Could the 25th Amendment Really End Trump’s Presidency?
Even by the standards of Donald Trump’s highly unconventional presidency, the United States is entering the northern hemisphere autumn of 2019 in a state of political chaos.
Congressional committees are ramping up investigations into the president’s actions before and after his election, with a growing number of representatives calling for impeachment. Aided by court rulings, the investigating committees are inching closer to Trump’s financial, business and tax records — a “red line” that Trump has sworn he will never allow Congress to cross.
On the international front, after a rambling, undisciplined performance at the G7 Summit, Trump canceled a visit to Denmark over the country’s refusal to sell Greenland to the US. (Denmark has never suggested that the self-ruling island territory is available for purchase by the US or any other nation.) In the wake of these and other incidents of erratic behavior, former Trump aides and allies are now questioning his fitness for office.
Meanwhile, Trump’s escalating trade war with China increasingly fuels fears of a global recession. And even though the next US presidential election is still over a year away, polls showing major Democratic candidates with double-digit leads over Trump have sparked tirades from the president directed at the media.
Assuming that he remains in good physical health and does not resign, the Trump presidency could last until January 2025 under the US Constitution. However, to survive until then, he will have to withstand multiple clear and present threats to the continuation of his presidency. As Trump’s former chief strategist allegedly warned in 2017, the greatest of those threats might ultimately come from within the president’s inner circle.
The Constitutional Two-Term Limit for US Presidents
Article Two of the US Constitution specifies that once elected, a US President shall serve a term of four years. Prior to 1951, however, there was no limit to the number of times that a president could seek re-election, and hence no limit to how long a president could stay in office. Nevertheless, presidents traditionally limited themselves to being elected to the office twice.
Historians trace this tradition to the decisions by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the first and third presidents of the US, not to seek election for a third time. However, Washington did state that he would have willingly continued serving as president if he had believed that the nation needed him.
In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) cited national need when he broke from tradition by seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president for the third time. With World War II raging in Europe and the US just beginning to climb out of the economic depths of the Great Depression, FDR expressed a deep belief that it was his duty to continue serving, rather than subject the nation to the uncertainty of a transition of power.
FDR went on to win the 1940 presidential election, and the 1944 election as well in spite of serious health concerns. However, he died of a brain hemorrhage just 11 weeks into his fourth term in office, so his presidency lasted just over 12 years in the end. In spite of FDR’s enduring popularity, many US political leaders feared the precedent that his extended time in power had set. In 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, limiting US Presidents to two elected terms.
Although Trump has occasionally suggested that he might serve more than two terms in office, it is safe to say that will not happen. The only mechanism that would allow him to seek a third term would be the ratification of a new constitutional amendment repealing the 22nd Amendment. Even the very popular Ronald Reagan failed to gain any meaningful support for his pursuit of that goal.
Therefore, the last possible day that Trump could serve as president is January 20, 2025 — the date when the president elected in 2024 will be inaugurated. So why did sources report in October 2017 that former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon believed Trump had only a “30% chance” of completing a single term in office?
Trump Allies Troubled by His Statements and Behavior
In recent months, both politicians and the media have described Trump’s statements and behavior with words like “unhinged”, “erratic” and “irrational” with increasing frequency. Business Insider asserted that the president’s press conference at the recent G7 Summit showed that “he’s living in a totally different reality” from other world leaders.
Shortly after the G7 Summit, Trump’s announcement that he planned to purchase Greenland for the US as a “real estate deal” drew ridicule from Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Frederiksen called the proposal “absurd” in a tweet, adding to reporters, “I persistently hope that this is not something that it seriously meant.” She explained that as a self-ruling territory, Greenland is not Denmark’s to sell.
More recently, for no apparent reason, Trump incorrectly tweeted that the state of Alabama stood in the path of Hurricane Dorian and might unexpectedly suffer severe impacts from the storm. To prevent panic, the US National Weather Service moved swiftly to correct the president’s error:
The issue would likely have died quickly if Trump had simply acknowledged the error or apologized for using outdated information. (Early “spaghetti map” projections of Dorian’s potential paths had indicated a slight risk to Alabama.) Instead, Trump staged a bizarre response. In a presentation in the Oval Office, he held up a map showing a projection of the possible path of the storm, which appeared to have been altered with a black marker.
Such behavior has prompted multiple former Trump aides and allies, including Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, to openly question the president’s fitness to serve. Scaramucci served as White House Communications Director for 10 days during Trump’s first year in office. He is now urging members of Trump’s Cabinet to take steps to invoke the US Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.
Revoking a President’s Powers Under the 25th Amendment
Ratified in 1967, the 25th Amendment states that if a majority of “principal officers of executive departments” (that is, members of the Presidential Cabinet) notify the US Congress that the president is incapable of fulfilling the duties of the office, then the vice president will immediately assume the powers of the presidency.
If this scenario were to occur, Trump could — and almost certainly would — assert in response that he actually is fit to continue serving as president. His fate would then be decided by Congress. The amendment dictates that Trump could resume serving as president unless both houses of Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) declare that he is indeed unfit to serve by a two-thirds majority vote. In that case, Vice President Mike Pence would become Acting US President until the 2020 election.
Given that Trump himself appointed all of his Cabinet members, a majority vote against him by those officials is not likely to occur. More importantly, to obtain a two-thirds majority vote in both congressional houses that Trump is unfit for duty, Democrats would need the votes of at least 56 Republican representatives and 20 Republican senators.
Although Trump’s national approval ratings have hovered around 40% throughout most of his time in office, he still has the approval of well over 80% of Republicans. If Republican members of Congress were to vote against Trump in a 25th Amendment scenario, they would likely encounter intense retaliation from within their own party.
Therefore, for the present at least, Trump’s continuing popularity with his Republican base provides a strong bulwark against having his powers revoked under the 25th Amendment. However, Trump might have additional reasons for defending his inaccurate tweet about Dorian. Knowingly publishing a misleading weather prediction is actually a federal crime in the US.
With Trump already under investigation for multiple potential crimes and constitutional violations, even a small legal infraction will add to a growing fervor for impeachment proceedings in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. Impeachment is a separate path to ending a presidency from the 25th Amendment, requiring no cooperation from the Cabinet.
The 2020 election also looms on the horizon, and American voters have historically turned against presidents if the national economy sags. In short, the 25th Amendment threat is just the first of multiple hurdles Trump will have to clear in order to serve two terms in office.
Up next: How the presidential impeachment process works in the US, and the cases for and against the impeachment of President Trump. (Subscribe to stay in the loop!)