As Washington becomes increasingly engulfed by the spiralling crises in Donald Trump’s presidency, and even prominent Republicans compare it to the dark days of Watergate, even Republican voices have been asking how Donald Trump might be replaced.
Six decades ago, Dwight Eisenhower’s various illnesses stimulated a serious debate in the Congress over this question, but it was not until the 1963 assassination of his successor John F. Kennedy that Congress approved the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, which provided a set of procedures for replacing a president in the event of death, removal (permanently or temporarily), resignation, or incapacity.
This plugged a significant constitutional gap. Although Article II, section one of the US Constitution discusses the issue of presidential succession, it did not spell out how a vice-president would assume the presidency if an incumbent died, resigned or was unable to perform the office’s duty. When Kennedy died, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, had known health issues; the next two people in line for the presidency were 71-year-old House speaker, John McCormack, and the 86-year-old Senate president pro tempore, Carl Hayden.
Ultimately ratified by a majority of the states in 1967, the 25th Amendment’s procedures were first invoked in 1973, when Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned after pleading no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion in exchange for the dropping of political corruption charges. The amendment was triggered again less than a year later during the Watergate affair, after the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives approved articles of impeachment against Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.
Nixon resigned, and his new vice-president, Gerald Ford, was sworn in as the 38th president under section one of the amendment; for his new vice-president he nominated Nelson Rockefeller, whom both congressional chambers confirmed by simple majorities. Thus the nation’s two highest offices were filled without a popular vote.