President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus and is showing "mild symptoms" according to the White House. Although he is being moved to Walter Reed Medical Center for at least a few days, Trump spokeswoman Alyssa Farah told the New York Times he has not transferred power to Vice President Mike Pence, who has tested negative. The 25th Amendment to the Constitution could kick in if Trump is unable to perform his duties.
The 25th Amendment outlines presidential succession and what happens if a president is incapacitated. It was ratified by the states in February 1967 and stems from concerns that came up during President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration in the 1950s. Eisenhower had a heart attack in September 1955 and needed emergency surgery in July 1956. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon took over Eisenhower's duties during each instance, but there was no formal law outlining this.
Eisenhower was 70 when he finished his second term, making him the oldest president in U.S. history at the time, notes NPR. Since President John F. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected president, followed, concerns about presidential succession subsided for a brief time. When Kennedy was assassinated though, Congress decided it was finally time to address an issue in the Constitution. Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 says the vice president takes the powers and responsibilities of the president if the president becomes unable to serve, but it did not specify how to determine that. The 25th Amendment sought to fix that by making sure the country has a chief executive if the president is incapacitated.
There are four sections to the amendment. The first sets the presidential line of succession in order and says the vice president assumes all power of the presidency, not just the title, if they become president. Section 2 allows the vice president to nominate a successor to be voted on by the House and Senate if the office becomes vacant.
Section 3 is the one that could come into play with Trump. This allows the president to determine that they are incapacitated and cannot serve. Trump would then have to submit the decision in writing to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the president pro tempore of the Senate, currently Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. When the president decides to return to work, he then has to submit the new decision in writing again. The vice president would take over his duties in the interim.
The fourth section is an incredibly complicated scenario and has never been invoked. The vice president and a majority of the "principal officers of the executive departments," also known as the 15 Cabinet members, would tell the House Speaker and Senate president pro tempore the president is incapable of serving in writing, then the vice president would immediately take over. If the president does not agree he is incapable of performing as president, the Cabinet and vice president have to again declare the president is incapacitated within four days. Congress then has to get together within 48 hours and a 21-day clock begins to decide the issue. The House and Senate then need a two-thirds vote on the issue, or the president would keep his powers.