But these rhetorical questions have answers. Section 4 has not been used against President Trump because—so far, at least—his conduct is not what Section 4 was designed to cover. More importantly, using Section 4 against Trump today likely would not remove him, and it certainly would not do it with swift certainty. Put simply, public understanding of Section 4 is deficient.
Hollywood bears some of the responsibility for this. Because Section 4 has never been used in real life, most people’s understanding of it has been shaped by fictional depictions they have seen on TV shows like 24 and Designated Survivor—depictions with deep, deep flaws. To understand impeachment, you’ve got Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. To understand Section 4, you’ve got Kiefer Sutherland.
Read: Television loves female presidents, as long as they’re Republican
Before undoing the damage that TV has wrought, it is worth reviewing what Section 4 is meant to do, and how it is designed to achieve those ends.
Section 3 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment allows the president to declare himself “unable,” transferring power to the vice president. As soon as the president declares himself able again, he takes power back instantly. Section 3 has been invoked only three times, all by presidents about to go under general anesthesia.
Section 4 is for when an incapacitated president cannot or will not invoke Section 3. It empowers the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to declare the president unable, making the vice president the acting president. The president can attempt to retake power by declaring that “no inability exists,” but he must wait for four days after his declaration, during which the vice president and Cabinet can reassert that he is unable. If they do, the vice president stays in charge and the case moves to Congress. If two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate agree within 21 days that the president is unable, the vice president remains as acting president. Otherwise, the president retakes power.
The animating principle of Sections 3 and 4 is continuity. This goal is limited: preventing the helm from being unmanned when a president is completely incapacitated. The point is not to oust presidents who are “unable” in the sense of being lazy, incompetent, or screwy. If the president cannot contest the action (because, say, he is in a coma), Section 4 is designed to transfer power instantly and uncontroversially. But if the president can respond—and whatever else you can say about Trump’s actions and deportment, he surely would respond—Section 4 is designed to protect the president by making it very hard to displace him.
Section 4 does this by putting several thumbs on the president’s side of the scale. The first is the choice of the vice president and Cabinet as gatekeepers. As members of the president’s team, they typically will be cautious about moving against him. Section 4’s framers saw this as a feature, not a bug.