The very short presidency of Donald Trump has – deservedly or not -- generated intense interest into the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Presidential Disability and Succession.”
According to the National Constitution Center, “the Twenty-fifth Amendment was passed to clarify what happens upon the death, removal, or resignation of the President or Vice President and how the Presidency is temporarily filled if the President becomes disabled and cannot fulfill his responsibilities.”
The Center points out that a plan of succession is far from being a “theoretical problem” as its application has been necessary on nine separate occasions in the case of the president.
In the case of the 45th president, resignation and removal through impeachment (the latter possibly because of obstruction of justice) are frequently debated in serious circles and publications.
Thursday’s Senate testimony by former FBI Director James Comey, where Comey "bluntly" raised the possibility of obstruction of justice, may or may not intensify the calls for Trump's impeachment.
However, the removal of Trump because he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, specifically because of unfitness or incompetence, has also become a serious and recurring topic. It is here where Section 4 of the 25th Amendment -- the amendment which empowers the vice president and his cabinet to declare a president “incapacitated” – comes in:
"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."
The Washington Post describes Section 4 as "The section that...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...most likely to be used when there’s an unexpectedly unconscious president — although it clearly applies if a president is incapacitated from some other mental or physical inability."
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Ross Douthat tackles “Section 4” from an interesting perspective.
Douthat does not believe that Trump will be impeached for obstruction of justice or for “the Russia business.”
Douthat explains that it is not because Trump may not have committed such impeachable offenses, but rather because Trump does not sufficiently understand the nature, constraints and obligations of the presidency.
"I do not believe [Trump] is capable of the behind-the-scenes conspiring that the darker Russia theories envision. And it is hard to betray an oath of office whose obligations you evince no sign of really understanding or respecting. And if a president is deficient in one or more of them, you can be sure it will be exposed."
Douthat describes the awesome powers, pressures and responsibilities of the U.S. presidency and what it takes for a person to rise to the occasion, among them:
• 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.
This author believes that honesty is certainly one of the core qualities a president of the United States must possess to “rise to the occasion,” but I am sure Douthat includes that in his “a functional moral compass.”
But back to the impeachment vs. removal for “incapacity” issue.
Douthat makes the case for the latter by comparing Trump to a child who does not understand the consequences of his actions and therefore is not able to “really commit ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ in any usual meaning of the term.”
"But ultimately, I do not believe that our president sufficiently understands the nature of the office that he holds, the nature of the legal constraints that are supposed to bind him, perhaps even the nature of normal human interactions, to be guilty of obstruction of justice in the Nixonian or even Clintonian sense of the phrase. I do not believe he is really capable of the behind-the-scenes conspiring that the darker Russia theories envision."
In this writer's opinion, however, Child Trump did understand right from wrong when he asked FBI Director Comey in the privacy of the Oval Office to "let go" of the federal investigation into that "good guy," his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
Otherwise, why shut out his most trusted staff and advisers?