President Trump Has COVID-19: Now What?

By Andrew Leonatti on October 02, 2020

President Donald Trump announced that he tested positive for COVID-19 after a week of campaign events. The president is quarantining at the White House.

The news affects not just the daily discharging of presidential duties, but there is the matter of an election with Trump on the ballot already underway. In the former, there are clear procedures, but in the latter ... it could get complicated.

What Happens if Trump Cannot Fulfill His Duties?

It's easy to view everything through the prism of the election. However, even if he loses reelection, Trump is still president until January 20, 2021, leaving him in charge of national security, the country's nuclear arsenal, signing bills into law, and many other duties.

If Trump only ends up having a minor case of the virus, not much will change. The president can conduct almost all of his daily duties from the safety of quarantine within the White House. If necessary, he could even address the nation via Zoom.

Should the president succumb to the virus, be hospitalized, or become too ill to fulfill his duties, Vice President Mike Pence, who has tested negative, would step in.

If the same outcome befell Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, would assume the duties of the president. Next in line after her would be Senate President Pro Tem. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, followed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The inclusion of the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tem is important, as then-Secretary of State Al Haig famously forgot in 1981, when he said, "As of now, I am in control here, in the White House," after President Ronald Reagan was shot and Vice President George H.W. Bush was traveling and unreachable.

Trump's Diagnosis and the 25th Amendment

Despite all the talk among Left Twitter about using the 25th Amendment to oust Trump from office, there was never much of a case for it. His diagnosis now highlights the amendment's true purpose.

Should he become too ill to fulfill his duties, the vice president and a majority of cabinet secretaries can declare to Congress that the vice president is now acting president. When Trump recovers, he can then re-assume his duties upon notifying Congress. If he was trying to "tough it out" and not in any shape to fulfill his duties, then Pence and the cabinet secretaries could follow the same process again, and Congress would have to meet to decide on the issue. This is unlikely to occur, we should note.

What About the Election?

Right now, the news is affecting the presidential election by capturing more people's attention. But what would happen if Trump died before or after the election?

If Trump wins reelection, Congress certifies the results of the Electoral College, and then Trump dies before the inauguration, then Pence would become president. Beyond that, prepare for chaos.

If Congress has not counted the results of the Electoral College yet, and Congress refused to count votes for a dead candidate, the House would then be in charge of voting for president.

If the president-elect dies before the Electoral College meets, then the process will likely get messy enough to test our mettle as a nation and involve numerous court challenges.

Ballots have already been mailed and printed in many states. This means replacing Trump on the ballot would most likely involve the courts for states that don't have laws about replacing a candidate's name on the ballot.

If Trump were to be incapacitated on Election Day — if he had to be placed on a ventilator, for example — well, that has yet to happen in our country's history. This blog's advice is to cross your fingers for the president's recovery and for everything to go smoothly.

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