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Trump, Pence, Pelosi: How does the presidential line of succession work?

Donald Trump is to leave the White House to attend a medical centre after testing positive for Covid-19.
Oct 2nd 2020, 11:01 PM 47,329 41

2020-state-of-the-union-address Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with Donald Trump. Source: LEAH MILLIS

US PRESIDENT DONALD Trump, who is to attend a military hospital after testing positive Covid-19, could invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to temporarily hand over power to vice President Mike Pence in the event he becomes incapacitated.

Trump confirmed at 6am Irish time today that he and his wife Melania had tested positive for the virus. 

With just over 30 days until the Presidential election, the focus now will be firmly on Trump’s health – and what happens should he become incapacitated. 

Adopted in 1967, the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution sets out the provisions for a transfer of power from a US president who dies, resigns, is removed from office or for other reasons is unable to fulfill his or her duties.

US lawmakers had begun to address the question in the late 1950s amid the ill health of president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It took on added urgency following the 1963 assassination of president John F. Kennedy and the 25th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1965 and ratified by the required three-fourths of the 50 US states two years later.

Section 3 of the 25th Amendment addresses the transfer of presidential powers to the vice President – in this case Mike Pence – when the President declares that he or she is unable to fulfill the powers and duties of the office.

Section 4 addresses a situation in which the vice President and a majority of the cabinet determine that the president is no longer able to discharge their duties.

Section 4 has never been invoked.

Section 3, however, has been invoked on three occasions.

The first was in July 1985 when president Ronald Reagan underwent surgery under general anesthesia for removal of a cancerous polyp from his large intestine.

Vice president George H.W. Bush was made acting President for about eight hours while Reagan was in surgery. 

President George W. Bush temporarily transferred power to vice president Dick Cheney in June 2002 and in July 2007 while he underwent routine colonoscopies under anesthesia.

Following Reagan’s serious wounding in a 1981 assassination attempt, a letter invoking Section 3 was drafted but it was never sent.

Should Trump become unable to fulfil his duties, he must inform Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in writing that he is unable to discharge the duties of the office and is temporarily transferring power to Pence. 

Under Section 4, the vice President and a majority of the members of the cabinet inform the leaders of the Senate and House that the president is incapable of discharging his duties and the vice President becomes acting President.

However, if a president contests the determination that he or she is unable to fulfill their duties, it is up to Congress to make the decision.

A two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate would be needed to declare the president unfit to remain in office.

Trump could invoke Section 3 in the event he becomes very sick or needs to be placed on a ventilator. 

Were Pence to become president he could then pick a Republican vice president. But what happens if somehow or other Pence himself were to become incapacitated? 

Next in the line of succession is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, followed by the Senate’s most senior Republican, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is that chamber’s president pro tempore and is 87 years old. 

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After that, it filters down to members of Trump’s Cabinet starting with the secretary of state (currently Mike Pompeo), followed by the Treasury secretary (Steven Mnuchin), defense secretary (Mark Esper), the attorney general (Bill Barr) and the interior secretary (David Bernhardt).

Of course, all of this hypothetical, but it does raise a potentially unprecedented scenario for the United States. 

It has been confirmed by a White House spokesperson this evening that Trump is to leave the White House to attend Walter Reed Medical Centre in Washington DC and is to work from the hospital for the next few days. 

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Cónal Thomas

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