American Leadership Crisis Scenario During the Corona Virus Epidemic
President Trump and Vice President Pence have remained very visible during the Corona epidemic, often being seen together in briefings on the epidemic. Yet, according to the White House, both have been tested and shown so far, no Corona contamination.
Yet, the recent news that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to the hospital and placed in the intensive care unit indicates that this illness is no respecter of person or position. It is quite possible that Trump, or Pence, or both could come down with the Corona virus. If that happens, what then?
Currently, the US Constitution’s rules on succession of leadership is limited to singular events, not an epidemic that could incapacitate a number of those who might be required to fill the position of president.
The 25th Amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, provides the procedures for replacing the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacitation. The Watergate scandal of the 1970s saw the application of these procedures, first when Gerald Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president. Then he replaced Richard Nixon as president after Watergate. Then Ford appointed Nelson Rockefeller to fill the resulting vacancy as vice president.
Sections 3 and 4 are the sections most applicable to the current epidemic. Section 3 states that the president can send a letter to the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore stating that he can’t discharge the powers and duties of president. In that case, the Vice President becomes acting president until the president sends a letter stating that is now capable of fulfilling his duty as President
Section 4 is for a situation when the president wants to retain the powers of president, even though he is incapacitated. It states, “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”
In other words, if Vice President Pence and the majority of the president’s cabinet decide that Trump is so seriously ill that he is unable to discharge the position of president, the Vice President becomes acting president.
Of course, in this case, Vice President Pence is the key player. If Pence doesn’t feel that Trump is incapacitated, this option will not work. If he does, the transfer of power could just take hours.
While the 25th Amendment allows for a quick transfer of power, it also allows the president to challenge any charges of incapacity. It says, “Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.”
In other words, if Pence says Trump is too sick to be president, Trump can challenge it. If the Vice President and majority of the cabinet continue to say the President is unable to carry out the office of president, it goes to Congress to determine the fitness of Trump. It would take a 2/3 vote in both the House and Senate to remove Trump.
Needless to say, the 21 days that Congress has to determine the fitness of Trump would be a politically unstable time, especially if the nation is suffering from a widespread epidemic. If Trump is sick, then, it is quite possible that numerous members of Congress would be unable to attend because they are sick or under quarantine.
At least, there is a clear path for everyone to follow if Trump is incapacitated by the Corona virus. Things get much murkier after that. If the President is healthy, but the Vice President becomes incapacitated, there is no way to remove him. He dies, resigns, or recovers. If he dies or resigns, the president can nominate a new vice president, who must be confirmed by the Senate.
The problem is that currently the next in the line of succession to the presidency would be the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who is a Democrat and opponent of Trump. If something happens to Trump during the time when there is no vice president, Pelosi would become the president.
There is another issue that has never been decided. If vice presidential spot is open, does the ability to declare Trump incapacitated or incompetent become Pelosi’s privilege? If so, she could use that power to try to remove Trump – a possibility given the fact that many Democrats argued over the last three years that this was the way to remove Trump. However, she would still have to garner most Cabinet officials and 2/3 of the Senate and House.
The problem becomes more complicated if both Trump and Pence fall ill to the Corona virus. There is no constitutional way to remove them both. The Speaker of the House could try to declare both the President and Vice President incapacitated, with the concurrence of the majority of the Cabinet. Although the courts might allow this to take place, it is likely that the Cabinet officers, who are Republican, would prefer an incapacitated Republican president to a Democratic president.
This event might lead to a standoff that leads to the US not having a president for a short time. However, while the bureaucracy would still function, there is a need for a president to sign legislation and budgets into law.
It’s possible that in such a situation, the Cabinet might negotiate with the Speaker of the House. They might provide a majority vote to declare both the President and Vice President incapacitated in return for some consideration.
The reality is that the incapacitation of both President and Vice President poses some problems, especially if neither recovers nor dies, but remains on life support. The same problem can continue farther down the line of succession – incapacitation of the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (both of whom are much older than the President and probably more susceptible to the virus).
There is a bigger problem if Pelosi tries to declare Trump and Pence incapacitated. Such a move would have to ignore the limitations in the Constitution and would also mean a dramatic shift in the politics of the nation as the Democrats would then be in control of the White House. This could very well lead to large scale civil unrest that the military would be unable or unwilling to suppress.
