A Liberal Fantasy Ripped from a Hollywood ScriptRoundup
tags: Trump, 25th Amendment
The dream burns bright in countless liberal hearts and minds: President Donald Trump embraces one too many fever-swamp conspiracy theories, tweets one too many palpable falsehoods, threatens a nuclear attack on Mexico for not paying for the wall. A terrified Cabinet meets in Vice President Mike Pence’s home at the Naval Observatory, and, in a written declaration to the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate, that the president “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
And just like that, Trump is dispatched to Trump Tower, or Mar-a-Lago, and Pence becomes acting president of the United States. Right?
Yes—assuming it’s a movie or a TV series or a Netflix or Amazon offering. This process, set down in Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, has been one of Hollywood’s favorite plot devices to spice up a political melodrama. As a real-life possibility, it requires a leap away from reality into a realm even Trump has delivered us; at least, not yet.
To understand why this particular liberal fantasy is so misguided, let’s take a walk down memory lane. The core purpose of the 50-year-old 25th Amendment was not aimed at presidential incapacity at all; rather, it was to cure a constitutional defect that America had experienced repeatedly through much of its history: When a president died, and the vice president moved to the Oval Office, there was no mechanism to replace the second-in-command—who, after all, is elected, rather than appointed. (All the Constitution says, in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, is this: “[T]he Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President.”)
Often, that vacancy lasted for years. William Henry Harrison and Abraham Lincoln each died a month into their terms (Harrison’s first; Lincoln’s second); James Garfield was assassinated less than a year into his term; William McKinley was killed months into his second. Harry Truman served all but three months of FDR’s fourth. (After the 1946 midterms, that vacancy meant that, had anything happened to Truman, the presidency would be assumed by House Speaker Joseph Martin—a Republican.)
But it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 that spotlighted the need for a fix—in stark, almost morbid terms. When Lyndon B. Johnson took the rostrum in the House of Representatives on Nov. 27 to reassure a shaken nation, viewers were treated to distinctly unsettling sight. There was Johnson, who had barely survived a 1955 heart attack. Behind him sat John McCormack, the speaker of the House—a frail, almost sepulchral 71-year-old who was next in line. Next to him was President Pro Temp Carl Hayden, an 88-year-old who appeared incapable of independent motion. ...