Most of the country seems to agree that Donald Trump is a bad president, but does that mean he will be removed from office or even impeached? No, it does not. If I may quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a large group of terrible and incompetent men can be president; indeed, they’re the only ones who ever have.”
But impeachment talk is in the air—frantically so in Twitter circles that continue to share memes of Hillary Clinton laughing with Barack Obama and more reservedly among Republicans engaged in a whisper campaign about their yearnings for a President Mike Pence.
Do they dare to dream? Do you?
Should Trump be removed from office, the president of the United States will no longer be a deeply bigoted dummy whose political instincts appear to be limited to self-aggrandizement and spite. Instead, the president of the United States will be a deeply bigoted zealot whose political instincts appear to be limited to a draconian interpretation of his Christian faith and a scorched earth approach to the social safety net.
Within this administration, could any kind of removal scenario—be it resignation, prison, or death—lead to anyone other than a moral monster assuming the most powerful office in the world?
A great question, really.
First, we should define our terms. What is it to be good? What is it to be a good president?
For our purposes, let’s say that “good” is the far end of a scale measuring to what extent a president will work to implement programs that will meaningfully decrease poverty, hunger, and injustice defined broadly across a range of issues from mass incarceration to the maternal mortality rate in this country. Lofty rhetoric that packages upward redistribution in the language of fairness and opportunity doesn’t count, and let’s avoid the mistake of conflating decorum with goodness because fuck that.
Now let’s consider the line of succession.
1. Vice President Mike Pence
It’s pretty clear that while Pence, who is first up to bat, would restore a familiar kind of stability and the pretense of deep thought to the office, he would still follow a policy agenda that hews closely to what Trump and his Republican leadership have already laid out.
There would be staggering tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and deplete the government of the resources necessary to its basic functioning. He would sign likely sign whatever healthcare repeal bill reached his desk, maybe even waiting until it included a measure to restrict Medicaid reimbursements for providers like Planned Parenthood, since he is a true believer in a way that Trump has never convincingly mustered.
As governor of Indiana, Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the original version of which was broad enough to allow businesses to discriminate against any person seeking services and public accommodations as long as they could root the denial in their personal religious views. The modified version was more restrained, but still left LGBTQ residents of his state incredibly vulnerable to discrimination and with rights that were distinct and lesser than their cis and straight peers.
He also allowed a public health crisis to run rampant in a rural county of his state as he resisted implementing a needle exchange program to combat an HIV outbreak. He eventually relented, and the transmission rate dropped.
He is bad by these and other metrics, so we must move on.
2. House Speaker Paul Ryan
House Speaker Paul Ryan, next up after Pence, is a devout Catholic who—despite being hated by nuns—uses his faith to justify many of the same discriminatory policies as the vice president. As an architect of the tax cut and healthcare repeal efforts currently swimming around in Congress, and a deep hater of poor people having ready access to food, shelter, and school lunches, he’d obviously sign off on whatever decimation of the welfare state reached his desk.
3. President pro tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch
Next comes Orrin Hatch, pro tempore of the Senate and Utah’s senior senator. Hatch made headlines recently after responding to a question about the unpopularity of the House healthcare bill by observing that the healthcare-needing public—greedy cancer patients, presumably—get “on the dole” and then never want to get off, bleeding it for every bit of chemotherapy and maintenance treatments they can get their cancerous little hands around.
Hatch is extremely conservative, but is reliably accused of being a fake Republican for doing things like acknowledging that repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate will burn the American healthcare system down to a smoldering ash heap and agreeing to raise the debt limit. He likes block grants and spending caps on Medicaid, the part of the American Health Care Act that would hit the poor, children, and people with disabilities the hardest, and tax cuts for wealthy people.
The rightward lurch of his party has disciplined him into more of a partisan soldier in recent years, like the time an op-ed he’d filed about not being persuaded by a meeting with Merrick Garland was published before the meeting ever happened.
As designated survivor during the inauguration, he could have been president right out the gate if some Biblical plague had hit the event. That didn’t happen, and he would not be a good president, anyway.
4. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
We now reach into Trump’s Cabinet, only to emerge with fistfuls of billionaires who may sometimes have occasionally progressive social views. Also Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a petite non-billionaire who comes to us from a time portal to the Jim Crow South.
But first up is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Again, the formula is complicated here because he has never governed or held elected office, and so has no real policy trail to follow. What we do know about Tillerson is that he accepts the science of climate change, but, as the former chief executive of the largest oil company in the world and now a member of a climate-denying administration, doesn’t feel compelled to do much about it.
As the Washington Post reported at the time of his nomination, “His political giving suggests an alignment with establishment Republican politics, having given to the Republican Party of Texas repeatedly, to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and to other national Republican priorities.”
Tillerson has spent his entire professional life doing what is best for the oil industry, and so it seems fair to assume his presidency would be something like putting a talking oil rig in the Oval Office. Let’s move on.
5. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin
Steve Mnuchin, hedge fund millionaire and former Goldman Sachs executive, first joined Trump’s campaign last spring as finance chairman. Like Tillerson, he has no experience in political office so no paper trail of votes or policy. (He’s donated to both Democrats and Republicans in the past.)
What we do know is that before observing Trump spend an entire year making egregiously racist statements about Mexican immigrants and Muslim people and deciding he wanted to jump on that train, Mnuchin made a truly immoral amount of money kicking people out of their homes.
Trump also spent a significant amount of time during his presidential campaign railing against Wall Street paper pushers like Mnuchin—people who, like him, made money through passive transaction and tax loopholes that distribute wealth ever upward—but no matter.
Because Eve ate the apple and we live in a fallen world, it’s worth acknowledging that Mnuchin might not be Pence- or Ryan-levels of depraved on certain issues. But his fealty to Wall Street, combined with Congressional Republicans’ fealty to Wall Street, would be catastrophic for everyone except for people as rich as Mnuchin, who is rich by even obscene rich people standards.
6. Defense Secretary James Mattis
We have now reached the first of Trump’s generals, a group that the president deifies in good times and diminishes when things go wrong in military operations that he has largely outsourced thinking about or authorizing. Mattis, whose nickname is “Mad Dog,” is considered a moderating influence on the Trump administration, which says more about the Trump administration than Mattis.
The former general had the good sense to denounce the Muslim ban during Trump’s presidential campaign, and the bad sense to serve in the Cabinet of a president working to impose a Muslim ban. He is hawkish on Iran—reportedly walking the country to the brink of military engagement last February—and may have committed war crimes in Iraq. These things are familiar in the realm of American power, and unacceptable all the same.
7. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
8. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke
“I could not be more thrilled that Donald Trump selected him,” outgoing Utah Representative and reported future Fox News employee Jason Chaffetz told The New York Times in March, before reflecting on earlier conversations he’s had with the former Republican congressman from Montana: “We talked about: ‘The war on coal is over. We’ve got friendlier, greener pastures ahead of us.’ And there is a great deal of optimism and smiles on people’s faces that we haven’t seen in years.”
If Chaffetz, who gleefully scooted back from emergency surgery to cast a vote stripping 24 million people of health insurance, is smiling, you probably shouldn’t be. Zinke, like Tillerson, is not a climate skeptic, but is similarly noncommittal on the U.S. taking any kind of meaningful action on the issue and is a strong backer of the coal industry.
He’s voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, is a deeply conservative Christian who doesn’t support same-sex marriage or the right of LGBTQ couples to adopt children, and in 2008 went on the record as being against affirmative in college admission. No.
9. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue
As governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011, Perdue—who probably has this job because the president thought he was one of the chicken Perdues, which he is not—displayed a number of Sessions-esque qualities: a nostalgia for the Confederacy, an appreciation of voter restrictions, and a fondness for immigration crackdowns of the sort he may recognize playing out nationally under this administration.
By the rules of the transitive property, if Sessions can’t be a good president for these reasons, than neither can Sonny Perdue.
10. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross
The “King of Bankruptcy” is a vulture capitalist who made a fortune buying up dying businesses. As reported earlier this year by The Nation and other outlets, a mine Ross’s company acquired in West Virginia spent years accumulating workplace safety violations over the conditions faced by its non-union workforce. In 2006, 12 workers died after an explosion killed one person on impact and trapped several others in the mine. Management waited a full hour before calling for help, and it took nearly two days to reach the trapped miners. All but one of them had died by the time emergency workers arrived.
In terms of his politics, he likes tax cuts for the wealthy and doesn’t like a healthcare law that brought the U.S. uninsured rate to an unprecedented low. He is also 1,000 years old and recently seemed very pleased to have not seen any protesters in Saudi Arabia, a nation that punishes dissent with beheadings.
11. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta
A Justice Department inspector general report on hiring practices at the Justice Department under George W. Bush also found Acosta, who was assistant attorney general of the department’s Civil Rights Division, failed to “exercise sufficient oversight” while his deputy engaged in a politicized set of hiring practices meant to stack the department with conservative attorneys.
“Attorneys hired by [Acosta deputy Brad] Schlozman were more than twice as likely to be Republican or conservative than those attorneys Scholzman was not involved in hiring,” the report found.
12. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price
As a representative for Georgia’s 6th district, Price introduced a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act that made Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” plan look generous in comparison. He supports turning Medicare into a voucher system, is an anti-LGBTQ ideologue, and thinks it’s reasonable for insurers to charge women more than men for coverage.
Borrowing again from the rule of transitive Paul Ryan badness, Tom Price would not be a good president. QED.
13. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson
“Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” Ben Carson’s adviser and friend Armstrong Williams told the Hill last year. “The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
This applies just as well, presumably, to the presidency itself.
14. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao
Elaine Chao is ineligible because she isn’t a natural born citizen. She is also married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and you can decide for yourself what that says about her judgement.
15. Energy Secretary Rick Perry
Energy Secretary Rick Perry is 15th in the line of succession and, like Tillerson, is an oil man with terrible politics. Perry is an anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ ideologue who thoroughly gutted the reproductive health infrastructure of his state at the same time the maternal mortality rate doubled.
His experience as governor of Texas may help him more efficiently implement his political vision, to no one’s benefit, though he also may be too stupid to effectively govern. He also had a racist summer home.
16. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos funneled Michigan children into charter schools while failing to improve the quality of their education. DeVos has such a bone-deep commitment to the unregulated expansion of charter schools that she eventually became a pariah even among school choice advocates, who tend to forgive the failings of their fellow “reformers.”
An analysis of Michigan’s charter schools conducted by the Detroit Free Press found that “38% of charter schools that received state academic rankings during the 2012-13 school year fell below the 25th percentile, meaning at least 75% of all schools in the state performed better.”
“The most accurate assessment is that charter schools have simply created a second, privately managed failing system,” Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, wrote in December, pulling in years of the paper’s reporting on educational outcomes in his analysis.
The education budget released this week by the Trump administration is a clear indication that she would like to recreate that failed experiment nationally, allocating $400 million to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools and setting aside another $1 billion to compel public schools to adopt choice policies.
It is a budget that hands public education a shovel and asks it to dig.
17. Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin
Is this our answer? David Shulkin was the last—and probably least controversial—Cabinet appointment made by Trump. Before joining this administration, he served as under secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health during the last two years of the Obama administration. Unlike several of Trump’s other Cabinet appointees, he does not want to actively dismantle or privatize the department he oversees.
If we must choose someone from this administration to serve out the rest of Trump’s term, Dr. Shulkin could probably do it without randomly starting a war or starving anyone.
He went to Hampshire College. Do people from Hampshire College start nuclear wars? I don’t know. Is he “good” by the standard defined above? I also don’t know. Is he willing to sanitize the draconian outcomes of the president’s preferred policies? Seems like it.
Rather than “good,” let’s call him a reversion to the mean of middle-of-the-road Democrats. This is certainly the best we could hope for in this lot, especially if you consider what Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, the last in the presidential line of succession, has been up to lately. So let’s call it here.
David Shulkin for president! Or, at least, everyone above him on this list for prison!
Updated (3/28/18): Never mind!!!!