U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) meets with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) and Vice-President elect Mike Pence on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2016.
Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Why the 25th Amendment is suddenly getting so much attention

The Rachel Maddow Show, 2/16/17, 9:13 PM ET

Trump not delivering on promised 'winning'

Rachel Maddow looks at the problems Donald Trump has had with the most basic staffing of his administration, and at the failure of Trump’s only significant policy initiative so far, the now-dead travel ban.
Rachel Maddow looks at the problems Donald Trump has had with the most basic staffing of his administration, and at the failure of Trump’s only significant policy initiative so far, the now-dead travel ban.
Reflecting on recent events, the New York Times’ David Brooks’ latest column noted, “I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment. During Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday, a variety of reporters in the room were overheard whispering among each other about the “insane” nature of president’s performance. There was a similar reaction on Capitol Hill: NBC News’ Kasie Hunt said lawmakers from both parties watched the event with their “jaws on the floor.”

Earlier in the week, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. asked a question many have pondered, but few have spoken aloud: “What is this democratic nation to do when the man serving as president of the United States plainly has no business being president of the United States?” His colleague, Dana Milbank, recently conceded, “My worry is the president of the United States is barking mad.”

Ordinarily, conversations along these lines lead to questions about possible impeachment proceedings and congressional options for removing a president from office. But if my email inbox is any indication, there’s growing interest in the options available through the 25th Amendment – which has a Wikipedia page that’s apparently being referenced more and more all the time.

In fact, The Atlantic’s David Frum joked after the election, “Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Article 4. We’re all going to be talking a lot more about it in the months ahead.”

So, what’s Article 4 to the 25th Amendment? In the abstract, the amendment itself is about presidential succession, and includes language about the power of the office when a president is incapacitated. But Digby recently highlighted the specific text of growing relevance:
“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.”
And what does that mean exactly?

Well, it means Congress isn’t the only institution that can remove a president from office between elections. Under the 25th Amendment, a sitting vice president and a majority of the executive branch’s cabinet could, on their own, agree to transfer power out of the hands of a sitting president. At that point, those officials would notify Congress, and the vice president would assume the office as the acting president.

And what if the challenged president wasn’t on board with the plan to remove him/her from the office? As Vox recently explained, “If the president wants to dispute this move, he can, but then it would be up to Congress to settle the matter with a vote. A two-thirds majority in both houses would be necessary to keep the vice president in charge. If that threshold isn’t reached, the president would regain his powers.”

All of this comes up in fiction from time to time, and in all likelihood, Americans will probably never see this political crisis play out in real life. And that’s probably a good thing: by all appearances, the intended purpose of the constitutional provision was to address a president with a serious ailment – say, a stroke, for example – in which he or she is alive, but unable to fulfill the duties of the office.

It probably wasn’t written to deal with a president who seems, to borrow a phrase, “barking mad.”

But the law exists, and the possibility that Mike Pence and half of the administration’s still-incomplete cabinet – a group of people who owe their jobs to the president whose stability has been called into question – is the subject of scuttlebutt, even from a handful of members of Congress. That possibility has created hope among Trump’s detractors that he may be legally removed from office before 2020.

That said, my advice to Trump’s critics is simple: keep your expectations low. Strange things clearly happen – having a clownish television personality in the Oval Office is itself an unprecedented historical development – but the odds of Trump’s own team feeling compelled to remove the president from power are poor.