25th Amendment Explainer: What Happens if Trump Is Deemed Unfit to Serve
It’s complicated, but our Constitution provides for continuity
President Donald Trump’s diagnosis with Covid-19 just a month before the presidential election has been the latest shock to the United States in what was already a year marked by uncertainty and instability.
Although modern presidents have had significant health challenges in the recent past — Dwight Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack in 1955, and Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in 1981 — none has occurred so near an election.
While many people with the coronavirus don’t get seriously ill, Trump has a number of major risk factors as an overweight male septuagenarian. If his conditions worsen beyond the mild symptoms already reported, it creates the potential for legal and constitutional crises.
So what happens to the country if Trump gets really sick?
Under Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, the president can voluntarily turn over power to the vice president if he is unable to serve. The president simply sends a letter to the speaker of the house and the president pro tempore of the Senate stating his disability. Once he has recovered, he can send another letter and reclaim power. Per Brian Kalt, a professor at Michigan State School of Law, who has studied the 25th Amendment extensively, there’s no formal process for sending the letter, and it becomes operative once it is sent.
Is there any precedent for this?
Yes, it has been invoked three times since the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967, once by Ronald Reagan and twice by George W. Bush. All three times took place when the incumbent was undergoing a colonoscopy.
So then Pence becomes president?
Yes. When the 25th Amendment is invoked, Pence has all the “powers and duties” of the office as acting president. However, as Kalt pointed out, it means he is not serving as vice president, and that office is functionally vacant. This means Pence cannot perform his only constitutionally mandated duty as president of the Senate. In…