In the second season of the TV thriller “24,” President David Palmer declines to order a strike against several Middle Eastern countries after receiving a tape recording of their officials plotting with a terrorist to build a bomb. Palmer thinks the recording is a fake, and it turns out that he’s right.
But Palmer’s vice president and Cabinet are itching for war, and they decide he is acting “irrationally” by holding his fire. Invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” they vote Palmer out. He is eventually returned to office, of course, but not before the United States bombs a few places on false pretenses.
OK, so it’s Hollywood. But it also warns us against the casual use of the 25th Amendment, which was designed to protect us against presidents who are disabled rather than against those with whom we merely disagree.
And that brings us to President Donald Trump. Ever since he fired FBI Director James Comey, raising the specter of obstruction of justice, some critics have called for impeachment. Others have suggested Trump might be removed because of his personal qualities, whether he broke the law or not. Trump’s impetuous and irresponsible behavior, the argument goes, reveals someone who simply lacks the capacity to serve as president.
But Trump’s behavior hardly constitutes evidence of an illness or infirmity. And to see why, we need only look at presidents who were actually disabled.
Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. During his fourth and final term, Franklin Roosevelt become so enfeebled that he could not bathe or shave himself. But the Constitution didn’t have a provision for removing an infirm president who refused to step down.
All of that changed after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. As New York Times columnist James Reston wrote the next day, nobody really knew what would have happened if Kennedy “had lingered for a long time between life and death, strong enough to survive but too weak to govern.”
Hence the 25th Amendment of 1967, which allows the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to recommend the removal of a president who is unable to function as one. If the president objects, the House and Senate can confirm the recommendation by a two-thirds vote.
The amendment was aimed at presidents who were unmistakably handicapped rather than incompetent or unpopular, as congressional debates over it reveal.
New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy argued that the amendment might become a political weapon to remove any president for any reason.
Not to worry, replied Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh. “We are not getting into a position . . . in which when a president makes an unpopular decision, he would immediately be rendered unable to perform the duties of his office,” said Bayh, the chief author of the amendment.
Perhaps the post-Comey investigations will show Trump colluded with Russia, which could be cause for impeachment. But incapacity is something else altogether. Do we want to set a precedent in which we remove presidents for their infirmities, however ill-defined? Where would that end?
Trump has run roughshod over some of America’s most cherished norms and traditions. Now his enemies are doing the same thing, by invoking an amendment for purposes that its authors expressly renounced.
Go ahead and impeach the guy, if he has done something to deserve that. But stop trying to pretend he’s incapable, when what you really mean is that he’s despicable.
The future of the presidency could hinge on the difference.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.