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“Let’s find out if he’s okay”: a Democratic lawmaker urges Pence to have Trump’s mental fitness evaluated

“There’s been concern that’s been expressed on both sides of the aisle.”

California Democratic Congressional Delegation Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

In the hallways of the Capitol and on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) says she’s being approached by Democratic and Republican colleagues alike who have concerns about the president’s behavior.

“It’s not like you’re having a meeting about this; it’s things that people say to you on the floor or walking around,” Lofgren said.

Questions about Donald Trump’s mental fitness have dogged him since he entered office last year. And lately his Twitter threats about having a bigger and more powerful “nuclear button” than the North Korean regime, and Michael Wolff’s dishy new book depicting him as erratic and impulsive, have renewed the push to do something about a seemingly out-of-control president.

The only legal mechanism that exists to remove a sitting president from office is the 25th Amendment. Ratified after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the amendment was created to allow the vice president to take over if a president became severely physically or mentally incapacitated. In the era of Trump, it’s being talked about as a way to remove him if there are enough concerns about his mental fitness.

To do that, the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet would have to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.

But Section 4 is completely untested territory; it has been considered for presidents who were suffering from strokes or debilitated in other ways, but has never been invoked.

Starting last summer, a few Democrats have introduced bills in the House calling for Trump to undergo a mental fitness evaluation by a psychiatrist. Lofgren introduced one of them back in August. The bill asks Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to have Trump’s physical and mental fitness evaluated by doctors and psychiatrists, and suggests he initiate the 25th Amendment should Trump be found to have a “mental disorder or other injury that impairs his abilities and prevents him from discharging his Constitutional duties.”

It’s worth noting that Lofgren’s bill puts the onus entirely on Pence and Trump’s Cabinet. And she’s well aware that they are unlikely to go along with her request.

“The bill is not going to be passed, and I didn’t introduce it to pass it,” Lofgren said. “It’s like a ... message to Mike [Pence].”

I recently sat down with Lofgren in her office to talk about her bill, how it could be applied to future presidents, and what other checks Congress has on the executive branch. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Calling for a medical and mental evaluation

Ella Nilsen

I wanted to talk to you about some of the legislation you put forward asking for a mental evaluation of the president. Why did you initially propose it?

Zoe Lofgren

The legislation, it really is kind of a shout-out to Mike Pence. It is a resolution urging the vice president that the president really ought to be examined, to see whether something should be done pursuant to the 25th Amendment. I did that because of behavior that seemed just odd, and also reports I got from members who had gone over to meet with [Trump], where his behavior seemed ... odd.

Ella Nilsen

Anything in particular that people were saying?

Zoe Lofgren

Well, losing track of what was being said, not seeming to know where he was. Some of that has been in public; I don’t know if you remember when he came back from the Middle East, he kind of walked past the car he was supposed to get into. He was supposed to sign executive orders and kind of wandered away without doing it. I mean, why is that? There are benign explanations, and there are less benign explanations. Maybe he’s bored, and that’s why he’s not following. Or maybe he can’t.

Mike Pence has some obligations under the 25th Amendment, and just as you would not make a determination about somebody’s capacity because their heart wasn’t working right, you wouldn’t make a medical determination for any other reason without medical advice. I think that’s what they need to do.

I also think presidents have an obligation to reveal to the country their health situation. Especially someone who is in his 70s, one of the oldest presidents we have ever had, in one of the most stressful jobs we’ve ever had. Let’s make sure he’s okay.

Ella Nilsen

Like you said, this legislation is a callout to Vice President Mike Pence. What about the powers that Congress has or the responsibility Congress has to be a check on the president when it comes to questions of his mental health?

Zoe Lofgren

Well, if you take a look at the 25th Amendment, we could set up another body, which we’ve never done. There are several proposals to do that in the House. I don’t think the Republicans are interested in moving any of them, so I think that’s kind of a moot point. Right now, the question rests with the vice president and the Cabinet.

