Each day seems to bring more trouble for President Donald Trump. He fired his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after just three weeks in his position. Then came the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Numerous other individuals in his administration are supposedly on the chopping block, ranging from Press Secretary Sean Spicer to Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The FBI investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election discovered that at least five members of the Trump administration or campaign team had met with Russian officials. Many had failed to disclose these meetings as was required.
Before firing Comey, Trump asked the FBI Director on several occasions to pledge his loyalty to the president. Comey promised his “honesty,” but failed to pledge his loyalty. Trump also asked Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn because he is a “good guy.”
When Trump fired Comey, he called him a “nut job,” and threatened Comey that he better “hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversation.” Trump also stated that Comey was a bad administrator of the FBI and had lost the support of his colleagues. Finally, Trump said the firing of Comey was done to relieve pressure on the Russian investigation which Trump called “a made-up story.”
There is a growing national discussion of removing Trump as president either through the provisions of the 25th Amendment or through impeachment. Neither approach would be easy.
Both the 25th Amendment and impeachment raise the specter of a “constitutional coup.” After only six months in office, how will the American public react to what looks like an attempt to nullify the results of the recent presidential election?
The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in February 1967 and was the result of the assassination of President Kennedy. The Constitution did not provide a means to replace the vice president when he assumed office on the death of the president. There was also no mechanism to remove the president due to disability temporarily or permanently.
The vice president and a majority of the cabinet could remove the president if they found him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” It could also occur if a congressionally appointed body of experts concluded the president was no longer capable of performing his duties.
If the president opposes his removal, Congress has three weeks to debate and decide the issue. It requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to remove the president and there is no appeal.
The 25th Amendment has been invoked six times since its ratification. On Oct. 12, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and was replaced by Gerald Ford. Ford was confirmed 92-3 by the Senate and 387-35 by the House.
The following year, President Richard Nixon resigned the office of president due to Watergate. Ford assumed the presidency on the same day that Nixon resigned, Aug. 9, 1974. Ford became the only person to be both vice president and president without being elected to the positions.
On Sept. 20, 1974, President Ford selected Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president. Rockefeller was confirmed 90-7 by the Senate and 287-128 by the House.
Three incidents involve the 25th Amendment and presidential disability. On July 12, 1985, President Reagan underwent a colonoscopy and transferred power to Vice President George H.W. Bush for several hours.
In 2002 and 2007, President George W. Bush transferred power to Vice President Dick Cheney during two colonoscopies.
The presidential disability provisions were considered twice during the Reagan administration but were rejected. On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by a deranged assassin. Reagan was incapable of turning over powers to his vice president, and vice president Bush decided not to invoke the powers even though Reagan was not capable of governing for several days.
In 1987, outgoing Chief Donald Regan warned incoming Chief-of-Staff Howard Baker to be ready to invoke the 25th Amendment. Regan and other staff members were concerned that the president was disengaged from his duties and spent much of his time watching movies.
Baker summoned close aides to the president and they all agreed to carefully monitor the president at a luncheon meeting the following day. The president was alert and funny and Baker considered the debate over. “This president is fully capable of doing his job.”
One of the concerns over the 25th Amendment is its potential for misuse. In 1964, three years prior to the adoption of the 25th Amendment, 1,000 psychologists said Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was not psychologically fit to be president. Goldwater sued and won. In 1973, the American Psychological Association adopted the “Goldwater Rule,” barring members from making a diagnosis without doing an in-person exam.
The Goldwater Rule did not stop 50,000 mental health professionals from signing a petition stating that Trump is “too seriously mentally ill to perform the duties of president and should be removed under the 25th Amendment.” I suspect these “liberals” let their politics get in the way of science, much like Republicans do with climate change.
Responding to a letter to The New York Times from a retired Duke psychology professor that Trump was a “malignant narcissist,” an Emeritus professor at Duke Medical School responded that Trump “may be a world-class narcissist, but that doesn’t make him mentally ill. … The antidote is political, not psychological.”
Finally, Jeff Greenfield of CNN, commented that attempts to remove Trump under the 25th Amendment for mental health reasons are a “liberal fantasy.”
Part II: Will Trump be dumped? Impeachment.
Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg specializing in Florida politics and elections.