WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump was hospitalized last week with COVID-19, the administration sought to assure Americans he was still fit to carry out his duties as president.
While he appears to be on the way to recovery, the outbreak that has engulfed the White House and infected more than a dozen staffers has sparked questions about whether other officials in the line of succession should be self-quarantining in case the president becomes incapacitated.
The people in line to take over the president’s duties if Trump were to become gravely ill are “not taking seriously their responsibilities as best we can tell under succession” regarding their health and safety, said political scientist Norman Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
Take these examples: The vice president is still traveling, and so is the secretary of state. A senior Republican senator in the line of succession won’t even get a COVID test, even though he was at a committee hearing with another senator who has tested positive.
Trump and other Republicans have come under fire for disregarding Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including social distancing and mask-wearing.
The White House and the Trump campaign hosted events that drew thousands of people in close proximity, including a Rose Garden event now thought to be a “superspreader” for the virus. And after Trump’s positive test and quarantine, the campaign didn’t quit in-person events.
And Republican officials in the line of succession have, for the most part, kept up their usual schedules and practices.
On Oct. 4, with Trump still hospitalized for COVID-19, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left for a trip to Asia. Although he trimmed his itinerary, he still met with a parade of dignitaries, including Japan’s prime minister.
In an interview Friday morning with the Hugh Hewitt Show, Pompeo said he has never had any concerns about Trump’s fitness for duty. “None,” he said when Hewitt asked if he’d ever had a moment of doubt about whether Trump was fully in charge.
Trump is “not the least bit tired,” Pompeo said, adding he has had “long conversations” with Trump to keep him updated on world affairs.
On Saturday Trump held a campaign-style rally on the South Lawn, saying he’d been cleared by his doctor to resume public events. But the question lingers: If he were to experience a relapse in symptoms and become seriously ill, who would take charge?
“In a responsible administration, you would at least have in reserve a letter signed by the president turning authority temporarily over to the vice president, so that there’s a clear chain of command in case you become incapacitated before you can do that,” Ornstein said.
Under the 25th Amendment, the president could notify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Senate GOP’s senior member, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that he is unable to function, transferring power to Vice President Mike Pence until the president indicates he is able to return.
The amendment both set up the process for the president to voluntarily relinquish duties and created a method – which has never been used – for powers to be taken away when others believe the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
If Trump believes he can still do his job but Pence and a majority of the Cabinet disagree, a transfer of power to Pence would require the backing of two-thirds of both the House and Senate. Lawmakers could also designate through legislation an alternative group – other than the Cabinet – that the vice president could work with to declare Trump unable to serve.