Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been America’s security policy to avoid having the president and vice president travel together. It was therefore unusual that the president and vice president flew together on Air Force One to Atlanta last week.
The fact that the two of them traveled together raises questions about Biden’s future as president.
Even before 9/11, presidents and vice presidents avoided traveling together. Going back to the Kennedy presidency, in the infamous trip to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson flew to Texas on Air Force Two, while President John F. Kennedy and his team traveled on Air Force One. (After the assassination, Johnson returned to Washington on Air Force One and, in fact, was sworn in while onboard.)
On 9/11, both the president and vice president were moved to separate locations while New York and Washington were under attack. This wasn’t just an instinctive move by the U.S. Secret Service.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive 67, which set up a Continuity of [Government] Operations Plan (COOP) in case of emergency.
Not only the president and vice president, but a raft of senior officials were under COOP tasked to go to special secret locations if COOP was activated. There they would continue to operate the government and control U.S. strategic military forces, including nuclear missiles.
When there is a heightened alert, the Secret Service—the organization that protects the president and vice president—steps in to make sure full protection is operating. Such was the case this month. Washington is currently guarded by National Guardsmen deployed to the city.
On March 17, the D.C. Police issued an alert that a “person of concern” was on the loose in Washington. The next day, on March 18, that person was arrested by the Secret Service. He was allegedly stalking the vice presidential residence at the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue, where he was apprehended.
By the morning of March 19, no one knew for sure if others may have been looking to carry out an attack on the president or vice president. Yet, Air Force One departed Joint Base Andrews, just outside of Washington, for Atlanta with both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on board.
As the president climbed the stairway to Air Force One, he stumbled three times, causing a sensation in the media. Social media was alive with speculation that the president might be in physical and mental trouble.
A president can decide what level of protection he wants and tell the Secret Service his preference. The current Secret Service team is one that Biden changed at the end of December 2020 (even before he took office) in order to remove persons regarded as too closely associated with former President Donald Trump. That is the prerogative of the president and previous presidents have also selected Secret Service personnel they favored.
It’s highly unlikely, even with the changes, that the Secret Service would have wanted the president and vice president traveling together, especially under heightened alert conditions when security is all-important.
The real reason for the two of them traveling together must have been for a reason different from a security imperative.
Shielding the President
Given the White House’s intention to shield the president from talking to the press or interacting with the public, Harris no doubt went with him to Atlanta to protect the president and keep him away from making mistakes or blunders in responding to questions.
This fits in quite well with the fact that Biden has held no press conferences and is kept very isolated and controlled by the White House staff of overseers. Even more worrying has been Biden’s uncalled for and risky conversations with foreign leaders—most dangerous of all are the alleged accusations Biden leveled at Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusations that, in Biden’s better days, he would have avoided.
His similar attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Sultan also plunged the Gulf area into great danger and led to increasing Houthi attacks on the Kingdom. It appears the president has a poor grip on the reality of his office.
Two very serious questions arise: the first is, how long can the White House staff, the vice president, and others (including First Lady Jill Biden) protect Biden? The second question is, can the public be assured that Biden is capable of exercising presidential responsibilities including that most critical task of acting as commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces?
Building public confidence in Biden’s ability to discharge his responsibilities could well grow increasingly difficult. If he can’t, what is to be done?
The 25th Amendment to the Constitution deals with presidential disability. It says that the president should inform Congress he can’t carry out his responsibilities, in which case the vice president becomes the acting president. Alternatively, the vice president and the principal Cabinet officers can inform Congress if the president is unable to carry out his duties.
Presidents have been very reluctant to invoke the 25th Amendment. In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot and taken to G.W. Hospital in Washington for emergency surgery, Vice President George H.W. Bush was on an airplane heading back to the Capitol.
Reagan could have invoked the 25th Amendment (he was conscious enough to crack jokes to the surgeon that he hoped his surgeon was a Republican), but didn’t. By the time Bush’s plane landed, Reagan was out of surgery and was starting to recover.
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson had an incapacitating stroke. He was protected for the next two years by his wife. Yet he remained in office until 1921. There was no 25th Amendment—it was passed in 1965 and ratified in 1967. Edith Wilson secretly but effectively discharged presidential responsibilities.
There has never been a case in which the provisions of Article 4 of the 25th Amendment empowering the vice president and Cabinet officers to intervene were invoked.
An additional element is mental health, which isn’t directly addressed by the 25th Amendment. If a president suffered from mental illness, would his supporters invoke Article 4 or would they try to cover up the problem? Equally important is mental decline, not mental illness. Dementia falls into that category.
The 25th Amendment doesn’t directly address mental decline or speak about two well-known maladies: dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Presidential health checkups don’t take into account mental health issues, or mental decline, although with aging presidents, such assessments might make sense.
Other countries have had similar problems. The most famous case is that of King George III, king of Great Britain and Ireland. He suffered from recurrent mental problems caused possibly by bipolar disorder or porphyria, a type of blood disorder.
His story was portrayed in the popular film, “The Madness of King George.” While the film ends on a happy note, with George restored to health and back on the throne, the real story ended when a Regency was established in 1811 because George couldn’t carry out his responsibilities or even recognize people around him. In his last years, he became blind and deaf and had dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s disease). He died in 1820.
Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice being awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.