The 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides an avenue for a president to be removed from the helm of government -- temporarily or for good, willingly or not -- when necessary under extraordinary circumstances. At times during President Donald Trump’s tumultuous term, his critics have cited the amendment approvingly, even wishfully, while reviewing what they consider his erratic behavior. Now the amendment is being discussed again, this time after Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19.

1. What does the 25th amendment say?

It clarifies that the vice president becomes acting president when a president becomes unable to carry out his duties -- when, say, the president undergoes major surgery. It also provides that a president can be removed if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet determines he or she is “unable to discharge the powers and duties” of the office. If the president contests the finding, and the vice president and cabinet persist, Congress can order the president’s removal by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

2. Why does this even exist?

To address some questions about presidential and vice presidential succession that the Constitution didn’t specifically answer. For instance, when President William Harrison died in office in 1841, there was a debate over whether Vice President John Tyler would become acting president, or president, or officially remain vice president. (Tyler decided on his own to have a judge administer the presidential oath of office.) The 25th amendment was approved by Congress in 1965, and ratified by the requisite three-quarters of U.S. states by 1967, in response to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the immediate confusion following the shooting of Kennedy, there were tense questions about who would run the country should he survive but only in a semiconscious or otherwise grievously wounded condition.

3. Has the amendment been used before?

Presidents have voluntarily invoked it to temporarily hand control to their vice presidents. George W. Bush did it twice in order to undergo medical procedures, and Ronald Reagan once, for colon surgery. The amendment has never been used to permanently remove a sitting president. The amendment also covers instances in which the vice presidency becomes vacant and has been used twice for that purpose. (Before the amendment took effect, the U.S. occasionally went long periods without any vice president.) In 1973, after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign because of tax-evasion charges, President Richard Nixon nominated Representative Gerald Ford to become vice president. He was approved by the House and Senate. After Nixon resigned the following year, Ford became president and nominated Nelson Rockefeller, a former governor of New York, as vice president. He was confirmed by Congress.

4. How has the amendment been discussed under Trump?

The New York Times and ABC News reported in 2018 that the previous year the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, had discussed recruiting cabinet members to invoke the amendment to remove Trump from office. (Rosenstein denied the account and told the Times he saw “no basis” to invoke the amendment.) Weeks earlier, the Times had published an op-ed by a person identified only as “a senior official in the Trump administration” who wrote, “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until -- one way or another -- it’s over.”

5. How might it be used if Trump becomes incapacitated?

If Trump were to decide that he’s unable to carry out his duties, he could voluntarily use the amendment to empower Vice President Mike Pence to take charge. In such a case, the handover would last until the president declared he was fit again. If Trump suddenly took a turn for the worse and had to be sedated before he could invoke the amendment -- or if he resisted using it -- Pence and a majority of the cabinet could force the issue, potentially provoking an objection from Trump and a deciding vote by Congress.

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