With weeks to go before the US presidential election, President Donald Trump dropped a bombshell early on Friday morning when he announced that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for Covid-19. In a statement released moments later, Trump’s personal physician clarified that he is currently under quarantine and is expected to “continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering”.
“This evening I received confirmation that both President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence,” Physician to the US president Sean Patrick Conley’s statement read.
— Dana Regev (@Dana_Regev) October 2, 2020
Trump is 74 years old and overweight, which places him in a potentially higher risk category for complications associated with the deadly infection. Even if he remains asymptomatic, Trump will have to isolate himself at the White House and temporarily withdraw from the campaign trail.
But what happens if Donald Trump becomes seriously ill?
The 25th amendment of the US constitution lays down a clear succession plan if a president suddenly dies, resigns or is incapacitated while still in office. The amendment was ratified by Congress in 1963 following the assassination of former President John F Kennedy.
As per Section 3 of the 25th amendment, if Trump’s condition were to deteriorate to a point where he is unable to carry out his responsibilities as President, his Vice President Mike Pence can temporarily assume office. Once Trump recovers, he can then reclaim his position.
In order to hand over power to the vice president while he is recovering, Trump will have to send a written declaration stating that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” to the Senate’s President Pro Tempore, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, as well as to Nancy Pelosi, the current speaker of the House of Representatives.
Under Section 4 of the 25th amendment, the Vice President and a majority of either the Cabinet or any other body established by law, can also declare the president as “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” by sending a written declaration to Grassley and Pelosi.
In such a situation, Pence will immediately assume the powers of the president until Trump responds in writing that he is not, in fact, disabled. The Vice President and the Cabinet or review body then has four days to respond.
Has the 25th amendment been invoked by US Presidents in the past?
The 25th amendment has been invoked only three times in US history by two different presidents but for the same reason — a colonoscopy.
In 1985, former Vice President George Bush briefly assumed presidential responsibilities while then-President Ronald Reagan underwent the invasive procedure.
More recently, President George W Bush invoked the amendment twice during colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007, temporarily turning over power to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
But, what if the President and Vice President are both unable to serve?
In a highly unlikely scenario where both the President and Vice President were to contract the illness and pass away, the constitution also lays down a clear line of succession. According to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, if both Trump and Pence are suddenly incapacitated, US House of Representatives Speaker and California Democrat Nancy Peolosi will take over as commander-in-chief of the United States.
However, earlier this year, the White House said that this was not at all a cause for concern. “That’s not even something that we’re addressing,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. “We’re keeping the president healthy. We’re keeping the vice president healthy and, you know, they’re healthy at this moment and they’ll continue to be.”
Experts warn that there is a high possibility of a bitter succession dispute between Democrats and Republicans if a situation like this were to arise.
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What happens if a presidential candidate falls ill or dies before an election?
Soon after testing positive for Covid-19, Trump cancelled all campaign fundraisers and rallies scheduled to take place in the coming weeks. He will have to withdraw from all in-person events and remain isolated until his condition improves, creating a scenario that is far from ideal with just a month to go before polling day on November 3.
However, what would happen if his condition were to worsen before the election? If Donald Trump or any other candidate were to pass away before the election then it would be up to their political party to choose their successor.
While the party is highly likely to choose the vice presidential candidate as the new presidential nominee, the procedure is not set in stone and the party also has the option of choosing someone else entirely.
How many presidents have died while still in office?
So far, a total of eight Presidents have died while still occupying the Oval Office at the White House. Of these, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away due to natural causes, while Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy were all assassinated while still in office.
In each of these instances, the Vice President has assumed the presidency.
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