Pelosi could serve as president if Trump, Pence become incapacitated by COVID-19, current law says

Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary has tested positive for coronavirus.  One of President Trump’s personal valets has tested positive as well.

Last Updated:
May 11, 2020 - 4:13pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The White House’s internal challenge with coronavirus has brought the official presidential line of succession into the forefront.

According to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the line of succession would go from President Trump to Vice President Mike Pence to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The Constitution states that “in Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”

Congress has the authority under the Constitution to designate the government officials in the presidential line of succession. Congress amended the order of succession under President Harry S. Truman when it passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 designating the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore as the formal line of succession after the vice president.

Pence’s press secretary has tested positive for coronavirus and one of President Trump’s personal valets has tested positive. White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said over the weekend that it's "scary to go to work" at the White House right now.

A recent legal analysis spells out the “nightmare” scenario that COVID-19 could cause with the line of succession if the president and vice president somehow catch the virus.

“The 1947 statute says that in that circumstance, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ‘shall … act as President’ after resigning as speaker and from Congress,” according to the analysis published by the Lawfare Institute in cooperation with the Brookings Institution.

“Pelosi would wield all the powers of the presidency. Consistent with the law, she could issue whatever executive orders she wanted, fire disfavored political appointees, and in general direct the executive branch as she pleased,” it also read.