The anonymous opinion piece in The New York Times from someone inside the White House contained one claim that seemed to contradict itself. After faulting the president’s intelligence and character, after describing a workplace where many are dedicated to minimizing the damage they believe their boss is inflicting on the nation, there was this:
“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.”
As many a late-night comedian quickly saw, that is the equivalent of noting that while fires seemed to be burning in several locations, nobody wanted to break the glass to sound the alarm or get the extinguisher because that would make a mess.
If nothing else, the op ed piece coming a day after similar and more wide-ranging revelations of White House dysfunction in “Fear,” the new book by Bob Woodward, raises the legitimate question of just what the nation should do if there is good reason to conclude that the president is incapable of carrying out the duties of the office. The answer to that question has been in place since early 1967 with language broad enough to cover all contingencies, even those we keep thinking of today as unprecedented.
The immediate inspiration to clarify the means of replacing an incapacitated president was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his replacement by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a man with a history of serious heart problems. At the time the others in the line of succession were the 71-year-old speaker of the House and the 86-year-old president pro tempore of the Senate.
The amendment provided a way for Congress to insert a new vice president which at the time and under the circumstances was about as controversial as an insurance policy. Gerald Ford became vice president and then president and Nelson Rockefeller became vice president under its provisions. Two presidents — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — used it to give their vice presidents temporary presidential status when they underwent surgery.
On the more controversial notion of removing a president from office against his wishes, the amendment offers little guidance beyond stating that it would require a majority of the Cabinet or Congress to declare that the “president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” with no other guidance or definition.
That debate has been taking place on news shows and editorial pages ever since Donald Trump took the oath of office and we now know that it is underway in the White House itself. While the decision to grant anonymity raises several questions about journalism and integrity, it also does a disservice to the nation and the concerns that the author raises.
Continued anonymity brings only more whispers, loud though they may be. Come out of the shadows and there will be no way to avoid engaging Congress and the Cabinet in the process envisioned by the amendment, determining in public the fitness of Donald Trump to continue serving as president.