What's the presidential line of succession? A historian explains

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss lays out the line of succession if the president is unable to fulfill his duties following news of Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis.
/ Source: TODAY

President Donald Trump revealed early Friday that both he and the first lady have tested positive for the COVID-19. While the full extent of the president’s condition is not known, a White House official told NBC News he is experiencing “mild symptoms” and that it was “business as usual” for him.

There are no indications that Trump will relinquish any of his duties, but presidential historian Michael Beschloss told the 3rd hour of TODAY the moment serves as a reminder about who would take over should a commander in chief not be able to serve in his role.

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“(It) goes all the way down through the Cabinet,” Beschloss said when asked about the line of succession. “There’s something called continuity of government, which the executive branch is usually very serious about."

Beschloss said there is a plan in place in case someone has to step in for the president.

“So, the good part of this is, if there’s any silver lining to this, Craig, is that we’ve got a Constitutional system,” he pointed out to Craig Melvin.

“If something God forbid happens to a president and/or a vice president or then a speaker of the house, president pro tem of the Senate, then you go through the cabinet in order of seniority, so there is a line of succession. The republic would be secure.”

Currently, Vice President Mike Pence is next in line for the presidency, followed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Chuck Grassley and then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The line of succession runs nearly 20 people.

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967 and spurred on by the assassination of President John Kennedy, helped set parameters about transferring power when a president cannot serve.

Section 3 lets the president hand over power when he’s limited in a physical capacity and was invoked by President Ronald Reagan when he had surgery in 1985. President George W. Bush also used it twice when he underwent colonoscopies.

Section 4, which has never been used, outlines what will happen if a president is declared unfit for office.

It reads, in part: "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."

If the president is unable to do his job, what happens? Beschloss pointed to Sections 3 and 4.

“Well, what could happen is if the president was conscious enough, he could write a letter the same as Reagan did to Vice President Bush in the 1980s,” Beschloss said.

“Or if that was not true, under the constitutional amendment, you could have a majority of the cabinet do it, or another similar body declare him incapacitated and say the vice president will act as president until the president is able to operate again.”

Beschloss also pointed out just how rare the potential for such a situation allowing the transferal of power is.

“We have not been in those waters before,” he said. “We’re about to see a time in history we’ve never seen before, especially because we are one month before a president running for reelection. We have never seen a president this sick so soon, so close to an election.”