The 25th Amendment is commonly cited as a tool for removing from office, at least temporarily, a president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” It was proposed and ratified in the 1960’s after Lyndon Johnson became president following the assassination of President Kennedy. Johnson served out the remainder of Kennedy’s term without a second in command., and the 25th spelled out a remedy for that going forward. But its main claim to fame is another provision, the one regarding what is to happen if a living president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
And therein lies the trouble. The amendment is clear and specific about how a vice presidential vacancy is filled: “…the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress,” it says. But it’s terribly squishy on the more challenging question of dealing with a president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
In Section 4 of the amendment the drafters offered two ways such inability may trigger the president’s removal:
At that juncture, the vice president would assume the presidency until the elected president is deemed fit to return to office as spelled out later in the amendment.
Prior to the Trump era, we apparently didn’t think too much about the practicality of said amendment. But now we do. Such fatal flaws! First, there’s the failure to spell out exactly what is meant by “unable.” The implication is that the inability would be something physical—a stroke, debilitating pain, surgery necessitating anesthesia, a coma, for instance.
The four i’s that afflict the current White House resident—immaturity, ignorance, immorality, irrationality—probably weren’t on the radar of the drafters of the 25th amendment, yet they render the occupant “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” just as surely as any of the physical complaints. In the ‘60’s, it was a given that any president would be a fully formed adult.
Early in the Trump presidency, some mental health professionals publicly offered their opinions on Trump’s mental health and were roundly criticized for diagnosing someone they had not examined. As a family therapist, I often wished I could see my clients out in their world in action. What we see every day as Trump moves through his world provides more empirical evidence for a diagnosis than a dozen typical therapy sessions. We should have listened.
The second major flaw in the amendment is identifying the “principal officers of the executive departments” (State, Justice, Defense, for instance) as the first responders, so to speak, who could be counted on to take action in the event of presidential inability to perform. Again, a flawed assumption. Those officers, after all, are appointed by the president and, in our current situation, serve at the pleasure of the president in an organization hallmarked by chaos, cronyism, and cruelty. With a few notable exceptions, they are sycophants, apparently without conscience or free will.
We’d like to think this can’t happen again. Many of us thought it couldn’t happen the first time. The 25th amendment won’t save us. This election year, we need to get it right.
Thoughts for Our Time
“Conservatism discards Prescription, shrinks from Principle, disavows Progress; having rejected all respect for antiquity, it offers no redress for the present, and makes no preparation for the future.”