The 25th Amendment and the presidential line of succession

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Friday morning’s stunning announcement that President Donald Trump and the first lady have tested positive for the coronavirus brought renewed attention to the 25th Amendment, which is designed to protect the U.S. government from random occurrences such as sudden illness or a failed assassination attempt.

The 25th Amendment was passed by Congress on July 6, 1965, less than two years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was ratified on Feb. 10, 1967, and outlines the presidential line of succession, or who becomes president should the president become disabled, resign or be removed from office.

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Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence tested negative for the coronavirus Friday morning, according to press secretary Devin O’Malley.

Here’s what the amendment says:

  • Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
  • Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
  • Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
  • Section 4. 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, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President. Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, the 25th Amendment was an effort to resolve the question of what would happen if the president died, resigned, was removed from office or became so incapacitated that he couldn’t fulfill his duties.

The amendment saw multiple use during the 1970s and resulted, for the first time in U.S. history, in an unelected president and vice president.

During the Watergate scandal, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned Oct. 10, 1973, and President Richard Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to succeed Agnew. Hearings were held upon the nomination by the Senate Rules Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, and Ford took the oath of office Dec. 6, 1973.

Less than a year later, Nixon resigned, and Ford immediately took the presidential oath of office. Ford then nominated Nelson Rockefeller to be vice president; on Aug. 20, 1974, hearings were held in Congress and Rockefeller took the oath of office Dec. 19, 1974.

Here’s the line of succession for the presidency of the United States:

1. Vice President Mike Pence

2. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi

3. President pro tempore of the Senate Chuck Grassley

4. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

5. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin

6. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper

7. Attorney General William Barr

8. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt

9. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue

10. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross

11. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia

12. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar

13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson

14. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Choa, who is not a natural-born U.S. citizen and cannot become president.

15. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette

16. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie

18. Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf

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