If the president is crazy, the United States of America may be on the road to catastrophe. Does this mean the nation is stuck with a man described as “dangerous,” “impulsive,” “antisocial,” and”deceitful” for the next four years? Not necessarily.
If the president is truly insane and dangerous, the vice president can force the issue and take the reins of government. The process is complex, and it’s never been tried before, but if Mike Pence declares Donald Trump to be unfit to remain in office, the world could see a legal presidential takeover by the current veep.
Section Four of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The 25th Amendment is the longest constitutional modification to be ratified since the Civil War era, and it tells Americans how, exactly, a mentally ill or otherwise incapacitated prez can be lawfully ousted. Proposed in 1965 and enacted in 1967, the amendment outlines the succession of the presidency in case of death, resignation, removal from office, or inability to properly carry out the duties of the world’s most powerful political position.
At the time of this writing, only Sections 1 and 2 of the 25th Amendment have ever been implemented. Section 1 was used to place then-Vice President Gerald Ford in the presidency in the wake of Richard Nixon’s disgraceful resignation in 1974. Shortly thereafter, Section 2, which allows a sitting president to name a vice president, was invoked to install Nelson Rockefeller as Ford’s VP. Section 3 allows the President to temporarily grant POTUS-powers to the VP and has been called into action by Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and other presidents prior to undergoing major medical procedures.
To invoke Section 4, Vice President Pence would be required to notify the presidential Cabinet that he deems POTUS 45 “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” If at least half the Cabinet members agree, Pence could move into the Oval Office without further delay. Unless, of course, the president protests. According to Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, the prez could be reinstated by the House and Senate. In that case, the VP and the Cabinet could move once again to remove the POTUS. After that, a two-thirds majority congressional vote would be required to give a president the permanent heave-ho.
Good news, bad news
Georgetown University law professor, Rosa Brooks, served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011. Last year, Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon was published by Simon and Schuster. As Brooks explained to Foreign Policy magazine, there are several ways that a president can be removed from office. The first option is to vote him out during the next presidential election. Noting that four years may be too long to wait to remove the president Brooks calls “catastrophic,” the professor says that a simple majority vote by the House of Representatives could start impeachment proceedings. Although impeachment is not the same as evicting the president from the White House, it could conceivably lead to a two-thirds Senate vote to fire POTUS 45.
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is the fact that the current Senate and House are controlled by the same Republican Party that thought Donald Trump was a good choice for a presidential candidate. For this reason, Brooks explains that the likelihood of Congress acting to oust POTUS 45 is just about nil. There is a chance, however that VP Pence may hold enough political ambition to collect Cabinet approval and take the helm via the 25th Amendment. Professor Brooks believes this could be preferable to a continuing Trump presidency.
“Presumably, Pence is sane enough to oppose rash acts involving, say, the evisceration of all U.S. military alliances or America using nuclear weapons first — and presumably, if things got bad enough, other Trump cabinet members might also be inclined to oust their boss and replace him with his vice president.”
Professor Brooks noted that a VP-led removal would be quicker than a formal presidential impeachment.
“When you have a lunatic controlling the nuclear codes, even a few months seems like a perilously long time to wait. How long will it take before Trump decides that ‘you’re fired’ is a phrase that should also apply to nuclear missiles?”
— Trump Is Insane (@25thSec4SaveUS) February 20, 2017
Official DOJ congressional report on presidential incapacity
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice provided a printed report on presidential disability to Congress. The report outlines the legal steps legislators would have to take in order to remove an incumbent president. This is what the DOJ told Congress:
“In the original document, Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution provided that, in the event of the President’s “Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties” of his office, “the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.” This language was superseded by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967. Although there were several instances of severe presidential disability between 1789 and 1967, no Vice President sought to assume the chief executive’s powers and duties during this period. Sections 3 and 4 of the 25th Amendment currently govern cases of presidential disability. Under Section 3, if the President declares (in a written declaration to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate) that he is disabled for any reason, the Vice President assumes his powers and duties as Acting President. Section 4 provides for cases in which the President may not be able to transmit a disability declaration. In these circumstances, the Vice President and the cabinet or “such other body as Congress may by law provide” (a disability review body) can, by majority vote, declare the President to be disabled. It also empowers the President to declare his disability ended, again by written declaration, and resume his powers and duties. If, however, the Vice President and a majority of either the cabinet or a disability review body, rule otherwise, then Congress decides the issue. A vote of two-thirds of both houses within 21 days is required to determine the President to be disabled and continue the disability; otherwise, he resumes his powers and duties. Neither section 3 nor section 4 has been invoked since the amendment was ratified”
The 25th Amendment can be read in its entirety at the Government Publishing Office.
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