Until very recently, unless you were a political scientist or a fan of “The West Wing,” you might not have heard of the 25th Amendment. Now, it’s everywhere — mostly in the form of campaigns from people on the left who want the United States to use the powers of the 25th to remove President Donald Trump from office.
But what is the 25th Amendment? How does it work? For those concerned about the future of the American presidency and frustrated with Trump’s conduct, is this amendment actually a smart — or practical — option to employ?
Let’s start with the source: The 25th Amendment itself, adopted in 1967 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy sparked a conversation about the presidential line of succession. The amendment has four sections pertaining to how to handle situations in which the president is unable to perform his or her duties, and it has been invoked only a handful of times.
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Several presidents famously used the 25th Amendment to temporarily assign responsibilities to their vice presidents when they knew they would be incapacitated, as for example when President George W. Bush received a colonoscopy.
Basically, what some Trump opponents are proposing is this: Based on the president’s behavior’s behavior, which has sparked concerns among some that he’s unfit for office, government officials should band together to exercise the power of the 25th and remove him from office. This is separate from impeachment, a process that would take place in Congress.
Section Four is of the most interest to those suddenly bringing up a “25th Amendment solution“:
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.
There’s a lot to unpack there.
In order for Trump to be removed from office with the help of the 25th Amendment, Vice President Mike Pence and a majority of the cabinet would need to submit statements saying he was unfit for duty. That’s a tough call, as Pence has repeatedly backed the president — even in the aftermath of controversial comments and actions — and Trump’s cabinet remains extremely loyal.
But that’s not the end of the road. Once officials gather sufficient documentation, they’d need to take it to Congress, which would have to assemble to discuss the situation — and take a 2/3 vote removing the president from office. Given the strong partisan politics that have been lighting up headlines this year, it seems unlikely that Democrats would find enough Republican defectors to secure a 2/3 majority.
Some Democrats in Congress are trying to use what they think of as a possible backdoor by establishing a “Commission on Presidential Capacity” that could determine the president is unable to do his job. For the commission to form, legislation would need to pass the House and Senate — unlikely in the present political climate.
But even if it did, the commission couldn’t bring the issue directly to Congress for consideration and an attempt at a 2/3 vote. Mike Pence could still strike down the attempt, as his testimony to Trump’s incapacity would still be required.
Applying the 25th Amendment to the president, in other words, would require a large number of GOP loyalists to determine that President Trump is physically incapable of performing his job responsibilities — a pretty unlikely turn of events.
However, voters who feel that the Trump presidency is not serving the American people have another option: showing up in the 2018 midterms to reshape Congress — and again in 2020 to vote for a different president.