One of the most dangerous scenarios in American government is the possibility of two people both claiming to be president at the same time. Sections 3 and 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment are meant to avoid exactly that—to make crystal clear who at any moment is in charge.
Unfortunately, a common misreading of a poorly drafted part of Section 4 could cause a full-blown constitutional meltdown. This week’s events have magnified that risk. After rioters waving Trump flags stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, multiple reports have indicated that Cabinet members have discussed invoking Section 4 of the amendment, which would strip President Donald Trump of his powers provisionally and make Vice President Mike Pence the acting president.
The current chaos in the capital is based in part on President Trump’s habit of latching on to alternate interpretations of constitutional texts when they suit him. Unfortunately, Section 4 offers a doozy. It says that the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can transfer power to the vice president by declaring the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But Section 4 also allows the president to retake power when he has recovered: “When the President transmits … 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 [the Cabinet] transmit within four days … their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” If the vice president and the Cabinet issue that final declaration, the case goes to Congress for resolution.