For a person who was super confident that the coronavirus will have nothing to do with him—and vice versa—the news that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump both tested positive for COVID-19 must have come as a bolt out of the blue to the White House and campaign staffers as well as his core constituency, which has been going by his guidelines of not measuring up to any norms pertaining to wearing masks or maintaining social distancing.
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Now that the POTUS is down and in quarantine at the White House, the question that no one can answer for sure is the future of his campaigning and how it is that he is going to rebound after recovery.
The first thing that has come to the minds of many is the 25th Amendment to the American constitution that lays down the succession in the event of an incumbent dying in office or incapacitated to the extent of not being able to carry out his duties. The amendment that came into force in 1967 is particularly relevant as the President of the United States oversees a large nuclear weapons arsenal and hence has his finger on the nuclear button.
In the immediate context, the question of President Trump being moved aside by force of the 25th Amendment does not arise as his chief personal physician has said the President is expected to “continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering” and that the President and First Lady “are both well at this time and plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence”, according to the chief physician. Much depends at this time on how the infection affects the President—he is 74 years old, in the obese category and hence at higher risk.
If Trump’s health condition worsens and he is unable to carry out his duties, he will have to send a written document to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President Pro Tem of the Senate; and during his recovery, Vice President Mike Pence will be the Acting President until such time Trump recovers and reclaims his position. But another section of the 25th Amendment also says the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet or any other body established by law can also declare a President “unable to discharge the powers and duties” by notifying the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate.
The 25th Amendment has been used sparingly in history and by two Republican Presidents—Ronald Reagan in 1985 and twice by President George W Bush in 2002 and 2007 when both of them underwent procedures for colonoscopy. George Herbert Walker Bush and Dick Cheney briefly served as Presidents.
In the rare event that both the sitting President and Vice President become incapacitated, the line of succession goes to the Speaker of the House of Representatives who becomes the commander-in-chief. In this case, it will be Nancy Pelosi of California. However, the White House has said that at this point of time, it is not even discussing the 25th Amendment.
“That is not even something that we are addressing. We are keeping the President healthy. We are keeping the Vice President healthy… They are healthy at this moment and they will continue to be,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany has said.
As far as Donald Trump being unable to continue campaigning, and at a time when a decision has been made on him withdrawing from the race, his replacement on the ticket will be made by the Republican Party. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that Mike Pence will be elevated to the top of the ticket. That is a political call elders in the party would have to take along with the Republican National Committee, and something that is not going to be easy. It is also going to be equally messy if both Trump and Pence are incapacitated and Pelosi gets hold of the mantle. Rank and file GOP representatives will create a huge fuss and insist that the baton be handed over to Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is the President Pro Tem of the Senate. However, at this point, nearly everything is speculative.
There is no question about the fact that the President taking a hit with COVID has certainly put a damper on his political campaigning. His campaign staffers are confident that he will be up, running and ready for the next debate in Miami, Florida on October 15 but many others are cautioning that two weeks is too long a period of time to say anything with certainty.
For a person who loves boisterous and outdoor rallies and specializes in deliberately discarding all precautions like masks and social distancing, it is difficult to see Trump campaigning from the Oval Office or the living quarters of the White House. He has consistently poked fun at “Sleepy Joe” running his campaign from the former Vice President’s home basement in Delaware. However, for now, all rallies and campaigns of Trump scheduled in Ohio and Wisconsin have been cancelled.
One thing is for sure: barely a month to go before the November 3 showdown, a huge element of uncertainty has been injected into the elections process.
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations)