It was reported just yesterday that the US President Donald Trump had tested positive to the COVID-19 as well which came as a shocking news to the general public specially with the US general election coming in a month time. This has caused American citizens to question who will lead the country if the disease incapacitates the president.
While the President and his wife had retired to self isolation in their respective home at the White House, Trump tweeted that he’s doing very fine and the same announcement was made by the White House physician as well.
But then there was also another report about the President being hospitalized at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and will be there for several days so his symptoms can be well monitored according to a White House spokesperson.
“Out of an abundance of caution, and at the recommendation of his physician and medical experts, the president will be working from the presidential offices at Walter Reed for the next few days,” Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. “President Trump appreciates the outpouring of support for both he and the first lady.”
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One of the risk factors of the COVID-19 are underlying diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer and other serious respiratory diseases. While Donald Trump is as strong as a horse according to his physician back then, one other risk factor is the fact that he’s an old person, 74 years old and that can put him at a greater risk of having complications from the virus.
With that, people have wondered what would happen if unexpected situations happens whereby the president is unable to carry out his duties as he should.
During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic even before reaching millions of reported cases worldwide, medical experts have warned that people with underlying health issues as well as older people are at a higher risk of developing serious complication that could cause their demise.
And as of now, the current number of reported cases has grown beyond 30 million with more than 1 million deaths with the US having 200,000 deaths alone from the acute respiratory disease.
While we all wish the President a long life in good health, if it ever happens that he became incapacitated by the coronavirus, the constitution might have to step in about who is supposed to handle his position while he’s not around based on the 25th Amendment.
Normally, the vice president is supposed to take the baton from the president and continue in running the affairs of the country.
There had been scenarios in the past whereby a US president handed over his duties temporarily to his vice until he’s fit enough to resume the duty as with the case of Dwight D. Eisenhower who happens to be the oldest person to serve as a US president.
Eisenhower had an arrangement with his vice Richard Nixon in which if he were to be incapacitated, Nixon would temporarily step into his shoes and continue the affairs of the country until he is fit to take over his duty back from Nixon, his vice.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed everything making the Congress to pass a new bill and the states ratified the 25th Amendment to the Constitution which shows a newer process to ensure a smooth temporary handover of presidential roles in any situation whereby he’s unable to perform his duties to the max.
But to better understand how this works, below are some important takes about the process for further clarification.
25th Amendment and the handover of presidential power
The 25h Amendment was passed by Congress back in 1965 but was ratified two years later in 1967 when Nevada became the 38th state to approve the bill. This was meant to fill constitutional gaps and lay out how and when power can be transferred to the vice president in the situations whereby the president can’t carry out his duties.
The Sections 3 and 4 of the amendment explains this process. The Section 3 for example addresses a simple situation whereby the president determines for himself whether he’s incapacitated as well as determining when he thinks he can resume his duties again.
With that, the President writes to the speaker of the house as well as the president pro tempore of the Senate telling them he’s incapacitated and then when the letter is received, the vice president takes over the role as acting president.
Then when the president thinks he’s able to resume, then he just send sin another notice to the speaker and the president pro tempore telling them about his new state and when they receive the writings, he immediately resumes his duties.
What happens if the president is incapacitated before he’s able to pass the torch to the vice president?
In the Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, this is well spelled out addressing a scenario whereby the president is unable or unmilling to temporarily transfer power to the vice president.
In this case, the vice president and a majority of his cabinet notifies the Speaker and the President Pro tempore of the Senate and just as with the Section 3, the receival of the writing automatically puts the vice president in the acting position as the president.
When the president has recovered and is able to fulfill his duties, he notifies the speaker of the house and president pro tempore. If the vice president and cabinet don’t disagree with this declaration within four days, the power of the presidency returns to the president.
What happens if the president doesn’t want to cede power or the vice president and cabinet don’t agree he should get his powers back?
In a situation like this whereby the vice president and the cabinet disagrees with the president over power transfer, then the Congress are left to decide who becomes the president. Congress must then agree in a two-thirds majority vote to temporarily hand over his presidential powers to the vice president but its inability to get a two-thirds vote within 21 days, the president automatically takes back his power.
One thing to keep in mind is that even if the president were to lose the congressional vote, he wouldn’t be removed from office. So if he disagrees with the assessment of the vice president, his cabinet and two-thirds of Congress, he can repeat the process to regain his powers.
Has the 25th amendment ever been invoked?
Section 3 has been used three times. President Ronald Reagan invoked this provision once, and George W. Bush did it twice. Each time it was because the president was receiving general anesthesia for surgery. Interestingly, it wasn’t invoked when Reagan was shot in 1981.
What happens if Vice President Mike Pence gets sick?
Things could get messier if both Trump and Pence were to become seriously ill at the same time. The 25th Amendment only spells out how presidential powers are transferred if the president is unable to fulfill his duties and there’s a vice president who can take over.
To be clear, there’s no indication that Pence is infected with COVID. It was reported Friday that he and his wife had tested negative for the virus. And it’s also been reported that he’s not believed to have been exposed to anyone who has tested positive for the virus.
But if he were to get sick while Trump is incapacitated, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 would be what’s used to determine who’s next in line to act as president. Under this statute, that would be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But there’s no clear process for such a transfer of power.
What if Pelosi and Pence disagree about whether he’s capable of fulfilling the duties of the presidency?
There’s no plan outlined in the Constitution for this scenario. So this is where things could get very messy from a legal standpoint, with two people claiming the right to execute presidential powers.