The '25th Amendment Solution' Is A Terrible, Dangerous Idea

Responsible folks from both parties should put a stop to it now.
05/17/2017 11:06 am ET Updated May 18, 2017
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

As predicted here and elsewhere, a cascade of events is pushing Republicans toward practical steps to remove President Trump. Some are motivated by evidence and concern. Many others prefer President Pence and always have. But some of the ideas moving forward are as bad as the evil they seek to cure.

Impeachment is relatively straightforward, and evidence based. First, facts: Trump did or did not take certain actions. Then law, politics and opinion: These did or did not constitute High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

But there is, for many Republicans, an appealing alternative, the 25th Amendment. Adopted in 1967 it attempted to deal with fears that arose after the JFK assassination. What if he had survived with irreversible brain damage?

In short, Congress proposed and the states ratified a system to replace a disabled president. The idea-du-jour among some Republicans is to use it on Trump and short circuit messy impeachment hearings and trials. This is a truly calamitous idea and responsible folks from both parties should stop it now.

Democrats started it, with comments from Rep. Blumenaur and Senator Franken, and now Republicans are edging to it. They’re largely from the disaffected Bush wing of the party but it’s spreading. David Frum began it and now Ross Douthat, the New York Times sorta-Republican in residence has chimed in.

He urges removal of Trump because he lacks the following attributes: “a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control.”

I can think of a dozen prior presidents who lacked one or all of these attributes.

Assume he’s right. If a lack of these qualities requires removal of an elected president then we are in enormous trouble. I can think of a dozen prior presidents who lacked one or all of these attributes from John Adams, to Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding, LBJ, or GWB. This is a road we cannot go down.

The language of the 25th Amendment is a little vague, to be sure. A president has to be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But it’s not vague enough to permit removal of a president for having bad personality traits. The Douthat version of the 25th Amendment is a prescription for coups d’etat and one party rule.

Think of when we really needed a removal process, when Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and was permanently incapacitated. His wife ran the country. The 25th Amendment makes sense.

Now think about Trump. He was elected by folks who knew his personality, his infinite capacity for lies and self-deception. They voted for him in spite of his persona, not because of it. For the political elites to now remove him because he’s a “child” as David Brooks (the Times’ other Republican) calls him, will confirm the alienation of millions of Americans, and set a precedent that will be used against future presidents who offend the elites.

The 25th Amendment mechanism that Douthat proposes plays into the hands of Republican reactionaries who always preferred Pence to Trump. 25th Amendment removal is triggered by none other than Vice President Pence, backed by a majority of the Cabinet. A simple letter to Congress makes him Acting President. Trump would then have to notify Congress that he disagrees. The Congress then has three weeks to decide, by 2/3’s vote whether to remove or not.

Physical incapacity is difficult enough to prove. Mental illness or personality disorder is impossible, and will leave the nation to ponder psychobabble as though it was grounds for a nation to choose its rulers.

Republicans concerned about Trump’s impact on the nation have to stand up and determine whether his acts violate his constitutional oath and deserve impeachment. Democrats desperate to get rid of Trump should remember how feckless misuse of constitutional powers was applied to Bill Clinton. The nation is ill-served by clever and dangerous manipulation of the 25th Amendment to achieve the removal of Trump as president.

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