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Perhaps President Trump will govern like a genius and manage to fulfill in some measure his campaign pledge to Make America Great Again. Or perhaps our worst fears will be realized and bizarre behavior will become impossible to ignore. If we reach that point, an important question will become: Even if Trump does not commit high crimes or misdemeanors, can he be removed from the presidency?
In drafting the Constitution, our Founding Fathers spent much more time contemplating how to select a president than how to get rid of one. The Succession Clause in Article II specifies that in the case of a president’s “inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office,” his powers devolve to the vice president. The framers left it to Congress to work out further details.
Only after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, when concerns were raised about the advanced age of those in the line of succession, was the matter clarified through the enactment of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment. It sets up two paths for dealing with an incapacitated president who cannot or chooses not to declare himself unfit. The determination could be made by the vice president together with “a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments,” or by some “other body as Congress may by law provide.”
It might seem churlish to bring this up now, but not terribly long ago, we were in a phase of perpetual astonishment at how someone with so many obvious signs of narcissistic personality disorder and impulse control disorder could come so far.
Even those favorably disposed toward Trump were expressing fears about his equilibrium. “Our candidate is mental! Do you realize our candidate is mental?” is what Ann Coulter had to say about Trump back in March. “When you act as if you’re insane, people are liable to think you’re insane,” wrote Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal in August. In the same newspaper just this month, The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson, while holding open the possibility of a “successful presidency,” worried that “unfortunately, the candidate who campaigned as a sociopath shows signs he may yet govern as one.”
Some of those signs — more properly, symptoms — remain manifest. “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!” Thanks to tweets like that, doubts about Trump’s mental stability have never gone away. His preoccupation with his “many enemies,” coupled with his claim that the intelligence community has been engaged in a “witch hunt” against him— “something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do” — suggest elevated levels of paranoia particles in his cerebrum.
The verdict on Trump’s mental status, of course, will be out for some time. And it’s conceivable that there is more method than madness here: The tweets and other headline grabbers could be well-calculated diversions in the service of an objective not yet apparent to those Trump watchers who do not comprehend his tactical brilliance. On the other hand, Trump’s flabbergasting stream-of-consciousness address to the CIA suggests some degree of detachment from reality.
However close we are to a problem, presidential incapacity in a 70-year-old man will never be out of the question. It has certainly been an issue in America’s past, mostly from physical causes.
In 1813 James Madison was laid low by a fever — probably from malaria — that kept him critically ill for three weeks. When James Garfield was shot by an assassin in 1881, he lingered near death for 79 days before succumbing to his wounds. In the worst episode of presidential disability, Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke that was kept hidden from the public for a staggering 519 days.
Dwight Eisenhower had a massive heart attack in 1955, and then a stroke in 1957 that left him briefly unable to speak. Eisenhower acted responsibly and drafted a letter, made public at the time, giving Vice President Nixon the power to decide whether to assume presidential power if he was again incapacitated and could not communicate.
In the post-25th Amendment era, the issue resurfaced most dramatically with the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan while Vice President George H.W. Bushwas incommunicado on an airplane. That’s when Secretary of State Alexander Haigblurted out his notorious — and notoriously incorrect — pronouncement: “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House.”
But incapacitation by insanity is not something we have much experience with. Perhaps the closest we came is in 1974, as the Watergate scandal was closing in on Nixon, when he began drinking heavily and close aides worried about his mental status. The 25th Amendment was not invoked, yet Defense Secretary James Schlesinger violated the chain of command and ordered the military to intercept all emergency orders, especially any involving nuclear weapons, and convey them to him or to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for clearance.
None of these precedents but the last is pertinent to the situation we’d face if President Trump went off his Oval Office rocker. Though it is impossible to forecast how such a dangerous scenario would play out, we do know this: “25th Amendment” would be the two words on everyone’s lips.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law. Follow him on Twitter @gabeschoenfeld.