Foreign Policy

What if a presidential candidate dies earlier than election day?

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President Donald Trump's fight against the coronavirus appeared to intensify today as reports leaked that the U.S. commander in chief was being given oxygen prior to his hospital stay. Anonymous sources close to the White House warned Trump had entered a critical period in his treatment.

The scanty reports from the Walter Reed Medical Center, where Trump was admitted for treatment on Friday, deepen questions among U.S. officials, allies and opponents about the state of the 74-year-old president and what could happen if Trump becomes incapable of serving .

To answer these questions, Foreign policy took a look at Trump's prospects for recovery, possible avenues for presidential succession, and what that means less than a month before a hotly contested election.

How serious is the president's condition?

From Saturday afternoon, contradicting messages come from the White House almost simultaneously. In a briefing to reporters on Saturday, White House Doctor Sean Conley said Trump was "very good" and was recovering from a light cough and fatigue. Immediately after the briefing, White House pool reporters released the following statement from “a source familiar with the president's health”: “The president's vital signs for the past 24 hours have been very worrying and the next 48 hours will be from him Its vital to care. We are still not on a clear path to a full recovery. "(Later reports suggested the anonymous source was White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.)

Trump has received experimental antibody treatment that is still in clinical trials and the vast majority of people with COVID-19 are recovering. The overall death rate from the virus is just under 3 percent of confirmed cases in the United States. However, due to his advanced age and obesity, he is still at high risk.

The duel messages prompted Trump himself to downplay a Twitter letter on Saturday afternoon in which he was concerned about his health: “Doctors, nurses and EVERYONE at GREAT Walter Reed Medical Center and others from also incredible facilities who have joined them are AMAZING !!! The president insisted he was "comfortable" and began firing more tweets, calling on Congress to pass a deadlocked coronavirus stimulus measure.

How about Joe Biden?

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president, announced on Friday that he tested negative for the coronavirus after sparring in close proximity to Trump in the first presidential debate this week just before his diagnosis was announced. (Both were maskless.) Biden's runner-up, California Senator Kamala Harris, also announced that she tested negative. However, many health experts say Biden will need to do more tests in the coming days to confirm the negative diagnosis after the president faced possible contagion.

What if Trump Worsens?

As legal experts and election observers have pointed out, when a president becomes seriously ill, incapacitated, or worse – without being too alarming, it is important to understand the electoral process. The 25th amendment The Constitution allows the President to temporarily delegate his powers to the Vice-President if he becomes incapacitated or too ill to do his job properly. Vice President Mike Pence, unlike other White House advisors, has tested negative for the virus. Should the Vice President become incapacitated in any way, the powers of the Presidency would be transferred to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Third in line for the presidency is the President of the Senate, Republican Senator from Iowa Chuck Grassley, and fourth in line is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Although government officials have insisted that the chain of command remain intact in the event the U.S. military has to respond to a crisis, the president's temporary incapacity has historically at least created visual problems for the White House. After the 1981 assassination attempt in which President Ronald Reagan was hospitalized, then Foreign Secretary Alexander Haig wrongly insisted at a press conference that he was temporarily responsible for the country.

OK, but what if one of the candidates becomes incapacitated or dies before the election?

This is where things get complicated, even if it's an unlikely scenario, according to Joshua Tucker and Richard Pildes, both professors at New York University who have studied these issues in depth Washington Post Monkey cage Blog. The constitution provides a roadmap, but not for all possible eventualities. If a candidate wins the presidency but dies before taking office in January, thanks to the 20th amendment to the constitution, there is a clear answer: the elected vice president (in this case either Pence or Harris) would become president.

If a candidate dies before the election, the national party committees would choose a new candidate to top each ticket.

But we are still a month away from the elections and some states have already started voting.

This is where the already complicated becomes much more complicated, as Tucker and Pildes explain. Each state has deadlines for when the names of candidates can be put on the ballot. Most have come and gone. And in many states, especially after the pandemic, postal ballots have been sent out and voters are already sending in their ballot papers. At that point, even if Trump died or incapacitated, there would be no practical way for the Republican National Committee to pick a new candidate and then have each state re-compose their ballots to reflect the new ticket. These are uncharted waters and it would take historical and complex litigation to figure out how to proceed.

So it could be the electoral college?

Type of. In some states, but not all, electoral college delegates are required to cast one vote for the candidate who wins the state's referendum. Even in countries without these binding laws, the election delegates follow the referendum in practice. The problem arises when a winner dies or becomes incapacitated: there is no precedent and little state legislation to address such an eventuality. This suggests more uncharted waters and the threat of litigation should this happen.

What if no candidate can get a majority in the electoral college?

Then, as in 1876, it would go to the House of Representatives to decide – but not by direct vote as in normal House legislation. Instead, each delegation to the State Congress receives one vote for one of the top three recipients of votes in the elections. In this long-term scenario, this could give the Republicans a slight edge, as they control slightly more state delegations than Democrats.

The staff author Jack Detsch contributed to this report.

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