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The news last week that President Trump’s valet and Vice President Pence’s press secretary had both contracted the coronavirus sent a scare through the White House. While officials said both leaders subsequently tested negative, the episode raised a worrisome possibility: What happens if Trump or Pence is stricken—or, worse, if both became ill at the same time?
The result could be anything from temporary disruption to a full-blown constitutional crisis with competing claims on the presidency. What’s critical, experts say, is that the identity of the commander-in-chief be clear in any situation. At least one scenario could arise where it wouldn’t be.
The degree of economic and geopolitical fallout would depend heavily on the severity of the illness, and especially on whether Trump himself became incapacitated, say current and former White House officials and outside experts. “There’s a protocol for everything,” says David Axelrod, former senior White House adviser to Barack Obama. “We routinely went through drills for what to do in case of terrorist or nuclear attacks, but I honestly never anticipated a pandemic situation like the one the White House is facing now.”
Markets would almost certainly drop on news of a presidential diagnosis, says Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a geopolitical risk consulting firm. But he expects traders would take comfort from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recovery from his recent bout of Covid-19. Although Johnson deputized Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to handle some duties when he entered intensive care on April 7, he never formally transferred power; Johnson has now returned to work and resumed his full slate of duties.
“If Trump were to get it and is quarantined in the residence, but stays in charge of the government and is tweeting like crazy, I think there’d be de minimis market impact,” says Bremmer.
Even if Trump became too ill for vigorous tweeting, there’s a process that past presidents have employed to temporarily relinquish power. The Constitution’s 25th Amendment allows Trump to hand over control to the vice president and then reclaim it as soon as he declares himself able. George W. Bush did this twice during his presidency, while undergoing medical procedures, and Ronald Reagan once, after he was shot. If Trump were stricken suddenly or had to be sedated for intubation, the 25th Amendment also allows the vice president and cabinet to execute the transfer of presidential power.
In the grim—and statistically unlikely—case that one is needed, a road map also exists for what would happen if the president and vice president were both to pass away. “In that event, the line of succession is clear,” says Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University. “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would take over.”
But constitutional experts warn that chaos could ensue if both Trump and Pence were to become incapacitated by Covid-19, because the law provides little clarity on resolving such a scenario.
“It would be a real shit show that could result in a full-scale constitutional meltdown,” says Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University and the author of Unable: The Law, Politics, and Limits of Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. “It would immediately go to court, and they’d have to decide real quick what to do. Because not knowing who the president is even for a couple of hours could be extremely perilous for the country.”
If Trump and Pence were both unable to fulfill their duties, neither could invoke the 25th Amendment. The Constitution instructs Congress to legislate a line of succession, which was most recently updated in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947—the law that puts the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, next in line for the presidency. The trouble, Kalt says, is that the Constitution doesn’t offer a procedure for determining a president’s “inability” to perform, giving rise to the possibility of a dispute in which Pelosi, a Democrat, declared herself acting president even as Trump and Pence (or their lawyers) declared themselves fit to serve.
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In This Story: Donald Trump
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This role is otherwise known as Foreign Secretary.
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