The 25th Amendment formally outlines the transition of
power if the president is unable or unfit to serve.
Section IV allows the vice president and a majority of
the Cabinet to remove the president from office.
Americans have been particularly interested in the
amendment since President Donald Trump took office.
Americans have been brushing up on their knowledge of the
Constitution during Donald Trump’s presidency, according to
Google Trends data.
The search term “25th Amendment” spiked
in popularity after Trump took office, particularly after he
controversial travel bans, and after he tweeted an
edited video of him body slamming CNN in July. Lately,
interest has rejuvenated amid the release of the explosive book,
“Fire and Fury” — whose author,
Michael Wolff, said that the amendment was
brought up “all the time” in the White House.
But Trump himself reportedly
didn’t know what the 25th Amendment did. When former adviser
Steve Bannon told him it posed the biggest threat to his
presidency, according to Vanity Fair, Trump said, “What’s that?”
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Congress
proposed and the states ratified the 25th Amendment in 1967 to
formally outline the transition of power. Before that, the vice
president didn’t officially have the power to take over.
The amendment states that if the president dies, resigns, or is
removed from office, the vice president becomes president. If
there is a vacancy in the vice presidency for any reason, the
president can choose someone to fill it. And if the president is
unable to fulfill his duties — like when President George W. Bush
under general anesthesia for colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007 —
he can temporarily transfer his powers to the vice president, and
get them back when he’s done.
A legal loophole
Under the amendment’s fourth stipulation, it would only take 14
people to depose the president — Vice President Mike Pence and 13
Trump’s 24 Cabinet members.
Section IV reads:
“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.”
John D. Feerick, former dean of Fordham Law School, is one of
the chief architects of the 25th Amendment who shepherded it
through Congress in the early 1960s.
He told Business Insider in March that the senators who signed
the provision into law specified that declaring the president
unfit must rely on “reliable facts regarding the president’s
physical or mental faculties,” not personal prejudice.
“If you read the debates, it’s also clear that policy and
political differences are not included, unpopularity is not
included, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness, or impeachable
conduct — none of that, you’ll find in the debates in the
congressional record, is intended to be covered by Section IV,”
Policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment,
incompetence, laziness, or impeachable conduct — none of that is
intended to be covered by section IV.
Section IV goes on to say that if two-thirds of both houses of
Congress don’t vote to uphold the decision and keep the vice
president in charge within 21 days, then the powers and duties
automatically transfer back to the president. So if the president
doesn’t want to give up his office, Feerick explained, he doesn’t
have to if Congress agrees he shouldn’t.
Akhil Reed Amar, a leading constitutional scholar at Yale
said in a podcast for the National Constitution Center on the
topic that the president’s own running mate is the one who
triggers a “palace coup,” in order to maintain political
“The 25th Amendment doesn’t try to specify in great detail what
might count as a disability, but does try to in effect identify
who and how we go about the process,” Amar said. “Here’s the key
point: The vice president is the pivot in the whole process.
Unless the vice president puts himself — maybe one day, herself —
forward, no one else can really basically, at least within the
25th Amendment framework, proclaim an unwilling president
The idea is that the Cabinet and VP are the president’s closest
advisers, Feerick said, so they would be the ones with the best
sense of his mental faculties. They, and Congress, could also
consult doctors to evaluate the president’s physical and mental
health in order to determine if he or she is fit for the job,
though they don’t have to.
The 25th Amendment is a separate process from
impeachment, which allows Congress to remove a sitting
president if a majority of the House of Representatives votes
that he has committed treason, bribery, or other high crimes and
misdemeanors, and a trial in the Senate convicts him.
In either case, legal scholars argue, the goal is to make the
process as objective as possible.
“In a time like this of unusual crisis, one had to count on
leaders in the executive branch and Congress to really be
patriots, not partisans,” Joel K.
Goldstein, a constitutional expert at St. Louis University,
said at a
symposium that Fordham Law School hosted in September.
Feerick, who didn’t discuss applying Section IV to Trump, said he
hopes this renewed interest in the Constitution will encourage
Congress to consider filling some of the
legal gaps in the amendment that
he and other legal scholars have proposed over the years.
For example, the Constitution doesn’t outline what happens if the
vice president is unable to serve, and he and other experts agree
that the order of succession shouldn’t
include members of Congress as it does today.
“It’s important that people be educated about the Constitution.
It’s our greatest charter of liberty,” Feerick said. “I’m really
happy that there’s greater education going on — I’m obviously not
happy about all the division in the country — but I’m happy that
at least there’s greater education being provided about the