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The foolish fantasies of the 'Impeach Trump' crowd

The Week logo The Week 5/19/2017 W. James Antle III

President Trump. © REUTERS/Carlos Barria President Trump. Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as the special counsel overseeing the Russia probe has muted, at least a bit, and at least for now, the clamorous calls from the left to impeach President Trump. Nonetheless, millions of liberals throughout the country are surely still salivating over the prospect of impeaching our scandal-plagued president.

Sorry to disappoint you, but it's almost certainly not going to happen.

To remove Trump from office via impeachment, you need a two-thirds majority of the Senate. Even if all 48 Democrats and Democratic-aligned independents voted in lockstep to impeach, you'd still need 19 Republican senators to join them. That's a fantasy — at least based on what we know now, both about Russia and about the GOP-held Senate. It probably wouldn't even happen if, as Trump himself once imagined, the president shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.

Remember, neither of America's impeached presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, was actually convicted and removed from office via such a Senate vote. Why? Because it's really, really hard to do.

Still, such obstacles haven't stopped people from proposing an even more convoluted path to kicking Trump out of office: invoking the 25th Amendment of the Constitution.

Drafted in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination — which made heart attack victim Lyndon Johnson the president, and left two senior citizens next in the line of succession — and ratified during the Cold War, it deals with the subject of presidential disability or incapacity.

Section 3, allowing the president to temporarily transfer power to the vice president, has been invoked three times. Each case was exceedingly temporary and involved colonoscopies. But it's Section 4 that Trump's critics have in mind. Here's how it begins:

Whenever 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, transmit to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the vice president shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as acting president. [25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution]

Voila! President Mike Pence.

Remember, though, that this section has long been taken seriously but not literally, as the Trump-era catchphrase goes. It was intended for situations in which the president was incapacitated but unwilling or unable to transfer power. It wasn't even invoked after Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.

But okay: What if the vice president and the Cabinet decided the president is simply "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office," not due to illness, injury, or some other problem but simply because he is, well, unable?

That's the case many critics are making against Trump. And they're definitely not all liberal critics.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — one of the country's leading conservative writers and thinkers — argues that Trump's "incapacity to really govern, to truly execute the serious duties that fall to him to carry out, is nevertheless testified to daily — not by his enemies or external critics, but by precisely the men and women whom the Constitution asks to stand in judgment on him, the men and women who serve around him in the White House and the Cabinet."

Douthat isn't wrong ... until you think about the implication of him calling to remove Trump using the 25th Amendment. Giving a mostly unelected group of people the power to sideline the president because in their subjective judgment he is not good at his job? That doesn't sound like an amazing precedent to set, even if you are among the many who share that judgment, especially by people who are constantly complaining about Trump's subversion of democratic norms.

Maybe the fact that "self-selected loyalists" would make the initial decision, rather than a hostile opposition party in Congress, would be a safeguard against this precedent being abused. But the characteristics that Trump's successors would have to share with him to be vulnerable to 25th Amendment abuse aren't just his flaws. Any outsider president who brings insiders into his government could be at risk of a palace coup.

It's entirely plausible that Trump blurted out classified intelligence to impress the Russians. It's equally believable that Syria hawks inside the administration who don't want to work more closely with Russia on ISIS leaked an unflattering portrayal of such information-sharing. We don't really know.

Suggesting Trump's removal via the 25th Amendment is all but unprecedented. The only comparable 25th Amendment chatter came not in connection to a man-child president like Trump — it was regarding the politically sainted Ronald Reagan. According to his presidential biographer Edmund Morris, Reagan's penultimate White House chief of staff, Howard Baker, was advised per Washington conventional wisdom that the 40th president was "inattentive, inept," and "lazy" and should be ready to invoke the amendment against him.

Western voters are increasingly responding to elite indifference and technocratic failures by voting for dubious populist candidates. It does not seem terribly wise for elites to respond to that by using obscure constitutional mechanisms (in this case, that have never previously been utilized for their intended purpose) to negate the masses' electoral choices.

Finally, this scheme wouldn't actually make it easier to be rid of Trump. The 25th Amendment "solution" needs a two-thirds majority in the Senate, too — oh, and also a two-thirds majority of the House. Otherwise, the transfer of power is temporary. So much for all that.

Throughout the last two years, smart people have laid out sober cases for Trump's unfitness for office, only to offer procedural gimmicks, wishful thinking, and play-acting in response to the challenges he poses.

Trump has a problem with reality. So, too, do his critics.

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