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Should U.S. Presidential Candidates be Drug Tested?

Posted on | January 14, 2019 | No Comments

Mike Magee

During a nationally televised speech last week on border security, the airwaves lit up. But the discussion was not limited to fact seekers by now well accustomed to counter-checking the President’s deliberate misrepresentations. Joining in were health professionals and addiction experts who literally counted the number of Trump sniffs that became prominent half way through the brief 9 minute teleprompter address.

Sixty (60) was the calculation – enough to revitalize a earlier Newsweek story citing a former NBC staffer’s claim that the president is addicted to snorting crushed Adderall.  Arm chair analysts quickly made their own assessments noting that such speculation was consistent with the President’s seeming inability to tell the truth, sometimes erratic behavior, bizarre sleep schedule, and hasty governance by tweet.

Establishing that the President is on a mind-altering amphetamine might at this point be too little too late.  Historically presidential succession has been treated as a political rather than a medical process.

Surprisingly, presidential succession was something of an after-thought for the Framers of our Constitution. It was first addressed in 1787 by James Madison with these words, “In case of his [the President’s] removal as aforesaid, death, resignation or inability to discharge the powers or duties of his office, the Vice President shall exercise those powers and duties until another President be chosen, or until the inability of the President be removed.”

It was up to fellow Conventioner, John Dickinson of Delaware, to voice the common concern of the day: “What is the extent of the term ‘inability’ and who is to be the judge of it?” The vagueness of the term “inability” was felt by most future scholars to have been left intentionally vague, as was the role of medical professionals in certifying “inability.”

The nation’s current predicament was voiced by The New Yorker journalist, Evan Osnos,  in a 2017 article titled “How Trump Could Get Fired.” He wrote, “unless the President were unconscious, the public could see the use of the amendment as a constitutional coup. Measuring deterioration over time would be difficult in Trump’s case, given that his ‘judgment’ and ‘ability to communicate clearly’ were, in the view of many Americans, impaired before he took office.”

The amendment he refers to is the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, penned by Birch Bayh (D-IN) and ratified on  February 10, 1967, following the death of John F. Kennedy. It resolved the issue of Vice Presidential succession to the Presidency and the power of the new President to nominate a new Vice President, pending Congressional approval. It gave the power to declare “inability” to the Vice President and a majority of Cabinet members, with rights of challenge to the President being ousted, who – if he were to challenge – could appeal to Congress to resolve the issue.

What the 25th Amendment did not resolve however was the definition of “inability” and the role and responsibility (if any) of the White House physician or an “expert medical panel.” Bayh for one was opposed to empowering medical leaders in any way other than “consultation as required.” He emphasized that inability was essentially “a political question” and a “professional judgment of the political circumstances existing at the time.”

Essentially, on behalf of his fellow legislators, he was saying, “Not to worry – Congress has this.” But do they under Trump?

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat set off a firestorm in May, 2017, when he weighed in on Trump inability stating “one needs some basic attributes: a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control…Trump is seemingly deficient in them all.”

But other commentators were considerably more restrained, suggesting that impeachment, not the 25th Amendment, is the proper remedy for political malpractice.

Why has the 25th Amendment never been used in a case of active “inability”? The New Yorker’s Osnos says it best. The reason it “has never been used to remove a sitting president is that the inquiry requires assessments of presidential incapacity and mental illness that mental health experts generally want no part of, and politicians are reluctant to engage in.”

Essentially, by the time a President is elected, there is little recourse. As one Princeton professor noted, Mitt Romney in his run for the Presidency “supported legislation mandating drug testing for recipients of federal aid, such as: the unemployed, families in assistance programs — in general, citizens down on their luck or in trouble. Interestingly, none of these politicians has suggested drug tests for executives whose banks benefit from billions in federal aid and bailouts.”

And, he might have added, for any past or present candidate for the Presidency itself. What if mandatory drug testing had been required of all candidates in the 2016 Presidential election? It is quite possible we would have averted our current crisis.

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