Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in to the office of the Presidency aboard Air Force One in Dallas, Texas, hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
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By Jennifer Calfas
September 6, 2018

In a scathing, widely shared opinion piece in the New York Times on Wednesday, an unnamed senior Trump administration official claimed a number of employees have “gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.”

Those great lengths, the unnamed official wrote, included discussions to invoke the 25th Amendment — an attempt to remove President Donald Trump from office that must be prompted by the majority of his cabinet members and Vice President.

“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,” the senior official wrote. “But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.”

In fact, the reason why that amendment exists was to address a different potential for crisis in government.

The 25th Amendment became part of the Constitution after it was ratified by 38 states in 1967. As TIME noted when the Amendment turned 50, it “officially answered a question that had plagued the United States ever since its founding: How could the country make sure that there would always be a capable person at the helm of the ship of state?” Though it was known what would happen if the President died, that wasn’t the case if he couldn’t do the job for another reason, such as illness or injury.

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But, though the question was clear, the early life of the amendment was complicated, as the article explained:

President Johnson, who had come to the White House under extraordinary circumstances following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, knew that the time had come for a solution to be put in place. In January of 1965, he had sent a message to Congress noting that it was largely luck alone that the U.S. could thank for thus far avoiding a catastrophic situation in which a President was incapacitated but not dead. Following a run of other officials who had suggested the same, he called for a Constitutional amendment that would address the matter.

“On at least two occasions in our history, and perhaps others, American presidents — James Garfield and Woodrow Wilson — have for prolonged periods been rendered incapable of discharging their Presidential duties,” he wrote. “On sixteen occasions in our thirty-six Administrations, the Office of Vice President has been vacant — and over the two perilous decades since the end of the Second World War, that vital office has been vacant the equivalent of one year out of four.” (He also noted that the Constitution did not provide for the possibility of subversion of the Electoral College as a possible problem with Presidential succession.)

As TIME noted, the amendment came amidst a flurry of tweaks to the Constitution, during which residents of Washington, D.C., got the vote in Presidential elections and poll taxes were banned. The 25th Amendment as it eventually passed did not take on all of Johnson’s suggestions, but it strove to address his top two concerns…

The amendment was soon put to the test.

An effort among some in Washington to push to have President Richard Nixon declared incapacitated prior to his resignation had not gone anywhere, but the scandals of the early 1970s did call for the use of the amendment as a means of replacing the Vice President. The resignation of embattled Vice President Spiro Agnew in late 1973 led Nixon to pick Gerald Ford to be his new Vice President, under the terms of the 25th—which was invoked once again only about a year later, when Nixon’s resignation put Ford in the White House, leaving the Vice Presidency open for Ford to name Nelson Rockefeller to the post.

Ronald Reagan would put the amendment to use as well, in 1985, when he declared that George H.W. Bush would be in charge while he was unconscious during a surgery. (George W. Bush did the same during his time in office.) And, to those worried about the consequences of Reagan’s place as the oldest President in U.S. history at the time of his election — a superlative he has since given up to Donald Trump — the Amendment offered a safety valve. One TIME columnist surmised in 1984 that, thanks to television, the world would “instantly” detect presidential infirmity in a way that would past ailing presidents managed to avoid.

Read the whole piece here on TIME.com

How the 25th Amendment Works

Here’s how TIME explained the mechanisms of the Amendment in 1967, right after it was ratified: “Under the amendment, an incapacitated Chief Executive can himself declare in writing that he is unable to continue in office, and the Vice President can take over—at least temporarily. If an ailing President is unable or unwilling to step aside voluntarily, the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet can send a written statement to Congress declaring that the President is incapable of holding office. If the President were to challenge such a resolution, Congress itself would vote on the question. The amendment also authorizes the President to appoint, and Congress to confirm, a new Vice President if a vacancy occurs in that office.”

The amendment has four sections that deal with four possible situations: what happens if the President dies or resigns, what happens if the nation needs a new Vice-President, what happens if the President decides “that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” and what happens if it is decided by “the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” that the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

“Once, perhaps, we could pay the price of inaction. But today in this crisis-ridden era there is no margin for delay, no possible justification for ever permitting a vacuum in our national leadership,” Johnson said upon its ratification. “Now, at last, through the 25th amendment, we have the means of responding to these crises of responsibility.”

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