With the coronavirus infecting the White House, the issue of presidential succession is no longer academic. Elected leaders are not immune to this equal opportunity pandemic. Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson was so afflicted and temporarily turned his duties over to the foreign secretary.
The line of succession in the United States is clearly specified in the 1947 Presidential Succession Act and less so in the Constitution's Article II and 12th, 20th and 25th Amendments. The Succession Act puts the vice president, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate in line, followed by the Cabinet, headed by the secretary of State. Chuck Grassley is Senate president pro tempore.
A president, in case of incapacitation, can delegate to the vice president duties as acting president. Or the 25th Amendment can apply "whenever the vice president and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide" declare a president incapacitated, the vice president will assume those duties. But what happens if the president and vice president are incapacitated by COVID-19?
Obviously, the extent of incapacitation is important. Suppose it is for an extended period. Would a Republican Cabinet vote to make Democrat Nancy Pelosi acting president? And if not, would Congress provide another "body" to make that determination given a Republican Senate certain to oppose such action? The 25th Amendment is silent.
Suppose both the president and vice president succumb to the virus. Speaker Pelosi then would automatically become president even though some might challenge the constitutionality of the 1947 Succession Act. With a November presidential election, looming, would the Democrats still nominate former Vice President Joe Biden? And who would Republicans nominate?
In these circumstances, COVID-19 could provoke a constitutional and political crisis unlike any other. The only time a president and vice president left office prematurely was during the Nixon administration. Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in October 1973 charged with bribery as Maryland's past governor. Under the 25th Amendment, Gerald Ford was approved as vice president by Congress and then became president when Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 over Watergate.
Succession has been the stuff of Hollywood, too. Recently, Netflix produced the Designated Survivor series when only the secretary of education survived an explosion that killed the president, his entire Cabinet, eight members of the Supreme Court and virtually all the members of Congress, elevating him to the presidency.
Do the coronavirus and COVID-19 then mandate considering revisions to the Constitution or the Succession Act to deal with these and other possible future disruptions? Return to President Pelosi; What would she do as president in terms of reversing the Trump agenda, as well as releasing damaging privileged material or require members of the executive branch who were prevented to testify before Congress on Russia or Ukraine? And if President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence recovered, then what?
If Pelosi remained in office until January and the election of a new president, a Republican Senate could block or obstruct any legislation or appointments. She then would probably issue executive orders. However, the white hot politicization would only grow more intense.
Further, Pelosi could become infected. In those circumstances, what are the rules about choosing an interim speaker, as the 25th Amendment does not apply? If she dies, would the president pro tempore succeed her until a new speaker is elected? And what are the rules regarding a serving senator becoming acting or even president. Presumably, he would have to resign from the Senate, although he could be reappointed by his state governor after the president was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021.
Clearly, coronavirus and COVID-19 raise profound questions about governance and governing, most of which have been understandably unaddressed so far. I have written about a new MAD replacing the old Cold War specter of Mutual Assured Destruction in a thermonuclear war that was societally devastating through Massive Acts of Disruption, whether of man or nature. Climate change, massive cyberattacks and other black swan events now make the new MAD more relevant and significant.
For the future, ensuring security, stability and prosperity may rest on the ability to contain or prevent Massive Acts of Disruption. This brief excursion about presidential succession is suggestive of how consequential and vital fashioning a means to cope with disruptions is. A major departure from the Trump "America first" view is the essential need for partners and allies in this endeavor.
In this new MAD world, partnership will be essential in maintaining security, stability and prosperity. But will this come to pass?
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. He is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts."