Trump has contracted COVID. According to some reports his symptoms have been concerning, including being short of breath and having his oxygen saturation levels drop to dangerous levels. He took an unapproved, experimental drug cocktail under a compassionate use exception by a major drug company. He followed that up with corticosteroids, which usually indicates he has more than just a mild case. We know that he has multiple comorbidities, including his age, obesity, heart disease, and a possible — though this is purely speculative — history of TIA’s and/or strokes. He spent the weekend at the hospital and, despite being discharged this evening, is still very much infected with a notoriously unpredictable and fickle virus.
The President of the United States is at risk. That should concern everybody, regardless of your politics. If nothing else, it is an issue of national security.
Despite a state-of-the-art medical suite in the White House, Trump opted to fly to Walter Reed Medical Center for a few days of “precautionary” observation. The press conferences with his doctor since then have created more questions than answers, particularly about when he was first diagnosed and his symptoms since then. Since getting to the hospital, he sent out some pretty weird videos in an attempt to make it seem like he was just fine.
Then came yesterday, when he jumped into his presidential SUV (risking infection of his enclosed secret service agents) and went for a joy ride to wave at his fans outside the hospital. Then today, before being discharged back to the White House, he sent out what I think is the most irresponsible tweet of his presidency:
Not to be outdone by himself, he posted an even more disgusting video about how we shouldn’t be afraid of the virus. He’s fine so there’s nothing to worry about.
“Don’t let it dominate you.” Tell that to the 210,000 Americans who’ve died. Disgusting beyond belief, especially when he’s only healed for the camera and definitely not out of the woods. He got back to the White House and stood on the balcony for all to see him rip his mask off and do his best Mussolini impression. Trouble is, it wasn’t the strongman scene he thought it was. He was gasping for air like a fish out of water.
THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE.
The super-spreader event appears to have been the maskless Rose Garden ceremony (and multiple indoor cocktail parties) for the announcement of the nomination of Amy Coney Barret to the Supreme Court. Since Trump’s announcement, there have been a cascade of prominent figures testing positive. As of today, that list includes:
- Melania Trump
- Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany
- North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis
- Utah Senator Mike Lee
- Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson
- White House Communications Director Hope Hicks
- Chairwoman of the Republican National Committe Ronna McDaniel
- Former Campaign Manager and WH Counselor Kellyanne Conway
- President of Notre Dame University Rev. John I. Jenkins
- Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien
- Former Governor of NJ Chris Christie
- Three White House Reporters
- Two deputy press secretaries
- Eleven staffers from the debate in Cleveland
- Florida Senator Rick Scott? (he said on TV that he tested positive, but later said he misspoke and is actually negative)
The White House still has not instituted a mask mandate and Vice President Mike Pence is still planning on holding a rally next week in Arizona. The incompetence, hypocrisy, and idiocy of the GOP on the virus has been devastating, and it must be mentioned that this outcome was not unexpected, but likely inevitable with how irresponsibly they have behaved in the past weeks and months. I’ve written about that though, so I won’t belabor the point. Right now we need a functional government, so we need to be prepared for what might happen next. A weakened country with a leadership crisis is at extraordinary risk of danger from those who might wish her harm.
Despite my ordinary disgust for the president, I genuinely do not wish harm on him — but the question still needs to be asked: What happens if the President and/or members of his administration either die or become incapacitated from the virus? Many of the powerful people in his orbit are in high-risk categories. What happens next for the Supreme Court Nomination? The election? If you thought before that the next few months would be crazy, come along for a wild ride.
If the president becomes incapacitated and is not able to discharge his duties, the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution allows the Vice President (Pence), with a majority of the cabinet approving, to submit a statement to the Speaker of the House (Pelosi) and the Senate Pro Temp (Grassley), a declaration saying so. Once the declaration is made, the Vice President assumes the presidency as Acting President. If and when the President become competent again, he may deliver a statement saying he is no longer incapacitated. He then reassumes the presidency unless the VP, the majority of the cabinet, and 2/3 of both the House and Senate vote to replace the President with the VP. At that point, the VP becomes president permanently. You may not know this, but twice during colonoscopies where George W. Bush had to be under anesthesia, Dick Cheney was Acting President for a short time in 2002 and 2007. Same for George H.W. Bush when Reagan underwent surgery in 1985.
In the event of death, resignation, or incapacity, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 lays out who will become president and in what order. Currently, the order of succession is:
- Vice President Mike Pence
- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
- Senate Pro Temp Chuck Grassley
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
- Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin
- Secretary of Defense (statute says War) Mark Esper
- Attorney General Bill Barr
- Postmaster General Louis DeJoy
- Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite
- Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt
- Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue
- Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross
- Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia
After that, we’re probably in a nuclear holocaust so it won’t much matter.
What about the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court nomination? This actually gets pretty interesting. Since Republicans were downplaying the dangers of COVID for the past six months, they never enacted proxy voting or remote voting. Which means in order to vote at all, senators have to be physically present in the Senate chamber. To change those rules, they would likely need a 2/3 vote by the full senate — if the GOP wants to change the rules just to push through this judge, a 2/3 vote is not happening.
Even more interesting — Article I, Section V requires that in order to vote on anything, the Senate must have a quorum, which means at least 51 senators must be present to have any vote. The Vice President does not count as a vote for quorum purposes. Republicans currently hold 53 Senate seats, and three Senators just tested positive for COVID. McConnell has put off legislative business, but committee hearings will continue. If they make it to a vote before the election and those three senators don’t make it (and the democrats don’t show up), they don’t have a quorum and they can’t vote. Two weeks from now they may be testing negative, or they may still be sick. There may be 5 more senators testing positive in the meantime. Regardless of what happens, the vote is potentially in danger. Let’s also remember that Murkowski and Collins will not be voting for anybody before the election so they may not even have the votes. Time will tell.
What about the election? If Trump died, would he still be on the ballot? Yes. The election has already begun, between early voting and mail-in ballots. The cake is already baked to some extent and those ballots cannot be changed. Ordinarily, if a candidate dies after getting nominated but before the election, the party can simply choose a replacement and they can get put on the ballot if there’s time. There’s no time left, so many states would end up with a great deal of votes for a deceased candidate. So do those go to Pence? No. Maybe? There is very little guidance on exactly what would happen, particularly because state election laws vary so greatly.
The unlikely hero here would be the much-maligned Electoral College. We don’t actually have a democracy in America. We do not elect the president. The electors do, but the Supreme Court, this term, ruled that states can bind their electors to the winner of the popular vote by enacting penalties for faithless voting. But what if they’re bound to vote for a dead guy? The Constitution still gives them independent judgment. While they might be subject to punishment for their technically faithless vote for someone other than the dead guy, they could still put Pence in office.
But with the states varying greatly in their laws and electors, this may still result in one candidate not getting 270 electoral votes. What then?
Then the election goes to the House of Representatives, where each of the states congressional delegations vote for the president. Currently, Republicans control more state delegations (even though Democrats have more representatives).
At the end of the day, if Trump were to die from COVID, it would be absolute mayhem politically, but there is a (messy) path forward.