One of the most amazing things about the United States had always been our presidential inauguration and the undisputed, seamless transfer of power. It was an inspiration to a world in which succession has often been settled by gunfire. The outgoing president descended the Capitol stairs hearing Hail to the Chief played for him one last time. He took his seat accompanied by an officer toting the nuclear “football.”
The new president walked down the same stairs to cheering and applause. He took his seat. The chief justice stood up a moment before noon; the new president accompanied by loved ones joined the chief. The justice and the president-elect raised their right hands, and the new president recited an oath taken by every president since 1789, not to the flag or the king, but to the ideas on a fading piece of parchment written in 1787.
During the oath, the officer with the nuclear codes quietly took a place by the new one. The most awesome military and civil power on Earth moved from one person to the next, without argument. Without dispute.
So it has always been. So we expected it would always be.
In 2020 something has gone wrong. A defeated president is unwilling to admit defeat. He is doing all in his power to hinder the president-elect and prevent a smooth transfer of power. Accusations of cheating fly, even though we have seen no evidence of cheating. Lawsuits have been filed and rejected, but still President Donald Trump insists he has legitimately and legally won reelection. The president himself picks up the telephone to threaten the Secretary of State of Georgia, come on, Fella, I just need 11,780 more votes. You can find them; you can recalculate; no shame in that.
The same president who wanted to use sheer thuggery to steal the votes of Georgians has now turned a mob loose on his own seat of government. In a frightening attempt to stop the counting of electoral votes and to get Vice President Mike Pence to usurp power, Trump incited a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. That act may be his last as president; sentiment in the Congress to invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to suspend Trump from office is running high. And if Vice President Pence falters, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the House would impeach Mr. Trump in a heartbeat. The nation would be well-served if both processes were set in motion. A repudiation of his seditionist actions would send a necessary message to Trump, the terrorists at the Capitol and their supporters, and to any future president who dares try to initiate a coup that they will forever be on the wrong side of history.
But forget his attempts at mob rule. Mr. Trump has been AWOL since the day electoral votes were cast, most of them for Joe Biden. The president flew to his Mar-a-Lago private club in Florida, there to be seen every day on his golf links. He is heard, as well, in angry posts on social media, many of them incoherent. What are Americans to make of this dereliction of duty?
When Trump is not golfing, he has been huddled with lawyers seeking ways to overturn the 2020 election. It seems to us as if the joy has gone out of the Trump presidency; all of the perks of the job, the salutes, the use of Air Force One, seem no longer enough to compensate for the hard work of actually being president and certainly not for his perceived shame at losing a fair election to a candidate who better suits the times.
But there’s no shame in losing a job which he, perhaps, didn’t really want, even if he came to love it. Many good presidents have been turned out after four years. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush come to mind from our own era. Herbert Hoover was a failed president, but his accomplishments before and after testify to his talents and his character. So, we fear, President Trump’s actions are testimony to his true character.
He’s now a president wholly out of control, lashing out verbally and physically at his opponents — those who refuse to help him threaten and steal his way back into office. If the president had merely gone AWOL with two months left before the end of his term, we would have urged patience until Jan. 20, when President-elect Biden is inaugurated. But in the short time since the two of us decided to write on the transition, the situation has become dangerous.
We cannot trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes, with command of our armed forces and the direction of our foreign and domestic policy for even a day longer. We cannot wait for President-elect Biden’s inauguration to break Trump’s grip on power. Whether by the 25th Amendment, resignation or rapid impeachment, we must separate Trump from power.
Peter D. Zimmerman, a physicist, was chief scientist of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under then-Chairman Joseph R. Biden, Jr. He is emeritus professor of science and security at King’s College London. Gail Helt is a former intelligence officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. She now teaches security and intelligence courses at a small liberal arts school in Tennessee. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.