From Air Force One to House of Cards: When the 25th Amendment was invoked in film and TV

FP Staff

January 09, 2018 16:37:31 IST

Journalist Michael Wolff, in his explosive new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, portrayed a high level of concern in the White House over whether US President Donald Trump risks being removed from office as unfit, as is possible — if difficult — under the constitution's 25th Amendment.

Trump administration officials and allies rallied to the president's defence, trying to contain the fallout from the book that questions the President's fitness for office. Almost daily, the author claims, White House aides would say, "We're not at a 25th Amendment level yet," or “OK, this is a little 25th Amendment”.

So, what is the 25th Amendment?

The 25th Amendment provides for the vice president to assume the office of "acting president" if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet determine that "the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." It was adopted in 1967, following the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy, to clarify various issues involving presidential and vice presidential succession and incapacity.

Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in Air Force One

Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in Air Force One

Its implementation has been incorporated into various forms of fiction over the years. Considering it's being brandied about quite liberally by the media in the current Trump era, let's take a look at some films and TV shows which examined its implementation.

Air Force One (1997)

In the Wolfgang Petersen film, terrorists hijack the presidential aircraft with President Jim Marshall (Harrison Ford) on board. So, Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell) persuades the Cabinet to sign a letter in accordance with the National Security Act of 1947. He invokes Section 4 of the 25th Amendment noting the president to be incapacitated. Under the amendment’s Section 4, the vice president and a majority of either Cabinet officials or “such other body as Congress may by law provide” may declare in writing that the president “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Attorney General Andrew Ward (Philip Baker Hall) disagrees with the chain of succession and argues that the Vice President should succeed the President. The Cabinet drafts a letter stating its intent. However, Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) refuses to sign it. After the President almost single-handedly thwarts the hijacking, the Vice President tears up the letter in the end of the movie. In reality, Congress then must assemble within 48 hours to decide the issue. If two-thirds of the members of the House and of the Senate vote in their respective chambers that the president is unable to discharge his or her duties, the vice president continues as acting president until the next scheduled presidential election decides the next White House occupant. Otherwise, the president resumes office.

White House Down (2013)

Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx in White House Down

Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx in White House Down

When President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is taken hostage by terrorists inside the White House, the Vice President invokes the 25th to take command and becomes the acting President. But when he succumbs to a terrorist attack later in the film, the speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) is sworn in as the President. The Constitution notes that when a declaration is received by the Senate president pro tempore - who presides over the Senate in the absence of the vice president - and the speaker of the House, the vice president takes over as acting president.

24 (TV Series 2001–2010)

Section 4 has been a frequently used trope in the the television series, 24. In Season 2, it is invoked by the Cabinet to remove President David Palmer deeming his response to terrorist attacks irrational. But it is rescinded when it is realised that his decision was in fact the correct one. In the season finale, it is invoked yet again when the President is in a coma after a failed assassination attempt. In Season 4, after Air Force One is shot down leaving President John Keeler incapacitated, Vice President Charles Logan is sworn in as President after a unanimous invocation of the 25th Amendment by the Cabinet.

House of Cards (TV Series 2013– )

Michel Gill, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards. Netflix

Michel Gill, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards. Netflix

On the Netflix drama, with plenty of murder and mayhem, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)’s machinations and the 25th Amendment allow him to be named Vice President and then President. By the end of Season 1, Underwood engineers the resignation of the Vice President by helping him win the governorship of Pennsylvania, and gets himself named Vice President in his stead. In Season 2, he orchestrates a similar plan as the President resigns amidst a series of scandals as he becomes the American president. In Season 4, the 25th is invoked again when Underwood has to undergo an operation after being shot. Vice Presiden Donald Blythe is sworn in as Acting President until Underwood recuperates. The president can resume office after informing the same two congressional leaders “that no inability exists” - unless the vice president and a majority of Cabinet officials or another body established by Congress tell those congressional leaders within four days of the declaration that the chief executive is unable to carry out his or her duties.

The West Wing (TV Series 1999–2006)

In Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin's seminal political drama, when President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is shot in an assassination attempt, it leads to a major constitutional fiasco. Though the Vice President believes he should be in charge, without a letter stating the President's incapacity, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry argues that it's unclear. At the end of Season 4, when Qumari terrorists kidnap President Bartlet’s daughter Zoey from a nighclub, the president declares himself unfit to fulfil his duty. Faced with a difficult choice between family and country, he invokes the 25th Amendment in consultation with the Cabinet. Due to the absence of a vice president, Speaker Glen Walken is sworn in as his successor.

Updated Date: Jan 09, 2018 16:37 PM