If the President Tests Positive for the Virus, What Happens?

If the President Tests Positive for the Virus, What Happens?

  • There’s precedent for a temporary handoff of power to the vice president—but also potential for constitutional chaos.

The news last week that President Trump’s valet and Vice President Pence’s press secretary had both contracted the coronavirus sent a scare through the White House. While officials said both leaders subsequently tested negative, the episode raised a worrisome possibility: What happens if Trump or Pence is stricken—or, worse, if both became ill at the same time?

The result could be anything from a temporary disruption to a full-blown constitutional crisis with competing claims on the presidency. What’s critical, experts say, is that the identity of the commander-in-chief be clear in any situation. At least one scenario could arise where it wouldn’t be.

The degree of economic and geopolitical fallout would depend heavily on the severity of the illness, and especially on whether Trump himself became incapacitated, say current and former White House officials and outside experts. “There’s a protocol for everything,” says David Axelrod, former senior White House adviser to Barack Obama. “We routinely went through drills for what to do in case of terrorist or nuclear attacks, but I honestly never anticipated a pandemic situation like the one the White House is facing now.”