DIGITAL ORIGINAL: Impeachment vs. the 25th Amendment — what are they and how are they different?

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President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Politicians and civilians around the nation are calling for President Donald Trump’s removal from office after rioters stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, saying the president’s rhetoric encouraged his supporters. The two methods that have been proposed for his removal are invocation of the 25th Amendment or impeachment.

The 25th Amendment

Social media users may have seen the hashtag #25thAmendmentNow trending on Twitter today. Many have called for the invocation of the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Adopted in 1967 after the assassination of President Kennedy, the 25th Amendment was partly intended to clarify the line of succession for the presidency and vice presidency, explains Fletcher McClellan, professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.

Section 1 of the amendment states that the vice president takes over if the president leaves office by resignation or death. Section 2 lays out a process for selecting a new vice president in that case. And Section 3 explains how the president can temporarily transfer presidential authority to the vice president in the event that he/she is unable to perform the duties of the office.

The first 3 sections of the 25th Amendment have all been invoked occasionally since it was ratified. For example, former President George W. Bush employed Section 3 while undergoing anesthesia. The fourth section of the amendment, though, has never been used before, and that is the section that has gained significance recently, explains McClellan.

Section 4 of the 25th Amendment lays out a process by which the vice president and members of the Cabinet can transfer authority from a sitting president to the vice president. “This is when the president shows signs that he’s unfit, cannot carry out office,” says McClellan.

Many have called for Vice President Mike Pence and Cabinet members to invoke this section of the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office until President-elect Joe Biden fills the position in two weeks.

What would invoking the 25th Amendment look like?

First, the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet would declare in writing to Congress that “it is their belief that the president is unable to perform the duties of office,” explains McClellan. If the president doesn’t respond, then the vice president becomes acting president.

However, the president may write a letter disputing that claim, declaring that he/she is fit to hold office. After that, the vice president and majority of the Cabinet can write the third declaration, stating again their belief that the president is not able to continue serving in that role, explains McClellan.

At that point, the vice president becomes acting president, but Congress must meet to decide who will retain the position.

Congress has 48 hours to convene after receiving the letters from the president and vice president. They then have up to 21 days to decide who will ultimately hold the presidential office, McClellan says.

If it reached this point in the case of President Trump and Vice President Pence, McClellan says, “Since we only have like 13 days to go, Pence could probably be acting president for the remaining 13 days” until President-elect Biden is inaugurated.

Once the issue makes its way to Congress, two-thirds of both the House and Senate need to declare that the president is unfit in order for him/her to be removed from office.

Impeachment vs. the 25th Amendment

In addition to calls to invoke the 25th Amendment, some have urged the impeachment of President Trump. Rep. Ilhan Omar says she is formulating articles of impeachment against the president.

After President Trump’s impeachment last year, many are likely familiar with the process. McClellan recaps: A majority of the House must vote to initiate the impeachment trial in the Senate. After the trial, a two-thirds majority of the Senate must vote to convict and depose the president.

One difference between the 25th Amendment and impeachment is the justification for the president’s removal, explains McClellan.

In order to be impeached and convicted, the president must commit “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” according to the U.S. Constitution.

However, under the 25th Amendment, the vice president can assume presidential power if “the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” “That’s really vague,” says McClellan, “and it’s highly subjective…so it’s much broader just to trigger the process.”

Another difference, McClellan explains, is that impeachment and removal ultimately requires fewer votes — it requires a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate, whereas if the 25th Amendment were to reach Congress, two-thirds of both the House and Senate would need to vote to remove the sitting president.

One other notable difference between impeachment and the 25th Amendment is that an impeached and convicted president cannot hold office again, says McClellan. The 25th Amendment does not specify whether a president removed from office through the processes laid out in the amendment can run for re-election.

The process of invoking the 25th Amendment may change who holds presidential authority more quickly than impeachment, notes McClellan, but both processes could easily take more than two weeks to fully play out.

Which raises another question: If President Trump were to be impeached before he leaves office, what happens if the trial lasts beyond Jan. 20, when President-elect Biden is inaugurated? McClellan says, “your guess is as good as mine.”

Fletcher McClellan, professor of political science at Elizabethtown College / Photo courtesy of McClellan

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