Is President Trump crazy?
Not can-you-believe-he-really-said-that? crazy. Certifiably-mentally-unfit-to-serve-as-president crazy.
It’s an outlandish assertion — insulting, really — and a measure of the antipathy of Trump’s critics that some, including members of Congress, have seriously raised the subject. Which brings us to the 25th Amendment.
Born of the Cold War and enacted after the assassination of President Kennedy, the language amounts to a bit of technical housekeeping appended to the Constitution. It outlines the presidential line of succession, including procedures in the event, as the amendment states, the chief executive “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
With impeachment of Trump an exceeding long shot — given the GOP’s firm grip on Congress — a small chorus of Democrats has suggested an even less likely antidote to a presidency they cannot and will not abide: removing Trump on the grounds he is mentally unsound.
The president’s spokeswoman has brushed aside questions about Trump’s mental health as beneath contempt.
“Ridiculous and outrageous” and unworthy of a response, said Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to a suggestion by Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican of Tennessee, that Trump “has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability, nor some of the competence, that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”
Still, the 25th Amendment is having a moment. Searches spiked on Google during the president’s fiery brimstone appearance at a rally Tuesday night in Phoenix.
What does the 25th Amendment say?
If a president dies, resigns or is removed from office, the vice president steps up and takes over. The new president then nominates a vice president, subject to congressional approval. The amendment also allows a president to transfer power to the vice president if he is temporarily incapacitated, during surgery, for instance, then reclaim those powers afterward.
What does that have to do with Trump and his mental health?
Patience, please. That’s addressed in the fourth and final section. In the event the president cannot fulfill his constitutional duties and cannot or will not step aside, the amendment outlines a procedure for his ouster.
Under the law, the vice president and a majority of the president’s Cabinet may declare the president incapacitated by notifying the leaders of the House and Senate. At that point, the vice president assumes the duties of the president.
President Pence, here we come!
Look, the chances of any of this taking place, short of some medical crisis, are somewhere between exceedingly improbable and utterly impossible.
But didn’t President Trump say just the other night, “Most people think I’m crazy to have done this. And I think they’re right!”
OK. But what if?
If the vice president and Cabinet declared the president incapacitated, he could reclaim his powers by writing to legislative leaders and declaring his ability to do the job. If the vice president and Cabinet members object, the matter then gets kicked over to Congress, which has 21 days to act. It would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers to strip the president of his powers, once and for all.
You mentioned the Cold War and JFK.
A bit of history: The Constitution makes it pretty clear the vice president is next in line to the president. But there was some question about how exactly that worked, and quite a kerfuffle in the 1840s when President William Henry Harrison died and Vice President John Tyler took over.
But we’re not going there.
Fast-forward to the Eisenhower administration. After a 1955 heart attack and other serious maladies, the president worried about the transfer of power if he were temporarily incapacitated, especially given hair-trigger relations with the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower worked out an informal arrangement with his vice president, Richard Nixon, in case he needed to temporarily cede power. Still, Eisenhower thought it better to have some mechanism explicitly spelled out in the Constitution.
After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana took up the matter in his capacity as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on constitutional amendments. Congress passed the 25th Amendment in July 1965 and it was ratified on Feb. 10, 1967.
Has the 25th Amendment ever come into play?
The amendment guided the process when President Nixon chose Rep. Gerald R. Ford of Michigan to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew after his resignation in October 1973. Ford, in turn, became president when Nixon quit in August 1974. Ford then chose former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president.
In 1987, aides to President Reagan weighed the possibility of invoking the amendment when concerns grew about his listless and detached behavior in his second term. The prospect was soon dismissed, however, when Chief of Staff Howard Baker deemed Reagan fit to serve.
Separately, on three different occasions Reagan and President George W. Bush voluntarily transferred power to their vice presidents when they had surgery under general anesthesia.
So the mental capacity clause has never been tested?
No. But it’s great for stirring up Trump’s opposition.