As Trump battles Covid, Pelosi backs bill to assess presidential capacity

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has thrown her support behind legislation that would establish a panel of experts and former executive branch officials to determine whether a president lacks the mental or physical capacity to carry out the job.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), would shore up a process established under the 25th Amendment by which the vice president can assume control of the presidency if the president becomes incapacitated or is unable to perform the duties of the office. It’s highly unlikely the measure will become law.

Although Democrats are resurfacing the bill this week just days after President Donald Trump was hospitalized for the coronavirus, Pelosi said the proposal is about establishing a process for the future to prevent a crisis.

“This is not about President Trump. He will face the judgment of the voters. But he shows the need for us to create a process for future presidents,” Pelosi told reporters Friday, standing beside a massive chart stating the 25th Amendment. She added that the proposal isn’t about presidential “behavior” but about an actual diagnosis by medical professionals.

Trump’s doctors and senior aides have offered conflicting reports on his health, sometimes alarmingly so. Trump initially required supplemental oxygen, a sign of significant illness, and he was prescribed a mix of treatments to help fight off the potentially deadly virus, including an experimental antibody treatment and a steroid, which can be associated with mood swings in some patients. He has also taken a course of remdesivir.

Asked Friday whether Trump met the threshold for invoking the 25th amendment, Pelosi said: “That’s not for us to decide.”

In a private call with her members this week, Pelosi speculated whether Trump’s abrupt decision on Tuesday to pull out of stimulus talks — stunning some in his own party — may have been influenced by his medication.

“There are people who thought, who think that steroids have an impact on your thinking. So, I don’t know,” Pelosi told her members Tuesday.

The White House has been opaque about Trump’s recovery from the illness. Aides, and Trump himself, have repeatedly declined to say whether he has received a negative test for the virus since first testing positive last week. Though his doctor has pronounced that the president will be fit to resume public events on Saturday, Trump appeared still to suffer from a cough during a Thursday night interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

Trump’s illness in recent days has raised questions in Washington about not only the line of succession, but also what happens when White House statements about a president’s health are not trusted.

The health of the commander in chief, generally, has come under scrutiny throughout the 2020 election. The next president — whether it is Trump, 74, or the 77-year-old Vice President Joe Biden — will make history this November as the oldest person elected to the presidency.

But Pelosi stressed the timing was not intended to coincide with the presidential race: “This is not about the election at all.”

Trump has already attacked Pelosi for discussing her plans to revisit the 25th Amendment, tweeting Thursday: “Crazy Nancy is the one who should be under observation. They don’t call her Crazy for nothing!”

Under the 25th Amendment, the process of supplanting an ill or incapacitated president currently falls to the vice president, in consultation with the president’s Cabinet. If they determine that the president is unable to fulfill the duties of the office, they can determine collectively to elevate the vice president. The amendment itself, passed in 1967, is a vestige of the nuclear era, when Washington and the world were gripped by concerns about potential war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

A lesser-known aspect of the 25th Amendment permits Congress to establish an alternative body, rather than the Cabinet, to consult with the vice president. But such a body has never been created. Raskin’s bill would change that.

Under his proposal, the newly created “Commission on Presidential Capacity” would consist of doctors, psychiatrists and former Executive Branch officials like secretaries of State or Defense, attorneys general, and even former presidents and vice presidents.

“In the age of Covid-19, where a lot of government actors have been afflicted by it, we need to act,” Raskin said.

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