In other words, the legal ascension to the presidency could become a political battle (and possibly a street battle too) that could take weeks or months. While the bureaucracy could manage to operate for a time, there must be someone who is clearly authorized to handle homeland security.
Fortunately, there is a plan in place, thanks to the Cold War and the possibility that Washington could have been leveled with a nuclear bomb, leaving the country without a clear civilian leader. The advantage of this plan is that it can handle the slow pace of the pandemic. The problem is that the walls of a bomb proof bunker might not stop this virus, which can infect others, even if they show no signs of illness.
As we noted in our analysis a couple of weeks ago, if the Corona virus gets out of control and the government must rely on military support, the authority will reside in the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in Colorado Springs Colorado. On February 1st, NORTHCOM received warning orders from the Secretary of Defense to be prepared to act.
Another part of the plan is the separation of Defense Secretary Esper and Deputy Defense Secretary Norquist in order to lessen the likelihood that both will be infected. Defense Secretary Esper in is the fifth person in the line of succession and would be a likely candidate to be sent to an isolated command headquarters.
That isolated location might be the Cheyenne Mountain facility, which was built during the Cold War and is designed to withstand a 30-megaton nuclear bomb. This bunker complex, which is 2,000 feet under the Colorado Rockies, was designed to wage a nuclear war even if the rest of America had been destroyed by a Soviet nuclear attack.
Corona-free staff have been sent into Cheyenne Mountain and are currently being isolated there. There is also the probably that others in the presidential line of succession will be sent there, including the Vice President.
These measures are being taken, “To ensure that we can defend the homeland despite this pandemic,” NORAD and NORTHCOM Commander General O’Shaughnessy said in a briefing. O’Shaughnessy would be the key commander if there is a problem with the presidential succession. He will oversee efforts defending the US if an enemy tries to take advantage of the uncertainty to attack the US. He would also be responsible for deploying the troops that would have to deal with any civil unrest caused by the political uncertainty.
There is also another team at a secret location that can take over if the Corona virus infects the Cheyenne Mountain Bunker. Undoubtedly, someone in the line of succession will be stationed there.
If the Corona virus gets out of control on the East Coast, it is likely that Vice President Pence will be flown to Cheyenne Mountain for the duration. With their separation, it should limit the chance that both the President and Vice President will be infected. Then, if the epidemic gets out of control, there will still be a civilian in control of the military.
With the military and civilian leadership protected, there remains the military itself. It appears that the four aircraft carriers in the Pacific all have cases of the Corona virus onboard – the USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Carl Vinson, USS Chester Nimitz, and the USS Ronald Reagan. Given the threats posed by the Chinese in the South China Sea and the Iranians in the Middle East, there is no possibility that all four carriers can be sent to port all at one time for quarantine and decontamination. The best alternative would be to ship the promising anti-malarial drugs to the ships so they can be given it at the earliest possible time.
Although the focus has been on those who die from the Corona virus, the evidence is that about 80% have few if any symptoms. Seriously incapacitating symptoms usually are limited to 5% – 10% of the population. So, although the civilian leadership is older (Trump 73, Pence 60, Pelosi 80, Grassley 86), the chances that they will all be incapacitated by the Corona virus are minimal. It’s also likely that all four are currently taking anti-malarial medications.
Since age is a major factor in being incapacitated by the virus, it is more likely that President Pro Tempore of the Senate Grassley and Speaker of the House Pelosi would be the ones to have the biggest problems. But House rules allow for an immediate vote for a new speaker if something happens to Pelosi. The same type of rules pertains to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
The key person in any change of leadership would be Vice President Pence. He is the one that is constitutionally delegated the sole authority to declare the president incapacitated, provided he is backed up by a majority of the Cabinet. And, Pence is the youngest and least likely to be susceptible to infection.
The military leadership is much younger and likely in better health. This means that the military side of any epidemic caused crisis is in better shape.
Although plans for succession are likely being reviewed, the chances that they will lead to a major shift in the leadership of the United States are unlikely.
Succession to the vacancy of the president:
1 – President
2 – Vice President
3 – Speaker of the House
4 – President Pro Tempore of the Senate