Lawmakers concerned about President Donald Trump’s mental state summoned Yale University psychiatry professor Dr. Bandy X. Lee to Capitol Hill last month for two days of briefings about his recent behavior.
In private meetings with more than a dozen members of Congress held on Dec. 5 and 6, Lee briefed lawmakers — all Democrats except for one Republican senator, whom Lee declined to identify. Her professional warning to Capitol Hill: “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”
In an interview, she pointed to Trump “going back to conspiracy theories, denying things he has admitted before, his being drawn to violent videos.” Lee also warned, “We feel that the rush of tweeting is an indication of his falling apart under stress. Trump is going to get worse and will become uncontainable with the pressures of the presidency.”
Lee, editor of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” which includes testimonials from 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts assessing the president’s level of “dangerousness,” said that she was surprised by the interest in her findings during her two days in Washington. “One senator said that it was the meeting he most looked forward to in 11 years,” Lee recalled. “Their level of concern about the president’s dangerousness was surprisingly high.”
The conversation about Trump’s fitness to serve is ongoing — and gaining steam after Trump’s tweet this week taunting the leader of North Korea with my-nuclear-button-is-bigger-than-yours bravado.
“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” the president wrote online Tuesday night.
The tweet resuscitated the conversation about the president’s mental state and the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of the president from office if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet deem him physically or mentally “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
The amendment is purposefully set up to require a high burden of proof, and there is no evidence that Vice President Mike Pence or the majority of Trump’s Cabinet have turned on him. But Trump’s Tuesday night nuclear taunt managed to cause alarm even within his own party.
If there was mounting concern before the New Year about Trump’s mental state among Democrats on the Hill, the tide had been moving in the opposite direction among Republicans. In the final weeks of 2017, with a tax bill sailing toward passage and enough federal court judicial nominees pushed through to successfully reshape the judiciary, Republicans, in general, were moving toward a state of at least semi-acceptance of their unorthodox president. “The tendency was anti-alarmism among Republicans,” said Bill Kristol, editor at large of The Weekly Standard and one of Washington’s leading conservative voices.
That made Trump’s sudden fit of saber-rattling “more jolting,” according to Kristol — and it reopened the national conversation about the president’s mental stability. “I was focused on Iran, and talking to people in the administration about serious policy,” Kristol added, “and then to see in the middle of what might be a serious policymaking process, Trump’s just flipping out.”
On Wednesday, Kristol tweeted: “I trust @VP has asked his Counsel to prepare a draft document transferring power in accord with Sec. 4 of 25th Amendment in case it’s suddenly needed, & that he’s discussed this with COS Kelly.”
A spokeswoman for Pence did not respond to a request for comment.
Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, tweeted on Tuesday of the president’s comments about North Korea, “This Tweet alone is grounds for removal from office under the 25th Amendment. This man should not have nukes.”
White House officials shrug off any conversation about the president’s mental state eventually driving him out of office as nothing more than a liberal fantasy and a longtime hobby horse of the die-hard “Never Trumpers.”
Asked about the president’s mental state on Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted there is nothing to worry about. “The president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea,” she said during the daily press briefing. “This is a president who is not going to cower down.”
Facing renewed questions about his own mental capacity, Trump on Wednesday also turned the tables on his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, painting him as the one who is unhinged. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,” the president said in a statement, reacting to an explosive new book on his campaign and early presidency by Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury: Inside the White House.”
Some legal experts warned the conversation about Trump’s fitness could be dangerous to democracy.
“The 25th Amendment would require, for mental incapacity, a major psychotic break,” said former Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. “This is hope over reality. If we don’t like someone’s politics we rail against him, we campaign against him, we don’t use the psychiatric system against him. That’s just dangerous.”
Nonetheless, the president’s Twitter feed continues to reignite questions about his fitness for office.
On Wednesday, Lee and two other medical professionals released a statement following Trump’s late night Tweet baiting Kim Jung Un into a potential nuclear war. “We write as mental health professionals who have been deeply concerned about Donald Trump’s psychological aberrations,” the statement read.
“We believe that he is now further unraveling in ways that contribute to his belligerent nuclear threats. … We urge that those around him, and our elected representatives in general, take urgent steps to restrain his behavior and head off the potential nuclear catastrophe that endangers not only Korea and the United States but all of humankind.” The statement, released on behalf of the National Coalition of Concerned Mental Health Experts, was signed by more than 100 medical professionals.
Sanders declined to comment on the statement.
But Lee’s campaign on Capitol Hill is far from over. Later this month, she has been invited to speak in front of another group of lawmakers, hosted by Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro at her home. And she has been invited to speak at a town hall by Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, who has proposed a bill to set up a commission to evaluate the president’s fitness for office.
Raskin’s bill would create a body in Congress to evaluate the president’s fitness. “The judgment [about the president’s mental state] is not mine to make,” the freshman congressman said in an interview. “The judgment constitutionally is to be made by the vice president and the Cabinet, or the vice president and a new body. We have an institutional responsibility to set that body up.”
Over the past few months, Raskin said he has seen “a rising chorus of questions about this.” A bill that was at first viewed as a lark, with few co-sponsors, now has 56 co-sponsors. “Lawmakers, the media and lots of people in the public have been calling me about my bill,” he said. “The tweet yesterday set off alarm bells across the country. I’m trying to reassure people that our Constitution has a provision to deal with this.”
Some Trump allies have begun to worry about the conversation gaining steam. After The New York Times reported last November that Trump was denying the veracity of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape — which he had previously acknowledged and apologized for — one former campaign aide called the story a “shot across the bow to invoke the 25th Amendment.”
Trump allies outside the administration also expressed concern that the president was left unstaffed during his Mar-a-Lago vacation last week — when he sat for an interview with The New York Times that was not planned for or cleared with his top aides. “Why was he there with no senior staff?” said one former aide. “It’s like he has nothing to do with running the government.”