Throughout President Trump’s election campaign and presidency, members of the media and elected officials frequently decry that the President is “unhinged” and “unstable.” Many have questioned Trump’s ability to serve the Office of the Presidency because they feel Trump lacks both the ability to lead and the ability to act like a mature and thoughtful adult under pressure. Last week, Congressman Al Green (D-TX) officially filed articles of impeachment, yet this was merely a symbolic act and carries little actual weight in impeaching Trump. In the past few weeks, however, many on the left have discussed the possibility of the evocation of the 25th Amendment as a way of removing Trump from office. This talk was initially sparked by former advisor Steve Bannon’s claim that Trump has a 30 percent chance of finishing out his term and by Bob Corker’s comments comparing the White House to an “adult day care center.” Vanity Fair also reported that Bannon previously told Trump the biggest threat to his presidency is the 25th Amendment, which prompted Trump to ask what the 25th Amendment was.
The 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967 after the assassination of President Kennedy. The goal of this amendment is to establish the procedure for the transition of presidential power to the Vice President if the President is unable to perform his or her duties, whether it be because of physical injury, illness, or death. Section IV declares that if a simple majority of the cabinet and the Vice President vote to remove the President from power, the Vice President will become the acting President of the United States. After this transition, Congress has 21 days for two-thirds of each chamber to decide whether or not the former Vice President should continue to serve as President. Although the amendment was framed address instances in which the President cannot carry out his or her duties, some recently have questioned if this inability to carry out one’s duty could apply to the mental state of a President as well. Trump’s tenure can be characterized as polarizing at best and recent weeks have led more to question his mental state. From his debacle in Puerto Rico to his feuds with the NFL and North Korea, the idea that the most powerful person in the world has to be controlled by his staff unsettles many—especially when reminded that he has the codes to America’s powerful nuclear arsenal.
The practicality of the 25th Amendment being used in Trump’s presidency is quite slim, however. Although it seems reasonable for 13 cabinet members and the Vice President to agree to discharge Trump of his powers, actually getting two-thirds of each chamber to vote to make the transition of power permanent is highly unlikely with a Republican-controlled congress. Moreover, this case brings up the dilemma of a principal-agent relationship. Trump did appoint the members of his cabinet and while some have privately voiced their concerns over President Trump’s demeanor, it seems doubtful that 13 individuals would completely abandon all loyalty and vote to remove Trump from power. The 25th Amendment is a tempting option to those who want to remove Trump from power, however, because Congressional Republicans would only have to vote after-the-fact to keep Trump out of power. Thus, Congressional Republicans would have less political burden than if they voted for impeachment or conviction. Although, for liberals, a President Pence would not be the most ideal situation, at least the nation would not fear a nuclear war over a petty insult. Even Republicans who discreetly want to take Trump out of office could see this path as advantageous because they would not have to go through an impeachment trial and could empower a true conservative president.
There is ambiguity when it comes to the litmus test used to decide what constitutes a President who is “mentally” unfit to serve and there are consequences to politicizing the 25th Amendment in order to remove an undesirable president. There is no written way to decide if a President is psychologically unfit to be in power. Should the definition of mental incapacity be flexible to fit what the majority of those in the cabinet want it to mean? The intention of the amendment was to create an action plan if the president was unable to perform his or her duties in cases of illness or death, not being an unpopular president. Removing a president from power is an incredibly serious act that should be taken only in the most extreme cases. The fierce constitutional debate that will inevitably be triggered by the use of Section IV in this manner is one that could destabilize the country even further. Pundits and politicians should be extremely careful when bringing up the possibility of using the 25th Amendment to take Trump out of office. If the President is truly psychologically unfit to serve, then 13 members of the cabinet and Vice President Pence have the duty to the American people to evoke the 25th Amendment. If not, then we must accept the rules that we agreed to and push for more constitutionally sound ways of resisting or removing Trump.