Invoke the 25th Amendment–Now

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington, U.S, January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Editor's note:

This piece was originally posted in Foreign Policy.

On Wednesday, a white racist and Trump supporter carried the odious Confederate flag triumphantly into the halls of the U.S. Congress, something not even the Confederate Army achieved amid the terrors of the Civil War. On the grounds of the sacred U.S. Capitol building, four Americans lost their lives and scores more were wounded. The building was vandalized, defiled, desecrated, and literally stained with the blood of those seeking to dismantle American democracy. All of this happened at the moment when the country’s elected representatives were fulfilling their duty to confirm the election of a new president. It was harrowing to watch.

After four years of seemingly unending outrages, it’s time. U.S. President Donald Trump must go, and the vice president must rescue the country’s democracy by leading the cabinet in invoking the 25th Amendment. After a long series of offenses—a list that would exceed the space available here—the culmination of Trump’s criminal attempts at election tampering and his incitement of insurrection on Wednesday lead us to the point of an unavoidable national reckoning.

Under the 25th Amendment, if a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments concur, the vice president can remove a president who is incapacitated or physically or mentally unable to perform their duty. The president can then appeal to Congress. Today, invoking the 25th Amendment is about the behavioral unfitness of a president who refuses to accept the outcome of the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election, who failed to mount any credible legal challenge to the results, who has stoked a sense of electoral thievery among his credulous supporters, and who, in so doing, has created a crisis of confidence in the sanctity and integrity of the U.S. electoral process. It’s about a president who, over New Year’s weekend, consciously and intentionally sought to intimidate and coerce Georgia election officials to fabricate sufficient votes to change the state’s count in his favor.

Yes, there is the option of impeachment as well, which must be considered as another legal path for holding Trump accountable—again. But that will simply take too long to avert impending disaster.

In his final two weeks as president, what else might Trump be capable of? No one could have imagined what transpired on Wednesday, and with Trump, worse is always conceivable. Given the immense power of the office of president of the United States, including command of the world’s most powerful military, Trump’s capacity to do even greater damage to the United States and the world still remains within his reach. After the events of Jan. 6, he must be immediately separated from the authorities vested in him as the nation’s commander in chief. Only by invoking the 25th Amendment can that be done quickly enough to prevent the next outrage, quite apart from his access to the nuclear arsenal.

Trump’s rapid removal would send the unambiguous message that U.S. democracy as a form of government remains intact, just as a shaken but undaunted Congress acted immediately after the riot to certify Joe Biden’s forthcoming presidency. Our children and grandchildren must see both of these dimensions of democracy at work: that the United States remains intact as a constitutional democracy and that no one is above the rule of law. The world—including allies who share this moral view, illiberal leaders who’ve seized control of their own democracies, and the authoritarians and the totalitarians—must see that America is about the higher principles of liberal representative government, human rights, and the rule of law. The recent decision by Facebook and Twitter to ban the president from their platforms—indefinitely in the case of Facebook—speaks to these very principles.

In the aftermath of Trump’s brutal violation of the civil rights of demonstrators in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., I wrote last June: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment. The president of the United States stood in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday, railed against weak governors and mayors who were not doing enough, in his mind, to control the unrest and the rioters in their cities, and threatened to deploy the U.S. military against American citizens. It was a stunning moment.”

When I wrote these words, I could not have imagined the events that took place on Jan. 6. The reasons for some Americans’ dissatisfaction and anger are complex and deserve our full and undivided attention, especially if we are ever to walk the path toward national healing, reconciliation, and unity. But the president’s actions on Wednesday demand collective outrage and swift action. He should not be permitted the privilege and honor of completing his term. The vice president and cabinet must act—and act now.