[political explainer] Is Pelosi staging a coup?

US House Democrats introduced legislation to form a “commission” to weigh in on the fitness of the President to serve. President Trump went nuts. Is this a Congressionally led coup?

TL;DR: No.

The 25th amendment, which clarified the Presidential line of succession and lays out certain rules under which the Vice President may temporarily assume the duties of the Presidency, has always allowed for a Congressionally established “body” to assess the President’s fitness, and even lays out rules for how that body operates.

Congress just never got around to, um, making it. And even if they do (which they won’t, due to the current Senate), it’s a long shot from a “coup.”

First, some background.

The Constitution spells out several situations, including death or inability to serve, under which the Vice President “assumes the powers of the Presidency.” But it was never clear on whether that was simply an assumption of power, or if the Vice President became the President. This is an important distinction, because if the VP is merely Acting President, then we can’t appoint a new VP, which leaves us with one person in the White House and no backup.

The 25th Amendment makes clear that in cases of the President’s death or resignation, the VP becomes President, and can therefore appoint a new VP to be confirmed by the entire Congress. In all other situations, the Veep is merely Acting President, and the OG Prez can return to power.

But the 25th goes a few steps further.

It also lays out a process whereby the President may, temporarily and in writing, assign their duties to the VP and then retake those powers later. This is useful if the Prez is going under the knife in a hospital, for example, and this clause has been used for that purpose several times.

The 25th also outlines a process whereby the President may be forcibly set aside for incompetence, although not removed from office, and that’s what Pelosi & Co. are playing with now.

It says that—and read this carefully—the Vice President, along with either (a) a majority of the Cabinet officers or (b) a majority of a body created by Congress for this purpose, agree that the President is incapable of discharging his or her duties, then the VP may assume the powers of the Presidency. Not become President, the import of which we’ve just examined.

It also says that, upon this happening, the President may at any time and in writing retake the powers of the Presidency simply by confirming their ability to discharge their office.

The Vice President can then, in conjunction with either (a) a majority of the Cabinet or (b) a majority of a body created by Congress for this purpose, disagree with the President and permanently assign the powers of the Presidency to the VP until the VP and the aforementioned Cabinet-or-Congressional-commission rule that the Prez is once again able to serve.

I mean, basically, unless the President was unconscious, I don’t see how all of that actually happens.

If you think about it, this is the furthest thing possible from a coup. Congress itself can’t rule on the President’s ability or lack thereof; the legislation Pelosi introduced—which, very notably, has been introduced in Congress before, long before Trump came on the scene—specifies that both the Senate majority and minority, and the House majority and Minority, get to appoint a 10-person panel, which then elects its own 11th person to serve as chair. So it’s impossible for this Congressional body to be overly partisan—both ruling parties get a say in its makeup.

And keep in mind, the VP has to agree with this body twice in order to fully set the Prez aside. The odds of any of this happening are so macro-cosmically slim, I don’t think any of us can see it happening unless the President is obviously, certifiably, unquestionable batshit insane. Like, finger-on the-button and foaming-at-the-mouth clinically crazy, and even then I doubt we could muster the political will.

This Congressional “assessment panel” is not an additional check on either the President or the VP: it’s a check on an untrustworthy Cabinet. In the event the Veep is sane but the whole Cabinet+Prez is whacko, Congress can provide the VP with an alternate assessment body, and that’s it.

So this isn’t a coup, and in fact one wonders why Congress has take so bloody long to implement this element of the 25th Amendment, which was passed in freaking 1967. Except that Congress probably hasn’t felt it was a priority, due to the absolute certainty that it would never matter anyway.

So why is Pelosi doing this now?

Political theater, I suspect. Look, she’ll never get the bill even to the floor of the Senate: McConnell will ensure that. Maybe she’s hoping to win the Senate in the elections, in which case they’ll have to re-introduce the bill again anyway (bills don’t roll over from Congressional session to session). Even if the Senate passed the bill, which it will not, Trump will veto it. Yeah, he can still do that. And even if Congress had a veto-proof supermajority—which they do not, in either house—Pence would never play along and boot his boss, which would be a requirement to actually use this Congressional commission.

So the timing on this just appears to be a way for Pelosi to charge up her base (which frankly doesn’t need it), piss off the Prez (which does tend to throw him off his game for a bit, so there’s that), and piss off the Prez’ base (which needs to assistance in hating Nancy anyway). I’m assuming her goal with this is just to put Trump into a Twitter tailspin for a hot minute, and make him take his eye off the campaign ball for a minute.

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