Has The 25th Amendment Ever Been Used? Well, Yes & No
Back on Oct. 11, Vanity Fair published an explosive report that alleged Donald Trump is, according to White House sources, "unraveling." If those reports are true, and Trump continues to demonstrate that he's losing his grip, there's a chance that the 25th Amendment could be invoked to remove him from office. But has the 25th Amendment ever been used? Well... it's complicated.
First, let's back up and look at what the Amendment actually is. The article allows Congress to remove a president from office, should he suffer from a mental or physical disability, or, as the Amendment states, be "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." In order for the Amendment to be invoked, the majority of the cabinet would need to agree that the president is unfit to serve.
The 25th Amendment also clarifies the line of succession to the presidency, mandating that the vice president, followed by a selection of other government officials, will take over as acting president if deemed necessary.
The rule can be traced back to John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Just hours after Kennedy was shot to death, his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was sworn in as president. Without a constitutional article stipulating line of succession, or a broad rule on what happens to an incapacitated president, Congress realized it had a problem on its hands, and sprung into action. In 1965, the 25th Amendment was passed, and in 1967 it was ratified.
The Amendment has been used three times since — though never to remove a president.
And, as Business Insider points out, every single time was for a physical ailment — not mental incapacity.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan directed then-Vice President George H.W. Bush to take over his presidential duties while he underwent emergency colon surgery. The 25th Amendment was enacted from just before 11:30 a.m, when Reagan went under anesthesia, to 7:22 p.m. that same day.
In the early aughts, President George W. Bush invoked the 25th Amendment twice during his two terms. The first time was in 2002, for a routine medical procedure. The second was in 2007, once again for a medical procedure. For the latter, Vice President Dick Cheney was handed over presidential duties for two hours and 15 minutes.
And prior to the passing of the 25th Amendment, there was another instance of the transfer of the presidential duties — though it was all conducted in a much less official way.
After President Woodrow Wilson suffered two strokes in 1919, it was determined by Congress that he had the “inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office." However, no resolution happened as result. Instead, according to First Lady Edith Wilson's autobiography, the president continued to carry out his duties following his illness (with her help). She wrote,
So began my stewardship, I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.
So basically, it would be a completely unprecedented move for Trump to be actually removed from office because his behavior. Or, unpresidented. Whichever way you want to look at it.
Ironically, Trump apparently was not aware of the 25th Amendment until quite recently.
Two sources told Vanity Fair that former chief strategist Steve Bannon had explain to the president that he shouldn't be nervous about impeachment, but rather the 25th Amendment.
Trump reportedly responded: "What's that?"
West Wing advisers are also reportedly concerned that Trump's visceral, hasty actions and statements could get him kicked out of office. One source told Vanity Fair that Bannon thinks Trump has only a 30 percent chance of making it to the end of his term.
Other sources added that the president is “unstable,” “losing a step,” and “unraveling.” They complained that he is often in a bad mood and has a difficult time remaining focused.
He also apparently told security chief Keith Schiller: “I hate everyone in the White House! There are a few exceptions, but I hate them!”
Erratic behavior aside, the 25th Amendment could be very difficult to invoke — particularly given the fact that it would need Vice President Mike Pence's blessing. Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional scholar at Yale University, explained in a National Constitution Center podcast,
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. 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 "disabled."
Hmmm. The likelihood of Pence — or any Republican in government — declaring Trump "disabled" seems like a stretch at best. But 2017 has been a strange, strange, surprising time, so never say never.