After an attempted coup of the United States Capitol by President Donald Trump’s far-right followers, members of Congress began calling for yet another impeachment trial or for Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment.
Never before has there been a need to implement the Amendment, unlike the process of impeachment which, to date, has been used during the presidencies of Trump, Bill Clinton, and Andrew Johnson.
The Amendment is divided into four sections, all of which deal with presidential succession in cases of death, resignation, removal, or illness:
In case of death or resignation, the Vice President will succeed the President for the remainder of the term,
The President will nominate a new candidate for Vice President in the case of a vacancy, who will be confirmed by both Houses,
If the President submits a written declaration of his own unfit ability to carry out the duties of his office, he will be succeeded by the Vice President, until the President thus submits a contrary document,
And, finally, in the case where the President is unable to perform his duties, the Vice President may submit a written declaration to the House and Senate, upon which he would assume the role of President.
Although not new, the issue of succession sparked a greater sense of urgency upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His sudden death prompted Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to take the oath of Presidential office only two hours after his death. This raised the question: did the Vice President really have the authority to succeed the President? Although there had been such precedents in the case of William Henry Harrison's death 31 days after his inauguration, after which point his Vice President John Tyler took office, the Constitution left no instruction.
The fourth section is most pertinent to the current situation in the White House, outlining the procedures necessary in cases where the Vice President considers the President unfit to serve in his position. The Amendment stipulates a process which involves a statement from the Vice President to the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House which outlines reasons for the current President’s inability to serve.
Although Section IV of the Amendment has never actually been invoked – given its relatively recent addition in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson – situations where someone has had to step into the role of President are not unprecedented. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush signed temporary control over to their respective Vice Presidents during surgeries and after suffering a stroke, the remainder of Woodrow Wilson’s term was taken on by his wife, Edith.
The question remains, however, of how to decide whether a President is unfit and unable to carry out his duties. According to an Op-Ed published by The New York Times in 2018, whispers of invoking the 25th Amendment have already circulated with White House aides describing Trump as “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless”. So, if Section IV of the Amendment had been privately brought up so early on in the Trump administration, why was it never seriously considered? The answer lies with Vice President Mike Pence whose unwavering loyalty to the President had never been thrown into question until insurrectionists stormed the Capitol earlier this month.
The original agenda for both the House and Senate that week included addressing final disputes on electoral votes, which would officially confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s win. The Vice President’s statement, released before the proceedings, stated that through the Constitution he is unable to “claim[ing] unilateral authority to determine which Electoral votes should be counted and which should not”. To this, Donald Trump promptly tweeted:
“Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
When both chambers reconvened after regaining control of the Capitol there was a new sentiment of dismay amongst even Republican lawmakers. Many lawmakers wondered if this condemnation of Pence, who acted in line with the Constitution and not the interests of the President, along with inciting the insurrection is enough for the Vice President to invoke the 25th Amendment. The House was called to vote on a measure that would pressure Pence and the rest of the Cabinet into invoking Section IV. It was, however, unlikely that the Vice President would do so given the limited time left before the inauguration, set to take place on 20 January.
Despite hesitancy surrounding the Amendment, several lawmakers were also pushing for a second impeachment trial for Donald Trump. The President was successfully impeached on 18 December 2019 but was acquitted the following February by the Senate. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urgently pushed for impeachment if Pence failed to invoke the 25th Amendment. Impeaching Trump a second time would deter his ability to run for office a second time.
However, this has caused divides within the Democratic Party. Democrat from Minnesota, Rep. Dean Phillips worries the effect an impeachment trial would have on the Biden administration, whereas Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) proposed a delayed trial after Biden’s first 100 days. Although this option would leave the Senate less occupied to deal with the new administration’s plans, it would weaken the urgency of the belief that Donald Trump remains a volatile and unpredictable threat.
With so little time left in the Trump Administration, American lawmakers were faced a difficult choice. There are also concerns that measures to remove the President through, either the 25th Amendment or a second impeachment trial, would incite more violence during what is supposed to be a period of peaceful transition of power. An impeachment trial will continue into the Biden administration, hindering the President-elect’s desire to focus principally on COVID-19 and the economy.
As of 18 January 2021, the Vice President opted out of invoking the 25th Amendment and Donald Trump was impeached for "incitement of insurrection" and "lawless action at the Capitol".