How an 86-year old could be the next US president
This has not been a good week for Donald Trump. Rant all he might at the impeachment hearings, they’re turning up deeply damaging testimony that would in any normal circumstance be career-ending. Trump is not, as he’s proven many times, politically normal but even he must have a limit as to how far he can push things.
That he will now be impeached is all-but inevitable. Having gone this far and heard what it has, the Democrat-controlled House cannot back away and must therefore vote through articles of impeachment. The only reason it wouldn’t would be if Trump had already vacated his office, either voluntarily or because ill-health or worse intervened, neither of which seems at all likely to me.
However, while all the focus has understandably been on Trump, the testimony potentially casts a wider net. As yet, we cannot know quite how far this goes but we do know that Trump runs his administration like a mafia don, demanding personal loyalty above all else, above the norms of political behaviour and with an uncomfortably large number of associates having gone beyond the bounds of the law too – his falling out with Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference, as any decent Attorney General would in Sessions’ position, is a good example.
Sessions’ successor as Attorney General seems to have no such qualms about whether his primary loyalty lies to the president personally or the country at large. As such, were bigger fish not the object, he might easily have found himself the subject of impeachment hearings.
But then he still might. Just because the House Committee is investigating Trump, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be collateral damage coming out of the hearings. Beyond Trump and Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also in a vulnerable position. As, to a lesser extent, so far, is Vice President Mike Pence.
Herein lies a slight problem from the Democrats. If Pence is implicated in the impeachment hearings – and that is an ‘if’ for the moment, albeit one we should take seriously – how do they handle a situation that could result in him becoming president?
(Of course, to get Pence into the presidency requires a score or so of GOP senators to vote to impeach Trump, which is a long way from where we are yet. But nor is it entirely unrealistic, especially if some smoking gun turns up.)
Let’s suppose for a moment that not just Trump but also Pence is implicated. There is an argument that the Democrats might quite like a weakened Republican candidate to beat at the polls but if so, that’s the case for keeping Trump there, though that might be hard to finesse if the GOP do cut him loose.
What’s the alternative? According to the succession, the presidency would devolve upon the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. That would surely be utterly unacceptable to Republican senators and nothing short of a signed accord with the Kremlin would persuade them to convict were she to be the beneficiary. However, I think she’s savvy enough to be aware that this is so.
The US has been in something of a similar position before, when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in 1973, when President Nixon was already under pressure from the (unrelated) Watergate scandal. In that case, the Democrats, who controlled Congress, and the Republican president, who had recently won by an immense landslide, were able to agree on a successor to Agnew. I’m not so sure that circumstances would enable something similar in 2020.
Put simply, if Trump and Pence were looking down the barrel of an impeachment gun, and Pelosi wanted to avoid becoming in line to the presidency for political reasons, what might she – and her colleagues in the Senate – do?
The logic of any dual- (or greater multiple) impeachment is that the holders of lesser offices should be voted on first. That would potentially enable someone to be nominated to fill the Vice-Presidential vacancy and be available to inherit the presidency should Trump also be convicted. Trump, however, is not the sort of man to cut a deal to kill his career more conveniently. Without his nomination, Congress couldn’t do anything. Likewise, there’s every chance that if Trump were to nominate someone, they wouldn’t be acceptable to Congress.
Which returns us to the succession question. There is one other alternative. If the first-in-line cannot be replaced and the second-in-line is unacceptable, then what about the third-in-line?
If Pelosi wanted to ensure that others were sure that she didn’t benefit personally (and that the Democrats didn’t inherit a Republican office), upon a double-impeachment, she could always temporarily resign as House Speaker, leaving the office vacant for her to resume once the process was over. That would devolve the presidential succession onto the President Pro Tempore of the Senate: Chuck Grassley, the 86-year old Republican senator from Iowa.
There are many reasons why Grassley might not be the ideal man to take on the leadership of one of the world’s most powerful countries but in the circumstances, there’s one reason why he should which could override them all: it works. A temporary post-Trump presidency would be only for a matter of months and putting someone in place who could have no ambitions for the 2020 election is an advantage, as would be the simple process and the lack of any need for multi-party, multi-institution agreements.
We are here talking about a situation several steps down the line. Chances are, Trump won’t be convicted and, as things stand, Pence won’t be impeached. All the same, we can’t be sure of either and if the House does feel compelled to vote on multiple impeachments, we should think about where that goes – because it could take us to some strange places.