Twenty-two years ago today, not only the United States but much of the world was stunned and appalled by the al Qaeda attacks that brought down New York’s Twin Towers, destroyed part of the Pentagon and killed more Americans than were lost at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; another day of infamy.
Large-scale terrorist attacks had been anticipated and routinely war-gamed across many scenarios. Novels described nuclear and biological holocausts on an industrial scale. Indeed, one movie depicted a terrorist nuclear attack that wiped out Baltimore.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans witnessed the spectacle of two aircraft smashing into these buildings. The sequence of the towers’ collapse was viewed in real-time by hundreds of millions, bringing the catastrophe into homes and offices, and weeks of coverage kept the horrible events in public view.
Of the profound consequences, the ill-fated intervention into Afghanistan and the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed the world for the worse, at least regarding the U.S. and its allies. One wonders if or what a domestic equivalent of 9/11 might be, not in direct attacks but in the demolition of the American political system. Conceivably, the 2024 presidential elections could be that event.
Suppose Donald Trump wins the nomination. Trump faces four indictments and possible convictions. One case may be potentially the most destructive.
If Trump is convicted of any of the charges alleged by Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis, under Georgia law, he is not eligible for a pardon for five years. As this is a state case, the president only has pardon authority for federal crimes. And suppose Trump was sentenced to prison or is convicted in other trials?
The Constitution has no answer. Criminal convictions do not disqualify a candidate from becoming president. Only Article II Section 4 of the Constitution says a president "shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
If Trump were unable to perform his duties from prison, the 25th Amendment would be invoked. Trump’s vice president would temporarily assume the office. The spectacle would be devastating.
Averting this crisis is by no means viable. Perhaps the Georgia legislature could pass a law granting Trump immunity. If Congress were to act, assuming the Republicans retained the House of Representatives and Democrats the Senate, deadlock would seem obvious. And would the Supreme Court become the final arbiter? No one knows.
If reelected, President Biden will be 82. He is already America’s oldest president. Suppose Biden is incapacitated or worse? Eight of 46 presidents died or were assassinated in office. Woodrow Wilson suffered from a stroke and was not functional during his last year as president.
Is Vice President Kamala Harris, who has the lowest ratings in history in an NBC News poll, fit for office? Harry Truman was an invisible vice president when Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945. Despite being unknown and largely dismissed, Truman had the character and grit to become a successful president. Lyndon Johnson was well known. After John Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ could have been a great president had it not been for the Vietnam War. What about Kamala?
While entirely hypothetical, this question of fitness cannot be dismissed. Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were never challenged about their age or on the suitability of their vice presidents to assume office.
And what might America’s adversaries do? Each would have ample opportunity to intervene to weaken and damage America. Artificial intelligence deep fakes, disinformation and misinformation would exploit, provoke, intensify and create overreactions injecting as much chaos as possible into American politics. A Biden-Trump rematch offers a treasure trove for massive disruptions.
China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as domestic groups and individuals, are highly capable of deploying these weapons to help convict Trump in Georgia, exaggerate Biden’s health issues and mental competence and discredit Harris. Russia intervened in prior U.S. elections, and those of other countries. Russia also may have been partly responsible for Brexit through its disinformation activities.
What can be done? Regarding Trump, he is still at legal risk in three other pending cases, one a civil suit in New York over hush money payments to a porn actress. Unless Biden steps down, allowing another candidate to run, or Kamala Harris is replaced, this potential crisis still looms.
The 2024 election may not be fully or even partially comparable to 9/11. But unlike that day, the Trump-Biden scenarios had never been imaginable before, either in reality or fiction.
Trump may be acquitted and has the presumption of innocence. Biden could be a vibrant 86-year-old when he leaves office. But suppose not?
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D. is a senior advisor at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of the “shock and awe” military doctrine. His 12th book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.