The next time President Donald Trump logs on to Twitter, he’s likely to see the hashtag #25thAmendment trending on the social networking site. That’s because those on the left and a growing number on the right of the political establishment are suggesting the amendment could be used to remove him from office. Let’s break down how that might work and examine what Trump’s detractors are claiming about his fitness to serve.
First, what exactly does the 25th Amendment say about replacing a sitting president? And why was it ratified?
In a nutshell, the amendment is intended to provide a contingency plan for U.S. executive leadership in the event that a sitting president meets an untimely demise, becomes physically or mentally incapacitated, or resigns from office. It simply provides a plan for continuity of government at its highest level.
Prior to 1967 when the amendment was ratified, the Constitution provided only vaguely for how the president should be replaced by the vice president in the event of death, incapacitating disability or resignation. The chaos following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the primary catalyst behind Congress’s decision to formally ratify an amendment to clear up any confusion about how a peaceful transfer of power should unfold.
Since it’s ratification, only the first three sections of the 25th Amendment have come into play.
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Americans witnessed those portions of the 25th Amendment process in action in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. As the fallout claimed its political victims, Gerald Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president. Upon President Richard Nixon’s resignation, Ford filled the Oval Office vacancy and nominated Nelson Rockefeller to assume his vice presidential duties.
Other times the 25th Amendment has been used passed with far less fanfare. During the Reagan administration, Vice President George H.W. Bush briefly filled in for President Ronald Reagan when the commander in chief underwent surgery for colon cancer in July 1985.
And during President George W. Bush’s tenure in the Oval Office, Vice President Dick Cheney twice took the helm, in June 2002 and July 2007 when Bush was under medical care for routine colonoscopies.
Why are we looking at the 25th Amendment right now?
The portion of the 25th Amendment being discussed by a growing cadre of pundits and political power brokers today is a little more complicated and far more controversial than the largely functionary initial three sections of the law. The fourth and final section of the 25th Amendment prescribes a process by which a sitting president can be forcibly removed from his elected position. Forcibly is the operative word here– invoking a Section IV removal would test the United States’s longstanding tradition of peaceful transfer of executive power in a way not seen since secessionists declared the federal government illegitimate ahead of the Civil War.
Under Section IV of the 25th Amendment, the vice president and 13 members of the 24-member executive Cabinet are essentially able to declare a president unfit for duty against his will.
Here’s what Section IV says:
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.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days 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. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
The intent of Section IV is to provide a vehicle by which a mentally inept and belligerent commander-in-chief could be removed from office by his fellow top officials. But it also, if inadvertently, provides a path by which high level officials could orchestrate what might be called a coup in many other countries.
Why does it matter for Trump?
The media’s talking heads, influential liberals and several Democratic officials have for months been building a case for Trump’s removal per the 25th Amendment. They’ve worked diligently and strategically to portray Trump as a loose cannon who might at any moment allow his ego to cloud his better judgement in reacting to a domestic or an international crisis in a way that would violate the law or put the nation’s security at risk. More recently, the same voices have stopped just short of declaring that Trump is publicly demonstrating symptoms of serious mental illness.
And, to be fair, Trump hasn’t helped matters much with his devotion to brash rhetoric and Twitter pronouncements on matters even members of his devoted base have at times questioned whether presidential input was warranted.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a trend started by the left. If you remember, some of the most forceful questioning of Trump’s fitness for office came from fellow Republicans, and the establishment never-Trump arm of the GOP, during the 2016 presidential primary season. Mitt Romney’s dramatic fifth-hour speech denouncing Trump just ahead of the GOP primary comes to mind as one of the most extreme examples.
Trump’s primary victory and subsequent trouncing of inevitable-next-president Hillary Clinton, for a time, threw cold water on the GOP establishment’s protestations. The current president’s seemingly unshakable popularity with a deeply devoted base of supporters also helped for months, as demonstrated by serious conversations among congressional Republicans and respected conservative strategists about the electoral dangers of being portrayed as an anti-Trump (or, even, less-than -thrilled-with-Trump) Republican incumbent with a 2018 midterm on the calendar.
But a few things have changed in recent months. Trump learned early on that he wasn’t going to drain the swamp overnight. Key portions of the president’s platform remain stalled in Congress. And it really has nothing to do with Trump’s ability to lead or his desire to force change in Washington. Despite his outsider status, Trump inherited a government which employs thousands of bureaucrats who are controlled by hundreds of politicians. There never has been, nor will there ever be, a commander-in-chief elected who inherits a government ready to humor every, or even many of, the platform positions promised to voters by a fledgling executive on the campaign trail.
Put yourself in the president’s shoes, how do you react? Compromise would seem to be the no-brainer– go along to get along. And Trump has compromised.
Trump conceded that Democrats may be right about some things, like President Barack Obama’s deferred action immigration scheme. Trump gave wins to the Republican establishment, like an endorsement of a government approved candidate over a conservative stalwart (See Luther Strange versus Roy Moore in Alabama). Trump reorganized his inner-circle to make the White House more affable to Washington sensibilities (Steve Bannon’s ouster, distance from Roger Stone, John Kelly’s appointment as chief of staff).
This also means that the president has given power to his detractors– and those detractors have, so far, not demonstrated any willingness to return the favor. Instead, many have doubled down on criticism of the president. For Trump, the biggest concerns should be his good-faith weakening of the inner White House circle and a never-Trump movement that went dormant rather than truly going away.
And that’s what makes all the talk about the 25th Amendment so dangerous for President Trump. Republican lawmakers like Bob Corker who aren’t facing reelection fights are becoming increasingly vocal in calling the president unfit for office. And Democrats feeding on the energy are doubling down. A president who based so much of his candidacy on being a wild card may now only hold a few wild cards of his own: whether he still has majority support within his Cabinet and a faithful vice president in Pence, whether the establishment truly fears the reaction of his voter base in the event of his unwarranted removal and whether he can prove without a doubt that he is indeed fit to finish his term in the Oval Office and run for reelection unmolested by his own party.
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