The 25th Amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, provides the procedures for replacing the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacitation. The Watergate scandal of the 1970s saw the application of these procedures, first when Gerald Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president, then when he replaced Richard Nixon as president, and then when Nelson Rockefeller filled the resulting vacancy to become the vice president. Read more from the Congressional Research Service here....
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
President Donald Trump displays behavior that is questionable for one holding the highest office of the land and well as the world. No other president has acted-out in public as he continues to act-out. At times his public behavior mimics that of a sociopath and inveterate liar tweeting incessantly on matters that should be private--restricted to his Kitchen Cabinet in the White House or to his chief advisers, not to be pitched on social network. However, Mary Graham in Presidents' Secrets: The Use And Abuse Of Hidden Power (2017) allows comparisons between Trump's irrational behavior and that of President Woodrow Wilson's behavior after he "suffered a severe stroke"--and a foundation for secret government was adopted.
On Thursday, October 2, 1919, Dr. Cary Grayson, President Woodrow Wilson's physician exclaimed, "My god, the President is paralyzed." He had been discovered by his wife Edith Wilson semiconscious on the bathroom floor. Grayson and Edith helped the president back to the large mahogany bed, where he world remain confused, weakened, and paranoid for the remaining eighteen months of his term. With his wife and doctor, he managed to keep his stroke secret from his vice president, his cabinet, and members of Congress, world leaders, and fellow Americans.
Graham posits that the Constitution provides no guidance about when a disabled president should step down or who should make that decision. Article II, Section 1, says only: "In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President." "What is the extent of the term 'disability' and who is to be the judge of it?" John Dickenson of Delaware had asked his fellow delegate at the Constitutional Convention, more than one hundred years earlier. The question remained unanswered.
The Constitution's silence, an imperious first lady, a conflicted doctor, an intimidated vice president, a solicitous cabinet, and the power of secrecy allowed an incapacitated president to remain in office.
Even before World War I, Wilson had shown little tolerance for dissent. The former college professor and Princeton University president championed a remarkable array of progressive policies--lower tariffs, a Federal Reserve banking system, a federal Trade commission antitrust laws, a graduated income tax, and child labor and workers' compensation laws. With his carefully combed gray hair, rimless glasses, and piercing blue eyes, Wilson looked the part he had played so well--the nation's teacher.
But two years before the United States entered the European war, Wilson began giving fiery speeches that linked the misdeeds of a few violent anarchists and German agents to the legitimate activities of law-abiding citizens--workers trying to improve wages and hours, pacifists and other dissidents expressing principled objections to war, socialists peacefully questioning capitalism, and residents of German descent or citizenship going about their daily lives.
Wilson had no intention of making lasting changes in the United States' culture of openness His limited aim was to solve two pressing problems. He wanted to convince a comfortably isolated nation to spend vast resources rearming in order to enter a European war that posed no direct threat to the American people. And he wanted to convince a public that included German business, political, and artistic leaders that that nation--and even those individuals--had become the enemy.
Wilson, a student of history, suggested that intolerance was an inevitable part of war. "Once lead this people into war," Wilson told the editor of the New York World as he prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war, "and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man on the street."
Wilson successfully urged Congress to approve the espionage legislation that he had proposed while the nation was at peace. His bill was so broadly worded that it was used during and after WWI to prosecute political opponents and antiwar protesters, and with amendments, is still employed a hundred years later to prosecute government employees who leak classified documents to the press.
The Espionage Act of 1917 placed limits on free speech that set the stage for peacetime restrictions. And The sedition Act of 1918, an amendment proposed by the White House and strengthened by the Senate Judiciary committee, made it a crime to willfully use disloyal language about the government, the flag, or the military when the nation was at war, and allowed the postmaster to return to senders any mail that violated the act, stamping it "Mail to this address undeliverable under the Espionage Act."
These laws suggested three aspects of the growing power of secrecy. First secrecy blocked constitutional checks. Investigations could not be monitored by Congress, the courts, the press, or the public because their targets and procedures were secret. Second, secrecy fostered fear and intimidation, making it uncertain whether its critics might themselves become targets. Third, secrecy invited abuse.
Although the War was over, the nation was still in crisis when Wilson suffered a massive stroke. Overnight, the nation lost its leader--without knowing it. The most remarkable deception in presidential history became a tragic display of another dimension of executive secrecy--a president's power to keep secret his mental and physical incapacity to govern, an issue not fully resolved today.
A Physician's Dilemma
At 11:00 a.m. on October 3, the day after the president was stricken, Dr. Grayson issued the first of what would became a daily drumbeat of uninformative statements. "The President had a fairly good night but his condition is not at all good this morning," and at 10 p.m. followed by a similarly hopeful diagnosis.
Grayson was caught on the horns of a dilemma. Grayson held the information that the cabinet and the congress needed in order to make a constitutional determination of presidential disability. As a physician treating a very sick patient, Grayson was obliged to respect Wilton's privacy. As physician to the president of the United States, Grayson was obliged to inform the nation when its chief executive could no longer carry out his duties. Neither the constitution nor Congress provided guidance about how to reconcile these conflicting obligations.
Lies & Self-Delusion
Only the president's wife and his doctors knew the extent of Wilson's impairment. Strong-willed, possessive, and convinced that staying in office would encourage her husband's recovery. Edith Galt Wilson controlled the flow of information. Wilson had married Edith four years earlier, after his first wife, Ellen, died of Bright's disease.
