Opinion writer

I’ve not favored using the 25th Amendment as a means for dislodging an unfit president. For one thing, we shouldn’t medicalize behavior for political reasons, and for another, they’ll be no end to claim of mental impairment if we allow the phrase “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” to become synonymous with poor performance. Moreover, the Founding Fathers had a solution for removing unfit presidents: impeachment in cases of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” If read correctly, the impeachment mechanism covers a range of misconduct well beyond illegality.

Nevertheless, I’ve maintained that if President Trump ever becomes unable to function, that is, suffers some breakdown, then the 25th Amendment is not only an acceptable means of proceeding but required. Remember that this is no easy road either, requiring the vice president and a majority of Cabinet officers (or other designated people) to trigger removal and a “two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” to keep him out if he insists on returning.

The likelihood of “success” is therefore remote when the issue is mental/psychological incapacity, but that does not mean it should be dismissed out of hand. Three questions immediately come to mind.

First, are we there yet or are we close? Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) opened the door and should be obliged to explain the basis for his concern that Trump has us on the road to World War III. Does Trump not understand the magnitude of nuclear war? Is he unable to comprehend advice he is being given? Does he refuse or lack the ability to focus on serious matters of state?

Gabriel Sherman’s story is unnerving on this point:

[Corker’s comments] brought into the open what several people close to the president have recently told me in private: that Trump is “unstable,” “losing a step,” and “unraveling.”

The conversation among some of the president’s longtime confidantes, along with the character of some of the leaks emerging from the White House has shifted. There’s a new level of concern. NBC News published a report that Trump shocked his national security team when he called for a nearly tenfold increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal during a briefing this summer. One Trump adviser confirmed to me it was after this meeting disbanded that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron.”

In recent days, I spoke with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods. Trump’s ire is being fueled by his stalled legislative agenda and, to a surprising degree, by his decision last month to back the losing candidate Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. “Alabama was a huge blow to his psyche,” a person close to Trump said. “He saw the cult of personality was broken.”

The administration has denied the NBC report. That said, it’s incumbent upon those charged with the most serious national security threats —  the Senate Intelligence Committee or House and Senate leaders of both parties, for example– to speak to Corker and to those who observe the president daily, including the vice president, chief of staff, secretaries of defense and state, and the national security adviser, to get a handle on what we are dealing with. Perhaps the discussion of Trump’s tailspin is hyperbole; Trump could be of perfectly sound mind and simply be the worst, most unfit person to hold the office. But there is good reason to take available evidence seriously. Responsible members of Congress should also reach out to ex-White House staff. And, very conveniently, the president has nominated current deputy chief of staff Kirstjen Nielsen for the open secretary of the Department of Homeland Security slot. She will undergo a confirmation hearing (in public and behind closed doors). Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee would be negligent not to inquire about the president’s mental and emotional state of mind.

Second, Trump has never released his full medical history. Congressional leadership could and should urge him to do so, and if need be pass legislation to that effect. Republicans in the recent past have talked about requiring the president to get a yearly medical checkup, including a mental health exam. Trump could raise a fuss and threaten to veto any legislation, but that would certainly raise questions.

Finally, it is essential, just as it is in the impeachment context, that Vice President Pence remain above reproach and untainted by Trump’s antics. He must balance loyalty to the president with the possibility that he may at some point need to act in Trump’s place. He may be called upon to invoke the 25th Amendment if, in laymen’s terms, Trump “loses” it. As such, he should remain far from political stunts (like the NFL charade), eschew electoral politics, avoid defending the president’s antics and concentrate on his legislative duties and on representing the country abroad. He no longer can behave as just another Trump lackey.

In sum, we do not know the president’s mental state, but that does not mean those with real concern and constitutional obligations should avoid addressing the issue. If not now, at some point sooner than many imagine, Stephen K. Bannon’s prediction may prove true. The Congress, Cabinet and vice president should prepare themselves accordingly.

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