The time has come for the appropriate members of the United States government to invoke the 25th Amendment to protect the people from their own president. President Trump has spent weeks lying to the American public, sowing discord, and urging them to act out against the United States. On January 6th, his wishes were granted, his orders were accepted, and a thousands-strong mob took up arms against its own government.
The president’s dangerous rhetoric and call to arms led a group of individuals to attack the national legislature, and in the process put at risk the lives of several members of the line of succession: Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley. Americans watched in horror as domestic terrorists—fueled by an unstable president and QAnon conspiracy theories—invaded the Congress, stopped its constitutionally-required operations, all while the public was unsure as to the safety of the individuals who sit first, second, and third in line for the presidency.
As lives were lost, improvised explosive devices were left on the Capitol grounds, and law enforcement took hours to push back the insurrection, the president effectively did nothing. His supporters had license from their leader. Previous messages to “stand back and stand by” were activated, and the president of the United States spurred his voters to attempt a legislative coup. It was fitting that pictures from the Capitol showed some individuals carrying confederate flags, as they—just like Southern states 160 years prior—took up arms against their own government.
America is not helpless in this moment. There is a means for the government to protect the people from Donald Trump. The vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can use Section IV of the 25th Amendment to declare the president unfit for office. And he is. It would not throw out the results of the 2016 election, as some would argue. It would reinforce that the people elected someone who swore an oath, that person has violated that oath, and the 2016 election selected a vice president to stand ready to fulfill the office if necessary. It is now necessary for Mike Pence to become acting president.
The process is a complicated one, but it is one that would allow a Republican with allegiance to his country, rather than allegiance solely to himself, to serve out the remaining days of this administration. If the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet declare the president incapacitated, the transmit that message to the Congress, and the powers of the presidency transfer to Mike Pence. The president can notify Congress that he is no longer incapacitated, and once again the vice president a majority of the Cabinet can once again notify Congress that the president remains incapacitated. At that point, the decision of presidential incapacitation rests with Congress, which will debate the issue and if a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate agree with presidential incapacitation, the powers of the presidency will remain with the vice president.
Those are tough institutional hurdles to overcome to protect the United States, but they are necessary. There is no doubt that Mike Pence has allegiance to the country; he demonstrated that yesterday by filling his constitutional role of counting the electoral votes that will ultimately end his tenure as vice president. That same faith in allegiance does not apply to the president. Instead, a feckless and dangerous president colluding with his underqualified children cast in an all-too-real reality show to run a government continued—even in the middle of an insurrection—to call those taking up arms against the government “patriots.” They are not. They are domestic terrorists who threatened the operations of government and the lives of some of the highest-ranking individuals in the U.S. government—Democrats and Republicans. Given Donald Trump’s stoking the flames of sedition, it is hard to imagine there are many Cabinet members and members of Congress who believe the country is in better hands under Donald Trump than it would be under Mike Pence.
The next 13 days may be dark and dangerous ones for this country, and Donald Trump has shown that he is willing to do anything, risk everything, and violate his oath of office and allegiance to the country to advance his own self-interest. There is a caretaker ready to step in and guide us through this period, Vice President Mike Pence, and the 25th Amendment provides the framework to do it. We have a Republic, if the Cabinet and Congress can keep it.
Former Brookings Expert
Director of the Office of Cannabis Policy - Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services
The upshot is an environment in which the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies have to engage with an ever more challenging world, even as they’re on shaky ground at home. This can fuel doubts among our allies and overconfidence among our adversaries, and leave us all more vulnerable as a result.