Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Odds of Trump Not Lasting Four Years

Tom addresses reader requests on a burning question...

We have received a surprising (or maybe not) number of requests from readers to give odds on the likelihood of Donald Trump not lasting the full four years of his first term – meaning that somehow he leaves office before the term is up (as opposed to losing his reelection bid). 

Naturally we approached this as an analytic exercise.  There are five ways a President could leave office between elections:      

                1.     Assassination
                2.     Death (other than assassination)
                3.     Removal under 25th Amendment (e.g., incapacitation)
                4.     Impeachment and conviction, or resignation under pressure
                5.     Resignation apart from impeachment (that is, quitting)

Our methodology is to assess the odds of each in turn, and then add them up to a total.


The only way to assess this one is based on experience.  Four presidents have been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy), so one might conclude the odds are 4 in 44, or 9%. 

But also note that assassination is a relatively modern phenomenon.  Lincoln was, of course, our 16th President, and there was only one attempt (unsuccessful) on a president before him, Andrew Jackson.  That alone might raise the odds to 14%, since those four assassinated presidents were all in the last 29 (and 4 in 29 is 14%).

Having said that, only Garfield and Kennedy were assassinated in their first term, so that cuts those odds in half, back to 7%.

It is worth noting that, since Lincoln, apart from the other three assassinations, one president was actually shot (Reagan), and shots were fired at or in the direction of FDR, Truman, Ford (twice), Bush 43 and Obama, with the latter two surviving gunfire directed at the White House.  And credible plots were uncovered and foiled involving Taft, Hoover, Nixon, Carter and Bush 41.  Thus presidential assassination attempts were directed at only one of our first 15 presidents, but at 15 of our next 29.

(As an aside, though technically irrelevant, Theodore Roosevelt was shot as a former President, when he was running for office again as a Bull Mooser.  Roosevelt was shot point blank in the chest, and saved by the hardcopy of the speech he was about to give, which limited the penetration of the bullet.  Though the bullet was lodged in his chest, in true TR form, he went ahead and gave the speech anyway.  The bullet was ultimately deemed too risky to remove, so it remained in his chest the rest of his life.)

In short, while no president has been assassinated for 53 years, it has not been for lack of trying.  And Donald Trump certainly has ushered in an era of heightened tensions, he elicits huge emotional responses, and tends to revel in relatively public spaces, such as Mar-A-Lago and the occasional rally.  These factors increase his odds.

Accordingly we put the odds of assassination in the first term in the 8-12% range.

Death (other than assassination)

We went to the actuarial tables for this one.  The best we could find indicated that a 70-year old man has a 2.6% chance of not living to 71, and has a life expectancy of 14 years.  Simple math would indicate that his odds of dying by 74 are roughly 10% (4 years times 2.6%).  Trump appears to be reasonably healthy, but also significantly overweight.  He does not drink or smoke, but he also seems averse to exercise.  He does appear to have quite a temper and does not sleep well. 

We assume that these ancillary factor would modestly increase the odds of him dying of natural causes by the age of 74, so we peg them in the 11-13% range.

Removal via 25th Amendment

While many presidents have been ill and even temporarily incapacitated, only one truly should have been replaced – and he was not.  Woodrow Wilson suffered a devastating stroke in his second term, in 1919, and never recovered in the remaining 17 1/2 months of his presidency.  Wilson’s wife, Edith, essentially conspired with his doctor to keep his condition under wraps for a while, and at such time as it became known, refused to have him certified as unable to discharge the duties of the office.  Thus he stayed in office when he had no business running the country.  (The 25th Amendment was actually passed in 1965, in the wake of the JFK assassination, which gave rise to the potential for a president to survive a shooting but be in no condition to run the country.)

But incapacitation is not the only reason a president can be removed under Article 25.  Let’s read Article 4 together:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Certainly the 25th Amendment was passed in the wake of Wilson, and thus presumed to refer to incapacitation, and it was actually discussed within the Reagan Administration in the waning days of his second term, when he was in decline.  But the actual language is far broader than incapacitation.  It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Pence and the Cabinet decided that Trump was perfectly healthy but mentally unhinged, and thereby sought to remove him – but it could happen.

We put the odds of a 25th Amendment removal in the 0-2% range,

Impeachment and conviction or resignation under pressure

This is a more difficult exercise.  There has, of course, been only one resignation of a president, Richard Nixon.  That would put the odds at 2%.  There were (of course, again) two impeachments, of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, but neither was convicted by the Senate and both remained in office for the remainder of their term.

Again we would tend to adjust these odds upward.  Few of Trump’s predecessors have demonstrated such a lack of familiarity with the Constitution, few if any have brought a less experienced team into the White House, with more of a predilection for “change.”  Few have had a loyalty litmus test that rivals, well, Nixon’s.  Frankly, few have demonstrated a lower level of competence and integrity.  Trump also has by far the most potential conflicts of interest with his myriad businesses, and he has not taken many pains to diminish them.  That this witches’ brew might result in a “high crime and misdemeanor” (or two) over a four-year period is hardly an idle thought.

The Clinton precedent proved that your “high crimes and misdemeanors” threshold is pretty high.  Clinton may indeed have lied under oath but his offense did not meet that standard (by definition, given his acquittal).  Trump would have to commit a doozie, and one that, like Nixon, would overwhelm partisan support.

We put these odds in the 5-15% range.  It is tempting to go higher, but while Trump is surrounded by many neophytes, there are a few adults in the room and perhaps they will steer him out of major trouble.  The high end of the range recognizes that, already, in the entire Russian morass, including General Flynn’s conversations, the “what did the President know and when did he know it?” drumbeat is in the air.  If Flynny has the goods on Trump and turns on him, that could do it.  But indications are that Flynn will not even be indicted.  With all these investigations afoot, though, we are hardly at the end of this story.

Resignation apart from impeachment (that is, quitting)

No President has ever simply quit.  Perhaps our highest profile recent punt was that of Sarah Palin, who decided it would be more fun to build her brand on Fox than deal with the annoyance of fulfilling her term as Governor of Alaska.

Could Trump quit?  Plenty of people feel that he might just get sick of the limitations of his power and his inability to run his business, and up and quit after a while and hand it over to Pence.

We don’t see it.  Trump is fanatical about his image and reputation, and even he has to know that simply quitting would be a historically damning first.  He might choose not to run again, but quitting before then?  Not likely.

We put those odds as 0-1%.

Adding it all up

Putting it all together, we get a range of 24 – 43% chance that Trump will not last through his first term.  If you prefer a point estimate, let’s put it at 33%, or about a one in three chance.

8 - 12%
11 - 13%
25th Amendment
0 - 2%
5 - 15%
0 - 1%
24 - 43%

Just for fun, we ran through the numbers as if it were 2009 and Obama were newly in office.  The odds of assassination were probably about the same, but the rest would have been far lower, virtually zero in fact.  Thus Obama’s point estimate was probably 10%, versus Trump’s 33%.

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