SAN FRANCISCO — California Democrats are stoking a debate over Donald Trump’s mental health and fitness for office, opening a new front in the resistance to the president but raising fears that the line of criticism could backfire.
As early talk of impeachment wanes and questions about Trump’s stability have surfaced after his volatile responses to the violence in Charlottesville — most recently by GOP Sen. Bob Corker and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — California’s Democratic House delegation has seized on an issue that until recently was limited to the Internet fever swamps.
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Rep. Zoe Lofgren last week introduced a congressional resolution urging Trump to seek a medical and psychiatric evaluation to determine if he is unfit for the office. Rep. Jackie Speier called for invoking the 25th Amendment — which empowers the vice president and Cabinet to remove a president who is incapable of serving — after a press conference from Trump Tower in which the president appeared to equate white supremacists with counter-protesters. Both followed on the heels of Rep. Ted Lieu’s push for legislation requiring a psychiatrist at the White House.
“[Trump] has demonstrated that his mental capacity and his erratic behavior are issues we need to be concerned about for our national security,” Speier told POLITICO. “And I think I’m not the first person that’s talked about it. I’m just the first person that’s been public about it.”
Yet the concentrated focus on Trump’s mental health worries many Democrats — even in the blue-state stronghold of California — who fear the party is expending too much energy obsessing over Trump at the expense of winning over voters to the party message.
“I certainly understand the effort — and the drive to do something about the national catastrophe that we’re all experiencing with Trump, from sympathizing with neo-Nazis to weakening long standing alliances. It’s clear that he’s not fit for office,” said Democratic consultant Tenoch Flores, a former California Democratic Party spokesman. “But the unfortunate reality is that until enough Republicans get their heads out of the sand, whether in the Cabinet or in office, he’s going to be sitting right where he is.’’
Lofgren, in an official statement, became the first member of the House to openly question whether Trump has “early stage dementia” — asking whether “the stress of office aggravated a mental illness crippling impulse control.”
In her resolution, the San Jose-area congresswoman argued Trump “has exhibited an alarming pattern of behavior and speech causing concern that a mental disorder may have rendered him unfit and unable to fulfill his constitutional duties.”
The measure urges Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to “quickly secure the services of medical and psychiatric professionals to examine the President.”
Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland — who has a background in clinical social work — said Tuesday she supported Lofgren’s resolution, and has also signed on to a different bill, introduced by Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, which sets the stage for the president to be removed from office if he was found mentally or physically unfit to serve.
“While we can’t talk about any diagnosis, we can look at behavior,’’ she said, adding that it was time to confront what appears to be a serious issue based on the president’s statements and actions. “We need to begin this discussion and have this debate.’’
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Online, Democrats have buzzed recently about events that have gone viral on social media — including a YouTube moment in which the president descends from the steps of Air Force One and appears not to recognize the presidential limousine parked right in front of him. He wanders away until he is shown to the car, the video shows.
Another video moment shows the president leaving a White House ceremony to sign executive orders — without signing the documents.
Some critics point to a well-publicized report that reviewed Trump’s speeches and interviews from more than a decade ago — which found that his speech patterns were more consistent, logical and compete than they are today — as evidence of a problem.
Veteran strategist Roger Salazar, who served as a spokesman for California’s Jerry Brown, President Bill Clinton and presidential candidate Al Gore, agrees that Trump’s mental state is questionable — but warns that Democrats must tread carefully.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Trump is out of his mind,’’ he said. “There’s no question he is unfit for office. But I’d rather Democrats focus our energies on beating him and his allies at the ballot box.”
While acknowledging the sentiment behind Lofgren’s resolution, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested the party needed to focus on other issues.
“What is necessary right now is for us to reach into people’s homes with a better deal. They want to know what we’re doing to make the future better for them: better paychecks, lower costs. So while the behavior of the person in the White House attracts attention, we have to focus on jobs,’’ she said at a San Francisco event to push the Democrats new “Better Deal” agenda on Women’s Equality Day.
Like Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was cool to the question when asked about the 25th Amendment at a San Francisco business forum last week.
“It’s hard for me to see that as a practical matter, based upon what we know so far,” he said.
The country could expect lengthy legal wrangling and debate over the matter, he noted, in part because “it’s not a particularly well-written amendment.’’ Schiff explained that Pence temporarily would become the acting president if Trump was removed, but the president himself could contest that decision. Congress could then vote to permanently strip the presidential powers from the president and transfer them to the vice president.
But, Schiff said, even if Democrats took back the House in 2018, “I don’t know what we would pick.”