Ella Nilsen

Have you had conversations with any of them?

Zoe Lofgren

No, I mean I served with Mike for a dozen years here in the House. I didn’t agree with Mike on very many things ... I didn’t vote for him for vice president, but I assume and believe that he would have an interest in making sure the well-being of the country was secured. In the resolution, we don’t ask for a report to Congress. We ask him to fulfill his obligations to assure himself and the Cabinet that the president is able to discharge his duties.

What does it mean to create a policy like this for President Trump?

Ella Nilsen

I understand this legislation is for the current president, but would you support legislation that would make this evaluation a standard for future presidents as well?

Zoe Lofgren

I think we ought to review that. Rather than just do a bill, I think we ought to have some hearings and do some analysis of what that would mean. What you want to do is make sure that this is on the up and up. That it has to do with the person’s capacity and not a political agenda. There are plenty of people that didn’t like Obama, who didn’t like Bush. I don’t think anybody felt that they had a stroke and were unable to discharge their duties, because they had their physical examinations; there was no indication of that.

If a president has engaged in behavior that undercuts the Constitution, there’s a different remedy for the Congress to look at. The 25th Amendment should not be used in that matter.

Ella Nilsen

I’m curious if you’ve talked with any of your Republican colleagues, if you feel like there is any concern or appetite from Republicans to evaluate the president’s mental fitness.

Zoe Lofgren

Let me just say this. Without mentioning any names, there is concern about capacity [from] members among both sides of the aisle.

Ella Nilsen

Could you give me a number of people that you’ve spoken to?

Zoe Lofgren

No, I mean, it’s not like you’re having a meeting about this; it’s things that people say to you on the floor or walking around. There’s been concern that’s been expressed on both sides of the aisle.

“For most of the Republicans, it never had anything to do with the Constitution; it only had to do with politics”

Ella Nilsen

Obviously Democrats are not in power right now, but what can Democrats do, and what can Congress do, to try to check the president’s powers if something concerning were to happen?

Zoe Lofgren

Well, it’s remarkably limited. One thing is to remind — and this doesn’t take legislation — but to remind those who are in the chain of command that there are constraints on the executive. For example, a first-strike nuclear attack would violate the Constitution and the War Powers Act without provocation or need to defend the country. That doesn’t require legislation; that’s the law today. So that’s something that those in the line of command from the president need to be reminded of privately.

Ella Nilsen

Generally, do you have any concern — not just under this president but over the past few decades — that the War Powers Act or other checks that Congress has on the executive branch have declined?

Zoe Lofgren

It hasn’t worked well. And part of it is ... let me just give you an example, because it bothers me. Remember when Obama said there’s a red line in Syria if there’s a chemical attack ... okay, then there was a chemical attack. And he said he was going to bomb the Syrians. So we did a letter — we being a bipartisan group that I was part of — there were over 100 Republicans that signed the letter, saying you can’t do that without the vote of the Congress, both under the Constitution and under the War Powers Act. In the end, the president didn’t do that.

Okay, fast-forward, we’ve got President Trump. He says it’s unacceptable if they use chemical weapons, if they use chemical weapons, he’s going to drop bombs. I take the first letter from Obama, it’s the exact same situation, I take the paragraphs out of that letter, I got to the Republicans who signed that letter, and they wouldn’t sign it. I said, “People are going to think this is about politics, not the Constitution.” Only one of them would sign it — [Michigan Rep.] Justin Amash was the only one.

That says something very telling. For most of the Republicans, it never had anything to do with the Constitution; it only had to do with politics. Pretty sad commentary about where we are.

Ella Nilsen

Do you see that getting any better in the future?

Zoe Lofgren

Yes, because when Democrats were in the majority and the minority, we were willing to confront not only Republican presidents but also Democratic presidents when their behavior did not meet the standards required in the Constitution. The Republicans are unwilling to do that, for the most part.

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