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The 25th Amendment: Could Trump be removed from office before Joe Biden's inauguration?

Republicans and Democrats have floated the idea of removing Trump from the White House.

Trump has been criticised by Republicans and Democrats after yesterday's events
Trump has been criticised by Republicans and Democrats after yesterday's events
Image: Evan Vucci

THE UNITED STATES is officially in the final throes of Donald Trump’s presidency.

This morning, Joe Biden’s victory in last November’s election was formally affirmed and Vice President Mike Pence declared that the president-elect will be inaugurated on 20 January.

But events on the floor of the US Congress were secondary to the political terror that had occurred hours earlier in the Capitol building in Washington DC.

One woman was shot dead by police, dozens were arrested, 14 officers were injured and general chaos ensued when scores of Trump supporters stormed the building and forced the Capitol into lockdown while politicians convened to certify the election result.

The president’s role in yesterday’s events proved the final straw for some Republicans, who suggested that Trump could be removed from office before Biden’s inauguration in less than two weeks’ time.

Four elected officials who spoke to CNN called for the 25th amendment of the US constitution to be invoked, claiming that Trump’s actions were bad enough to remove him despite his minuscule time left in the White House.

Members of the president’s own cabinet reportedly discussed the move last night, while several Democratic members of Congress also urged Pence to declare Trump unfit to continue leading the country.

But invoking the 25th Amendment would be a tricky process that may not be worth the political hassle it would cause.

What is the 25th amendment?

Under the 25th amendment to the US constitution, a US president can declare they are unable to carry out their duties, or members of government can decide this for them.

If this happens, the vice president becomes president, even just temporarily (for example, if the president is sick or incapacitated for a short time).

There is also a section of the amendment that deals with the election of a new vice president if a sitting vice president resigns, dies or is removed from office.

The amendment was introduced after the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, when Congress felt it was important to decide upon a plan for presidential succession.

It contains four sections outlining how succession would work in various scenarios, including a president or vice president’s removal from office or death, and what happens with the vice presidential vacancy when one arises.

The first three of these sections have all been used (following the resignations of Richard Nixon and his former vice president Spiro Agnew, and while Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were temporarily incapacitated because they were undergoing surgery). 

However, section 4 – the section of the amendment being spoken about in relation to Trump – has never been used.

To declare the president unable to do his job, the vice president must agree to such a move, as must the majority of the members of a presidential cabinet or another body decided upon by Congress.

If neither the president or the vice president are deemed able to fulfil the president’s duties, Congress can also decide who takes over instead.

Why is it being discussed in relation to Trump?

The president was heavily criticised for his role in yesterday’s chaos, which followed months of baseless claims that November’s election was fraudulent and attempts by Trump to invalidate results or have officials “find votes” in states which voted for Biden.

At a White House rally yesterday, Trump urged thousands of supporters to descend on the Capitol after telling them once again that he had lost to Biden due to massive fraud.

Hours later, after images emerged of his supporters causing mayhem inside the Capitol building, Trump released a video statement asking the protesters to go home – while also telling them that he “loved” them and that they were “very special”.

Democrats were quick to blame the president for his role in what happened, with a number calling for the 25th Amendment to be invoked last night.

pro-trump-protest-in-washington-us-06-jan-2021 Protesters during a rally in Washington yesterday Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Some Republicans were also angered by Trump’s actions. One former official told CNN that the series of events were “a huge shock to the system”.

“How do you keep him in place for two weeks after this?” they asked.

Trump’s remarks contrasted sharply with those of his vice president Mike Pence, who described the actions of protesters as “violent and destructive”.

“Peaceful protest is the right of every American but this attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he tweeted as demonstrators remained inside the building.

Will it happen?

Despite reports that Trump’s Cabinet has held preliminary discussions about invoking Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, it is unclear if Pence – who is a vital part of the process – has been involved.

The timing may ultimately prove a political obstacle too.

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The clock is already ticking towards the official end of Trump’s presidency on 20 January, and an attempt to remove him from office before then would likely lead to more protests by his supporters, potentially stoked by the president himself.

Section 4 was also drawn up to deal with the president becoming incapacitated, and analysts have suggested that Pence and others would be reluctant to invoke it under current circumstances because doing so would be in bad faith.  

Even if Pence and members of the president’s Cabinet agreed to invoke Section 4, Trump could legally fight their efforts by writing a letter to Congress declaring himself fit to remain in office.

The vice president and Trump’s Cabinet would then have four days to reply to that letter, which would mean Congress would have to vote on what happened next. That would require a two-thirds majority - 67 senators and 290 Representatives members – to pass.

Between the length of time the process takes and the potential for further unrest, even those in favour of invoking Section 4 might consider it just isn’t worth doing so.

A second option being considered is another impeachment.

Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar announced on Twitter last night that she is drawing up articles of impeachment, claiming that Trump needs to be removed from office to preserve US democracy.  

But the length of time the impeachment process would take – Trump’s previous impeachment hearing took around 7 weeks – is likely to prevent this happening.

Ultimately, it appears likely that Trump will still be the president by the time Biden is about to be sworn in later this month.

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