Democrats provoked an angry tirade from Donald Trump on Friday by proposing a congressional commission to assess whether US presidents are capable of performing their duties or should be removed from office.
The gambit came a week after Trump was flown to a military hospital for treatment for coronavirus and 25 days before an election. The president returned to the White House on Monday but has caused concern with erratic behaviour.
Related: Trump unlikely to travel for rally while Pelosi says medication has him ‘in an altered state’ – live
“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,” Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, told a press conference in which she also took a swipe at the British prime minister, Boris Johnson.
But the timing was impossible to ignore as Trump has continued to give rambling TV interviews, tweet false and contradictory statements and potentially endanger his own White House staff by defying public health guidance.
The president tweeted in response: “Crazy Nancy Pelosi is looking at the 25th Amendment in order to replace Joe Biden with Kamala Harris. The Dems want that to happen fast because Sleepy Joe is out of it!!!”
The 25th amendment to the US constitution provides the procedure for the vice-president to take over the duties of president if he or she dies or resigns or it is determined that he or she cannot fulfill the functions of the office.
The Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, introducing the legislation on Friday, said: “The 25th amendment is all about the stability of the presidency and the continuity of the office.
“Now, it’s never been necessary, but the authors of the 25th amendment thought it essential in the nuclear age to have a safety valve option and, as they often said, we have 535 members of Congress but we only have one president.”
He added: “In the age of Covid-19, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans and now ravaged the White House staff, the wisdom of the 25th amendment is clear. What happens if a president – any president – ends up in a coma or on a ventilator and has made no provisions for the temporary transfer of power? This situation is what demands action.”
This panel would be known as the Commission on Presidential Capacity to Discharge the Powers and Duties of Office. Raskin, a constitutional law professor, said it would be bipartisan and consist of 17 members, including medical personnel, and could only act in concert with the vice-president.
Asked about the timing of the bill, Raskin explained “this situation has focused everyone’s mind” on the 25th amendment.
Pelosi repeated her insistence that it did not apply to Trump: “Again, this isn’t about any judgment anybody has about somebody’s behaviour. It isn’t about any of us making a decision as to whether the 25th amendment should be invoked. That’s totally not the point. That’s not up to us.”
Invoking the 25th amendment would require the support of Vice-President Mike Pence and members of Trump’s cabinet. There has been no hint that this is imminent.
A reporter asked Pelosi if Johnson was an example of someone whose capacity to govern was reduced by coronavirus. She replied: “I have no idea. Nor do I have of President Trump.
“I just said clearly, he is under medication. Any of us who is under medication of that seriousness is in an altered state. He has bragged about the medication he has taken. And again, there are articles by medical professionals saying, as was said earlier, this could have an impact on judgment.”
She then made a surprise attack on the UK’s efforts to create a vaccine, describing the US Food and Drug Administration’s “very stringent” rules for clinical trials and approval. “My concern is that the UK’s system for that kind of judgment is not on a par with ours in the United States. So if Boris Johnson decides he’s going to approve a drug and this president embraces that, that’s the concern I have about any similarity between the two.”
The initiative on the 25th amendment was not without political risks for Democrats as Trump’s allies sought to portray it as a power grab ahead of the election. Josh Holmes, former chief of staff and campaign manager for Senate majority leader, the Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, tweeted: “Every time I think our goose is cooked, Nancy Pelosi grabs the microphone and I say to myself, we still have a shot.”
Trump was flown to a military hospital on 2 October after testing positive for Covid-19. He spent three nights there receiving a menu of treatments before his doctors said he was well enough to be discharged. He returned to the White House and immediately removed his face mask, provoking criticism.
Since then his conduct has raised concerns, even by the turbulent standards of the Trump presidency. He suddenly called off negotiations with Congress over an economic stimulus package, taking his Republican allies by surprise, but then performed an equally jarring U-turn. And boasted about being a “perfect physical specimen” and “extremely young” in another Fox phone interview.
Both Trump’s doctors and White House officials still refuse to say when the president received his last negative test, raising questions over who he might have infected.
Trump floated the idea that he might travel to a rally on Saturday in Florida, but the administration indicated on Friday morning that this was unlikely.