President Donald Trump’s diagnosis with COVID-19 just a month before Election Day raises the question of what happens in the unlikely case a nominee is unable to continue as a candidate for the presidency.
The answer is murky at best, and complicated, with little precedent to follow.
Trump arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday night, where he will be treated for “the next few days,” the White House said. There was no indication yet that he could not continue as a candidate for re-election against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Theoretically, Congress could pass a bill to delay the election, signed into law by the president. But with a Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate that couldn’t strike a deal for a coronavirus relief package for Americans eight months into a pandemic, it’s highly unlikely both chambers could come to an agreement.
Should something happen to a party nominee before the election, the selection of a new candidate falls to the political parties, the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. And there’s no guarantee that either political party would defer to their vice presidential nominee to replace the presidential nominee.
A similar scenario occurred in 1912 when Vice President James Sherman, a Republican, died on Oct. 30.
There was no time to convene a GOP convention to nominate a new candidate to replace Sherman on President William Howard Taft’s ticket, but that didn’t matter in the end as Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson. Still, the RNC picked the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, to replace Sherman.
Wilson’s second term parallels Trump’s, in not only dealing with a global pandemic during their presidencies, but contracting viruses, said Ken Cosgrove, a political science professor at Suffolk University in Boston.
The influenza of 1918 killed more than 675,000 Americans in a span of 15 months while the Wilson administration largely ignored the pandemic. Wilson contracted the flu himself in 1919 during Paris peace talks and while he eventually recovered, historians have found he was never the same.
“Our response to the pandemic in 2020 isn’t radically different than what went on in some ways in the pandemic of 1918,” Cosgrove said.
Six months later, Wilson suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated and his wife, first lady Edith Wilson, led the presidency.
“Woodrow Wilson basically had some kind of neurological issue while he was president and they essentially hid it from the country,” Cosgrove said. “I don’t think you could do that now.”
The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, now can be invoked if the president is deemed incapacitated. The amendment establishes presidential succession procedures.
The long-lasting effects of COVID-19 are still relatively unknown.
Some patients are lucky, and only experience mild symptoms, while some can have chest pain or fatigue for months later and lung damage.
If the president were to win re-election, survive the coronavirus but be left incapacitated, then it’s most likely the 25th Amendment would be invoked, Cosgrove said.
Past the election but before the inauguration, it comes down to timing.
The Electoral College counts votes on Dec. 14 and then Congress counts those votes on Jan. 6 of the following year.
The 20th Amendment makes it clear that the rules of succession apply if the president-elect dies. The role falls to the vice president-elect.
But there’s no clear definition of when the winning candidate becomes a president-elect, although after Jan. 6, when Congress counts the votes, the winning candidate assumes the title.