslide: The Unmaking of the President.”
Howard Baker, Reagan’s new chief of staff in March 1987 during Iran-Contra, assigned his aide James Cannon to prepare a confidential report on what was wrong in the White House, and Cannon found plenty to be concerned about, such as Reagan delegating too much power. But the most troubling finding, Cannon reported, was that departing Reagan aides claimed he was “inattentive and inept,” “lazy” and “he wasn’t interested in the job.” As summarized in the Mayer-McManus book, Cannon noted that the aides “said he wouldn’t read the papers they gave him – even short position papers and documents. They said he wouldn’t come over to work – all he wanted to do was to watch movies and television at the residence.” Sound familiar? Journalists today report that White House aides say the same things about President Trump.
But three decades ago, Baker, Cannon and Baker aide Tom Griscom came up with a plan. They and their allies in the White House would make it their secret mission to observe Reagan carefully as they assessed whether he ought to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment. They concluded that the president was doing fine, and that the complaining Reagan aides were resentful at being forced out and wanted to discredit their former boss. Yet no one went ballistic among the Reagan loyalists, which is what Trump and his aides are doing today. “We didn’t disparage the press or the critics,” a former Reagan adviser told me. “The president let himself be defined by his deeds.”
My own conclusion as a White House correspondent was that Reagan had lost a step or two but he was still capable of serving as president. I wrote in my 1997 book “Ronald Reagan: Biography,” “Former aides told reporters that he had clearly lost some of his mental sharpness during the final years of his presidency, 1987 and 1988. Briefers said that on occasion he forgot names of key staffers as well as important policy details. But his talented staff made up for his lapses, and he was able to rise to the occasion when the situation warranted.”
Fast-forwarding to today, author Wolff told NBC News last Sunday that the idea of invoking the 25th Amendment is “alive every day at the White House” because Trump isn’t up to the job and his advisers know it. (The amendment spells out a procedure for the vice president and cabinet to remove a president if the commander in chief can’t fulfill his duties.)
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Trump is furious, and he and his aides are on the defensive, unlike Reagan’s loyal aides who didn’t lash out. “I went to the best colleges or college….I was a very excellent student,” Trump told reporters last weekend. He also wrote on Twitter that he is a “very stable genius,” and he tweeted, “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” Trump dismissed Wolff’s book as “a work of fiction and I think it’s a disgrace.” His aides impugned Wolff’s reporting, his writing and his honesty.
It’s quite a contrast from the dignified, low-key and serious way that Reagan and his team handled a roughly similar situation, and this served the country well. They put the well-being of the nation ahead of their desire to defend the boss. The question is whether Trump and his aides are capable of treating his plight with the same high-mindedness. Perhaps letting Trump’s deeds define him instead of spewing invective and insults is the better course.