Why a President Cannot Be Recalled

What the Constitution Says About Removing a Sitting President

President Donald Trump stands at a podium delivering speech to press following impeachment trial investigations

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Having regrets about your vote for president? Sorry, there's no mulligan. The U.S. Constitution does not allow for the recall of a president outside of the impeachment process or the removal of a commander-in-chief who is deemed unfit for office under the 25th Amendment.

In fact, there are no political recall mechanisms available to voters at the federal level; voters can't recall members of Congress, either. However, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow for the recall of elected officials serving in state positions: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin. Virginia is unique in that it lets residents petition, not vote, for an official's removal.

That is not to say there has never been support for a recall process at the federal level. In fact, a U.S. senator from New Jersey by the name of Robert Hendrickson proposed a constitutional amendment in 1951 that would have allowed voters to recall a president by holding a second election to undo the first. Congress never approved the measure, but the idea lives on.

After the 2016 presidential election, some voters who disapproved of the elected president or who were disappointed that Donald Trump lost the popular vote but still defeated Hillary Clinton tried to launch a petition to recall the billionaire real-estate developer.

There is no way for voters to orchestrate a political recall of the president. There is no mechanism set forth in the U.S. Constitution that allows for the removal of a failing president save for impeachment, which is applied only in instances of "high crimes and misdemeanors" no matter how much the public and members of Congress feel that a president should be dismissed from office.

Support for the Recall of a President

To give you some idea of how prevalent buyer's remorse is in American politics, consider the case of President Barack Obama. Though he easily won a second term in the White House, many of those who helped elect him again in 2012 told pollsters a short time later they would support an effort to recall him if such a move were permitted.

The survey, conducted by the Harvard University Institute of Politics in late 2013, found that 47% of all Americans would have voted to recall Obama at the time the poll was taken. Fifty-two percent of respondents also would have voted to recall every single member of Congress—all 435 members of the House of Representatives and all 100 senators.

There are, of course, numerous online petitions that pop up from time to time calling for the removal of a president. One such example can be found on Change.org, a petition that demanded President Trump's impeachment and was signed by 722,638 people.

The petition stated:

"Donald J. Trump's leadership poses a threat to the peace and safety of our nation on both national and international levels. His immoral reputation and misconduct are an embarrassment and threat to the freedoms this country stands for and will not be tolerated by United States citizens."

How the Recall of a President Would Work

There have been several ideas floated for recalling a president; one would originate with the electorate and another would start with Congress and flow back to voters for approval.

In his book "21st Century Constitution: A New America for a New Millennium," recall advocate Barry Krusch lays out plans for a "National Recall," which would allow for the question “Should the president be recalled?” to be placed on the general election ballot if enough Americans get fed up with their president. If a majority of voters decide to recall the president under his plan, the vice president would take over.

In the essay "When Presidents Become Weak", published in the 2010 book "Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness" that was edited by Walter Isaacson, historian Robert Dallek suggests a recall process that begins in the House and Senate.

Writes Dallek:

“The country needs to consider a constitutional amendment that would give voters the power to recall a failing president. Because political opponents would always be tempted to invoke the provisions of a recall procedure, it would need to be both difficult to exercise and a clear expression of the popular will. The process should begin in Congress, where a recall procedure would need a 60 percent vote in both houses. This could be followed by a national referendum on whether all voters in the previous presidential election wished to remove the president and vice president and replace them with the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a vice president of that person’s choosing.”

Sen. Hendrickson proposed such an amendment in 1951 after President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.

Wrote Hendrickson:

“This nation is faced in these times with such rapidly changing conditions and such critical decisions that we cannot afford to depend upon an Administration which had lost the confidence of the American people… We have had ample evidence over the years that elected representatives, especially those with great power, can easily fall into the pitfall of believing that their will is more important than the will of the people.”

Hendrickson concluded that “impeachment has proved neither suitable nor desirable.” His solution would have allowed for a recall vote when two-thirds of the states felt the president had lost the support of citizens.

View Article Sources
  1. "Recall of State Officials." National Conference of State Legislatures, 8 July 2019.

  2. "Approval of Obama, Both Parties in Congress, Slide Across the Board; Near Majority Would Support Recalling Congress and the President." Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

  3. "Congress: Impeach Donald J. Trump." Change.org.

  4. Dallek, Robert. “When Presidents Become Weak.” Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness, edited by Walter Isaacson, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.