The morning after Wilson had his stroke, secretary of State Robert Lansing and the president's longtime secretary Joseph Tumulty were told by Grayson that the president was suffering only from nervous exhaustion. It would be weeks and perhaps months before he could resume work, but his mind was unaffected.
Edith Wilson and Grayson organized a routine to conceal the president's condition. Wilson remained in bed. No visitors were allowed. Gilbert close the president's confidential secretary, was banished. Secretary of State Lansing never saw Wilson again. Eleven days after the president's stroke, Attorney General Palmer told the New York Times that no member of the cabinet knew any more about the president's condition than appeared in the newspapers. Even his closest aide, Tumulty, was not allowed to see Wilson for several weeks. Newspapers reported that the president suffered from "nervous exhaustion" and "might be definitely on the road to recovery."
THE POWER BEHIND THE WILSON PRESIDENCY
Graham posits that the role that Edith created for herself after Wilson's stroke became an unconstrained extension of her effort to be part of Wilson's work when he was well. When they were courting, she wrote to Wilson: "How I wish I could help you in a practical way." She wanted him to let her "take some of the responsibility." She began by asking him for daily updates on confidential matters. Wilson was soon sending her official papers to read just as he sent them to his cabinet. He assured her that "whatever is mine is yours, knowledge of affairs of state not excepted."
Once they were married, Edith waged full-scale campaigns to depose advisers she didn't like. When Wilson agonized over William Jennings Bryan's resignation as secretary of state, Edith wrote to Wilson, "Hurrah! Old Bryan is out!" When he proposed State Department counselor Robert Lansing as Bryan's successor, she complained, "He is only a clerk isn't he?" In fact, Lansing was the department's second most senior official. When Wilson explained that Edward House was the only person with whom he could talk freely, Edith tried to eliminate him. When he was healthy, the president gently rebuffed these accusations. When she referred to Bryan as a traitor, Wilson responded, "My how I like you ... And how you can hate too."
Early in their marriage, Edith established a routine. Each morning she brought the president papers he needed to sign from a drawer where his advisers left them. She sometimes accompanied him to meetings with advisers, cabinet members, and foreign dignitaries, and worked hard to school herself in the issues they would discuss. Press reports at the time observed that show was much more active in her husband's duties than were earlier first ladies.
After his stroke, Edith became a self-appointed gatekeeper. She explained in her memoir, "I began my stewardship. I studied every paper ... and tried to digest ... the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President." Asked by reporters how she decided what issues to raise with the president, she said, "I just decided ... I talked with him so much that I knew pretty well what he thought of things."
Without knowing it, the American people had elected and reelected a president who was a very sick man. But then, as now, no law required candidates to tell voters about their physical or mental health. More than twenty years earlier, in May 1896, when he was forty, Wilson suffered a stroke that caused weakness in his right hand. Ten years later, when he was president of Princeton University, he awoke one day blind in his left eye because of a burst blood vessel. An eminent neurologist, S. Weir Mitchell, who examined him when he was elected president in 1912, predicted he certainly would not survive his first term, a prediction that may not have been published at the time.
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HEALTH AND WEALTH OF THE NATION & THE 25th AMENDMENT
Presidents' secrets about their physical and mental capacity remain a recurring issue. There had been earlier instances of disability that were not shared with the American people. But no one broached the question of removing him from office. Nor would Wilson's incapacity in office be the last. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the constitution, approved by the states in 1967, did not entirely solve the problem. Congress proposed the amendment after the assassination of President Kennedy raised concerns about the health of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had suffered a heart attack eight years earlier. The amendment provided that a president could be removed from office by himself declaring his temporary or permanent disability or by his vice president and majority of his cabinet (or another group designated by Congress) declaring disability. The amendment also provided for congressional review and approval of presidents' appointments to fill vice presidential vacancies.
However, the amendment did not resolve the two most difficult issues concerning presidents' physical or mental incapacity. It relied on the president, vice president, or cabinet to declare the president disabled. And it did not require that the president's doctor provide information about the president's health to the vice president, the cabinet, or the public information on which a judgment of disability might be based.
Graham cautions that Congress has never acted on proposals to supplement the judgment of the president's personal physician with a medical committee, to require that evidence of incapacity be quickly discorded, or to require physical exams and health histories for candidates for the presidency and vice presidency with results disclosed to the public.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Graham cautions that voters often know little about the health of presidential candidates when they go to the polls. Revealing medical records remains a matter of choice. Candidates usually provide some information about their health voluntarily, but the completeness and amount of detail vary widely. In 2015, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump released letters from his doctor that provided few specifics. The Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also released a letter from her doctors summarizing his good health. In 2008, Democratic candidate Barack Obama released six paragraphs summarizing his previous twenty-one years of physical exams along with a statement for his physician attesting that he was in excellent health. Republican candidate John McCain allowed reporters a laughable three hours to review more than 1,100 pages of medical records. George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis set a better example in 1988, when each candidate allowed his physician to discuss his medical histories with at least one reporter, Lawrence K. Altman of the New York Times, himself a physician. Bill Clinton revealed less about his health during his presidential campaign than any nominee in the previous twenty years, according to Altman.
Graham sums: Woodrow Wilson's need to solve immediate political problems, his low tolerance for dissent, and his failure to restrain zealous department heads led to fears of hidden conspiracies that justified new kinds of government secrecy. Walled off from constitutional checks, secret programs and practices continued to expand without clear limits after he left office.
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