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The 25th Amendment: The Other Constitutional Way to Remove a President

25th amendment
President Donald Trump is seen maskless on the Truman Balcony of the White House after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5, 2020, for being treated for coronavirus. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Some constitutional facts you learned in high school U.S. history probably left a lasting impression. For example, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and the 19th Amendment afforded women the right to vote. But even the most dedicated scholars can have trouble keeping track of all 27 amendments to the Constitution. And you may not have ever had a reason to ruminate on the 25th.

The 25th Amendment is in the news after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she would be "discussing it" regarding President Donald Trump's erratic behavior after testing positive for coronavirus Oct. 1. Since Trump's diagnosis, at least 12 close advisers and the first lady also have tested positive.

Among Pelosi's concerns are the president's "altered state." "The president is, shall we say, in an altered state right now," Pelosi said in her weekly news conference. "I don't know how to answer for that behavior. There are those who say when you are on steroids or have COVID-19, there may be some impairment of judgment."

Pelosi is referring to Trump's regimen of coronavirus meds. Once he was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Friday, Oct. 2, Trump's doctors began him on a course of remdesivir, an experimental drug used to fight the coronavirus. It's been shown in some clinical trials to shorten the duration of the illness. They later added the dexamethasone, which is a steroid given to the sickest COVID-19 patients.

Trump left Walter Reed Monday, Oct. 5, and many doctors and scientists say his wild tweets and videos stating he's "immune" to COVID-19 and telling the American people not to be afraid of the virus are worrisome. His decision to return to work in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Oct. 7, despite still having COVID also prompted outrage from the medical community.

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What Is the 25th Amendment?

Proposed by Congress and ratified by the states following, the 25th Amendment provides the procedures for replacing the president or vice president in case of death, removal, resignation or incapacitation. The 25th Amendment was created during the Cold War following President Dwight D. Eisenhower's three serious illnesses and President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination.

Eisenhower originally entered into a letter agreement that stated if his health impeded his ability to run the country, power would be transferred to his vice president, Richard Nixon. This led to the official amendment that clarified the rules around transfer of power in the event of an incapacitated president. After numerous congressional hearings, the final version passed the House and Senate in 1965, and was ratified on Feb. 10, 1967.

There are four sections to the 25th Amendment:

  • Section 1 stipulates that the vice president will assume the role of president in case of death or resignation.
  • Section 2 covers the event of a vacancy in the office of the vice president; in such a case, the president is responsible for nominating a candidate who must be confirmed by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress. The history of Section 2 ensures there is both a president and vice president at all times.
  • Section 3 states that the president has the discretion to declare his own inability to carry out the job, and allows him to temporarily cede power to the vice president. It makes it clear, however, that the vice president does not assume the office or title of president.
  • Section 4 has, to date, never been implemented, but it's the piece of the amendment currently receiving media attention. The language empowers the vice president and the cabinet to declare a president "incapacitated":
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.

Section 4 addresses the problem of a president who is unable or unwilling to acknowledge his or her inability 'to discharge the powers and duties' of the presidency. It would be used most likely if a president falls unexpectedly unconscious, though it also clearly applies when a president is "incapacitated" because of some other mental or physical inability.

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How It's Implemented

History buffs may recall the invocation of the 25th Amendment as a result of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. President Nixon invoked it to replace resigning vice president Spiro Agnew with Gerald Ford; then when Ford replaced Nixon as president, Ford invoked it to appoint Nelson Rockefeller to succeed him as vice president.

However, in order for Section 4 to be implemented, the vice president and a majority of "the principal officers of the executive departments" must declare the president incapacitated in a written statement to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate. Once that happens, presidential powers are automatically transferred to the vice president.

In order for Congress to successfully declare a president "disabled," two-thirds in each chamber must conclude that he "is unable" to handle the office.

25th amendment
President Donald Trump wears a mask as he walks out of Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland before returning to the White House.
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

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Could the 25th Amendment Be Applied Today?

The disability clause of the 25th Amendment has been invoked multiple times since ratification. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan invoked it during medical procedures, though it was never used when Reagan was shot in 1981.

However, Section 4 has never been invoked to remove a president from office. John Hudak, deputy director for Center for Effective Public Management and senior fellow for governance studies at the Brookings Institute writes that the process "is more difficult than impeachment and is reserved only for truly unique and dire circumstances."

Because the vast majority of Trump's Cabinet would need to support the president's removal, many speculate the invocation of the amendment this late in the Trump presidency isn't realistic at all.

However, the taunting nature of just some of Trump's tweets, as well him routinely referring to the coronavirus as the "Chinese Plague" and "China Virus" set off alarm bells once again about his mental stability.

"Everyone who gets steroids feels a little bit better," Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, told Business Insider. "You get a steroid euphoria in addition to no fevers and so forth. So yes, there will be a moment in time where he's going to feel like, 'Oh, this is all behind me now.'" The question remains, is this just Trump being Trump or are his medications and the coronavirus to blame, at least this time?

Originally Published: Jan 8, 2018

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