By Jon Meacham
He couldn’t have put it more plainly. On April 13, 1965, in the midst of a congressional debate over the proposed 25th Amendment to the Constitution dealing with presidential succession and incapacity, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, dispensed with high-minded legal arguments. They were there, Celler said, to figure out what might be done if the unthinkable–a deranged American President with nuclear weapons–became thinkable. “The President may be as nutty as a fruitcake,” Celler declared on the House floor. “He may be utterly insane.” And for this reason, America needed a plan.
Advertisement - story continues below
Ratified two years later, the amendment offered the country just that. And now, half a century on, the subject of whether President Donald Trump could face a removal from power under its terms is one of an ever widening conversation. “The 25th Amendment is a concept that is alive every day in the White House,” said Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, on NBC’s Meet the Press. White House officials have strongly denied this–but, as ever, the President himself has managed to keep the issue alive by tweeting about his mental stability.
Is the 25th Amendment chatter simply a liberal fantasy? A #resistance fever dream? Political porn for wonks? Almost certainly, but we live in a world in which the outlandish (a President Trump) became a reality, so who’s to say where our political melodrama will end? It’s highly unlikely, but this unprecedented presidency could lead to unprecedented constitutional ground: the invocation of the boring-sounding yet world-shaking Section 4 of the 25th Amendment–a provision that enables the Vice President, with a majority of members of the Cabinet, to declare the President unable to discharge his duties, thus installing the Vice President as acting President pending a presidential appeal to, and vote by, the Congress.