he presidency of Donald Trump has proved to be an exceptional civics lesson, turning Trump’s enemies into experts on laws—Emoluments Clause, the Logan Act, the Hatch Act—that, two years ago, few apart from the Senate librarian could have identified. No obscure part of our code has awakened more fascination than Section 4 of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967. As we all know, it allows for the president to be removed from office if the vice president, a majority of the Cabinet, and a majority of Congress decide he or she is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Steve Bannon has told Trump it is a greater threat than impeachment, my colleague Gabriel Sherman reports. And, in the last few weeks, it has become a common topic of conversation in Washington. In the wake of Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, much of the country has been dreaming aloud about Amendment XXV, Section 4, consulting iPhones for exact constitutional wording and debating the character of Mike Pence.
This is the palace-coup amendment of the Constitution. Chances of it being deployed against Donald Trump in his present state are close to zero, for two reasons. The first is that it’s almost impossible to execute, and it will destroy those who get behind it, even if they succeed (to say nothing of if they fail). The second is that an official palace coup against Trump is barely necessary, at this point. In many ways, it has already happened.
Here’s when you make use of the 25th Amendment in a normal White House: the president has been obviously and suddenly incapacitated. Perhaps he (or she) has collapsed in public and failed to regain consciousness, or he has gone all Jack Torrance with an axe in the White House Rose Garden, or he is obsessively repeating “hold me, Rupert” every time a Fox host asks him a question. It’s a time when everyone in the country would understand why the vice president had to step in and take over, even if the president was resisting. Above all, it’d be a time when no subterfuge was required, because the emergency would be obvious.
Now is not such a time. An emergency can be genuine, but, politically speaking, it isn’t obvious unless the country is in near-unanimous agreement about it. We’re not in such agreement. Therefore, Cabinet officials would have to operate behind the scenes, in deep stealth. Logistically, in Washington, this is very, very hard. Government e-mails are not private, and private ones are tough to hide (and, officially, forbidden, which does matter at least a little). Cell-phone conversations have just about every intelligence service in the world trying to listen in, from London to Taipei. Meetings and schedules are tracked by journalists. Plus, everyone and everything in Washington leaks. You could sing alone in the shower and see an account of it in tomorrow’s Post. (To be sure, Pence could also break openly with the president and ask his colleagues, in public, “Who’s with me?” But that’s a bit unlikely, too.)
Even if Pence were to succeed in harnessing a group of Cabinet officials, or Cabinet officials were to form a conspiratorial majority and end by drafting Pence to take action, the coup leaders would have to accept that their careers were, effectively, done. In politics, loyalty remains a cardinal virtue, and the taint of involvement in a conspiracy against the chief would lead, fairly or not, to ostracism in Washington and elsewhere. The public wouldn’t renominate or re-elect Pence after he came to power in such a fashion, for fear of seeming to endorse such a precedent. Those who participated in the ouster would be hated by Trump’s loyalists for betraying the boss, and scorned by Trump’s enemies for having been caught up in this White House in the first place. The sinecures that reward former Cabinet officials would be scarce. Most people recoil instinctively from betrayal, even if the cause is justified.
Now let’s consider reason two. Who needs a palace coup? What can be easy for people to forget, because the White House is always a big deal, is this: Trump is a weak president. He has low approval ratings. He has little control over his own party. He has almost as little control over his own White House. His chief of staff, John Kelly, has curbed his boss’s media diet, and Kelly also keeps a close watch on who gets to see the president and what gets said. Calls that once went through to the president now get blocked by the White House switchboard. Trump also spends less and less time in the office, according to Axios, often clocking in at 11 A.M. and out about five hours later. The rest of his day—what aides call “executive time”—is supposedly spent at home making calls and watching TV, which suggests that a lot of Americans are better prepared for the presidency than we’d known.
Trump says that he tweets because “it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair ‘press,’ now often referred to as Fake News Media.” But he also does it to get around his own handlers, few of whom endorse his spontaneous ructions. Since Trump’s posts are increasingly getting treated like shells on the Western front—alarming but constant, and therefore to be ignored—they, too, underscore his diminishing power.