Is Trump Unfit for Office? The Constitution Says Yes

A woman holds up a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Getty

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution may define the conditions for suspending a president's authority, but it does not constrain the reasoning behind it.

As written, the amendment states that if a president "is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office," the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can suspend him. Historically, such an inability was attributable to illness or medical problems, but, in light of President Donald Trump, I offer we expand our interpretation: Medicine aside, it is clear Trump is unfit to serve, and lawmakers must invoke the 25th Amendment against him.

Fears of physical disability were certainly foremost in bringing about the amendment. Going back to at least the 1890s, when President Grover Cleveland had surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his jaw, the country had been in jeopardy of being governed by a chief executive who had lost his physical capacity to lead the nation. In 1919-1920, when a stroke immobilized Woodrow Wilson, and his wife largely ran the executive branch, Americans worried about finding a way to overcome temporary or permanent presidential incapacity.

Franklin Roosevelt's tenure in the White House added to the sense of urgency about replacing a disabled president. By 1944, it was clear to people around Roosevelt that his health was in decline and that he might not live out a fourth term, which proved to be the case.

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Donald Trump in the Oval Office last February. The president hasn't even signed the GOP tax bill and he’s already talking about infrastructure legislation. Getty

Ten years later, in the midst of the Cold War, when Dwight Eisenhower served in the Oval Office and suffered a heart attack that temporarily sidelined him, the need to do something about presidential health became more compelling, or so it seemed to the country's governing authorities. With Lyndon Johnson in the White House, and questions swirling about his rationality in response to the stalemated war in Vietnam, political leaders from both parties saw the wisdom of passing the 25th Amendment.

Years later, in 1981, after Ronald Reagan had been shot and temporarily incapacitated, and then in 1998, when I revealed John F. Kennedy's hidden medical problems that surely would have barred him from the presidency in 1961, people were all the more convinced that we could no longer turn a blind eye to a presidential candidate's or a sitting president's ability to conduct the affairs of state.

In all this, however, nothing was explicitly said about questions of personal temperament to acquit one's presidential duties. There were glimmerings of this concern not only with LBJ but even more so with Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis in 1973-74. Rumors about Nixon's excessive drinking, as the crisis engulfed him, raised fears that the country was in jeopardy of dangerous presidential actions. The country had to wait until Nixon's taped conversations reached the public 30 years later before it understood the extent to which Nixon's irrationality had put the nation in peril. In a drunken stupor, he had slept through an unauthorized decision by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and White House chief of staff Al Haig to raise the country's defense condition (or DEFCON) in response to a Soviet threat to interfere in the Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The rise of Trump to the presidency now brings the question of presidential competence back into focus. Trump's stumbling performance in his first 11 months represents a new low in the history of the modern presidency. It cannot be chalked up to medical disability, at least not at this juncture, but Trump is vulnerable under the amendment anyway.

First, Trump is untrustworthy. He makes promises he cannot keep, such as building a "beautiful" wall on the southern border. Second, he lies repeatedly—about the size of his inaugural crowds, the 3 to 5 million illegal voters in the 2016 election, Barack Obama's birthplace and his voice on the Hollywood Access tape. Most recently, he has denied ever meeting the women who came forward Monday to accuse him of sexual harassment, and said they were lying. This brings me to my third point: Trump's accusers are credible. In the #MeToo era, sexual misconduct should certainly be among the clearest evidence of presidential incompetence.

These shortcomings have made Trump the most unpopular first-year president in history: He has never won 50 percent support, either in the 2016 election or in opinion polls since taking office.

It is difficult to explain Trump's poor record of leadership, though it might be the result of inexperience and unwise policies that command the support of only 35 to 40 percent of the country's voters. But more compelling is the likelihood that we are dealing with someone who is indifferent to how almost all presidents have behaved in the recent past.

Trump is unable to discharge the powers of the presidency, as we understand the presidency. In other words, the presidency is part and parcel of a functioning democratic government, and Trump is unable to act in the interest of that democracy. His untrustworthiness, lying and appalling behavior demonstrate time and again his contempt for the duties of the office and the rule of law.

The 25th Amendment offers to the vice president and Cabinet the possibility of suspending Trump's presidential authority. They could justify it as a guard against imperiling the country's stability and national security that preserve our democratic system. (Of course, special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and the apparent cooperation of Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, may bring a halt to Trump's presidency by a different route.)

We cannot know what people will say in the future about Trump and his presidency. But I suspect many historians like myself will see him as the least-qualified man to hold the office since Harding in 1921-1923, despite Trump's insistence to the contrary.

To date, Trump has nothing to celebrate as a notable achievement. The best that can be said for Trump is that he's extremely ineffective at governing. At worst, though, he lacks the temperament to lead a great nation. He can and should be replaced by his vice president. In short, Trump lacks the wherewithal "to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

Robert Dallek is an emeritus professor of history. He has taught at Columbia, UCLA, Oxford, Boston University, Dartmouth and Stanford in Washington. He is the author of a dozen books. His latest is "Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life."