Three months after President Donald Trump suggested that the novel coronavirus would “just disappear,” the former reality star confirmed that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the virus. This comes days after the first presidential debate — where he ridiculed Joe Biden for his mask-wearing habits — and hours after a Bloomberg report revealed that Hope Hicks, one of his closest aides, had tested positive. The evening after the news broke, the AP reported Trump is set to spend a “few days” at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as a precaution, noting that “he would work from the hospital’s presidential suite.”
More than 207,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, which has infected more than 7.3 million people across the nation, according to data from The New York Times— but President Trump, who is 74 years old and overweight, is particularly vulnerable. At the time of this writing, the First Lady claims that the pair are “feeling good,” but Trump’s diagnosis has, as CNN put it, “rattled” the global markets and US stock futures amidst growing concerns about the future of the election and his administration. So, what happens now?
How quarantine may look for Donald Trump
First, there’s the most likely scenario— that nothing out of the ordinary will happen. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows confirmed to CNBC that President Donald Trump’s symptoms are mild, and he’s in “good spirits.” Furthermore, White House physician Dr. Sean Conley said in a memo that he expects the president to “continue carrying out his duties without disruption” as he recovers.
It’s important to remember that while the novel coronavirus can be devastating, millions of patients around the globe have been asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. According to a July 2020 research note by John Hudak, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management, this is the very reason that a positive test is “not a cause for emergency.” “The president would likely be able to continue his everyday activities and manage the office either undisturbed or with mild challenges,” he wrote.
If his symptoms don’t progress, the only major logistical challenge of Trump’s diagnosis would be quarantine, since he requires 24-hour Secret Service protection and must steer clear from the rest of the White House staff. According to CNBC, some staffers who came into contact with the president prior to his diagnosis have already started working from home. “Given modern technology, the president could quarantine and have remote or sufficiently distanced contact from most, if not all, aides, including the individual(s) who would be involved in the presidential daily brief,” Hudak wrote.
Donald Trump may see canceled campaign events
It’s no secret that President Donald Trump has been playing fast and loose with coronavirus guidelines. According to CNN, he planned to ignore his own task force’s advice by throwing upcoming rallies in Wisconsin, where citizens were told to increase social distancing measurements amidst an expected “intense period of viral surge.” Similarly, Bloomberg reports that Trump kept a full schedule of events following Hope Hicks’ diagnosis, even jet-setting to New Jersey for a fundraiser on the same day he tested positive. This directly defies the CDC’s recommendations, which state that anyone exposed to the virus should quarantine even if they don’t feel sick.
Now, with a positive test, the future of Trump’s campaign is murkier than ever. According to the New York Daily News, the White House has canceled all of the president’s public engagements on Friday, including his Florida rally. The only remaining item on his public schedule was a “private phone call” about “COVID-19 support to vulnerable seniors,” which he asked Mike Pence to take over, according to CNN.
It’s likely that Trump will opt out of scheduled appearances for the next week and a half, in accordance with the CDC’s 10-day quarantine guidelines. The next presidential debate, which takes place on Oct. 15, falls outside of this window. As long as his symptoms are improving and he does not have a fever in the 24 hours prior, Trump should be able to attend.
Mike Pence may step in if Donald Trump gets seriously ill
Though President Donald Trump is experiencing mild symptoms, his age and obesity put him in a higher risk category. So, what happens if he gets seriously ill? Vice President Mike Pence would have to step up, but the process depends on the swiftness of Trump’s decline.
According to John Hudak’s research note, if Trump has advance warning that he’s going to be put on a ventilator or receive therapies that will affect his cognitive abilities, he can invoke Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. This makes the vice president a temporary “acting president” until he recovers, but he must first send written notice to the House of Representatives and Senate. This process is fairly common, and both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush invoked Section 3 before planned procedures where they had to receive anesthesia or heavy sedation.
If Trump declines with little warning, Pence and the cabinet majority can invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. This, too, requires written notice to the House and Senate. Like Section 3, he would temporarily serve as “acting president” until Trump can resume his duties.
At the time of this writing, Pence has tested negative for the coronavirus, but there is a line of succession should he become incapacitated at the same time as Trump. In this case, the role of acting president would be passed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then Sen. Chuck Grassley, the president pro tempore.
What if Donald Trump has complications before Election Day?
COVID-19 has already claimed the lives of more than a million people across the globe. Though President Donald Trump’s case appears to be mild, there’s always the possibility of complications. So, what happens if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated? It depends on whether it’s before or after the official election. Let’s focus on before, first.
If Trump dies before the election, things get complicated quickly. The Washington Post reports that the Republican National Committee (RNC) has “the power to replace the party’s nominee for president,” but this will only go swiftly if each state’s voting members agree on a replacement. Even then, we’re down to the wire. At the time of this writing, we’re 32 days out from the election, and many people have already cast their ballots. It’s not as simple as just replacing the candidate’s name — especially because we’re past the state’s deadlines to add new candidates.
Since it’s too late to change a name on the ballot, the RNC could “go to court and seek an order” permitting the name change, but it’s also too late to reprint ballots. In this case, Trump’s name would stay on the ballot, and the electoral college would likely vote for the RNC’s replacement, but it’s unclear what happens in the states where electors are required to vote for whoever wins the popular vote.
What if Donald Trump has complications before Inauguration Day?
Things get even murkier if President Donald Trump wins the election but dies or remains incapacitated during the lame duck period before Inauguration Day. In the simplest circumstance, the 20th Amendment is clear. The vice president becomes president if the president-elect dies or is permanently incapacitated. This means that if Trump wins the election and dies before January 20th, Vice President Mike Pence would become president— but it’s not that simple. The Guardian predicts this would likely “involve discussions and probably battles at state, party, electoral college and court level.” After all, people voted for Trump, not Pence.
This scenario raises a number of questions on the electoral level. Not all electors are legally bound to the popular vote, but are generally loyal to their parties. The Washington Post reports that in this case, electors would likely vote for the RNC’s replacement instead of an incapacitated nominee, but the RNC could be divided and not vote for a single Republican candidate. If there’s no majority winner, the House chooses the president from the top three candidates who received the most votes.
Again, it’s unclear what happens to the electors who are legally bound to voting for candidate who cannot serve. According to The Washington Post, the Supreme Court attempted to address this with Chiafalo v. Washington, and ruled that states can bind electors to the popular vote, but they didn’t address what happens with an incapacitated or deceased candidate.
Could the election be postponed?
As The Guardian put it, the United States faces “an unprecedented electoral crisis” if President Donald Trump dies or becomes incapacitated following his COVID-19 diagnosis. In this worst-case scenario, some may argue to postpone the election— but this isn’t a simple decision.
The US election was set by law in 1845. As it stands, Election Day must be held “on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years,” according to The Guardian. Only an act of Congress, approved by both the House and Senate, could postpone it. Even then, NBC News reports that Republicans — including Trump’s longtime supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham — have previously dismissed his suggestion to delay the election because of the on-going pandemic and disproven claims of mail-in voting fraud.
Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be strange for an unprecedented situation to warrant new legislation like what happened following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, but the full scope of RNC’s dilemma will only reveal itself in the coming weeks.
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