Robert Mueller’s sentencing memo for Michael Flynn offered a strong, if heavily redacted, hint that Mueller has Donald Trump and Mike Pence both nailed. Today, Trump decided to throw Pence under the bus, thus decreasing the odds of either one of them surviving this. This has led a number of Palmer Report readers to ask me if Nancy Pelosi is going to inherit the presidency.
It’s true that once Nancy Pelosi becomes Speaker of the House, she’ll be next in line for the presidency behind Trump and Pence. So if they both did resign simultaneously in the new year, Pelosi would indeed become president. But it’s important to keep in mind that the line of succession is mostly a hypothetical, best suited for fictional television shows like Designated Survivor. If you want to see how things actually work, you only need two words: Gerald Ford.
Back when the country started to realize that Richard Nixon was going to be ousted for Watergate, it also realized that his vice president, Spiro Agnew, was about to be ousted for his own criminal scandals. Agnew was offered a free pass if he went quietly, and he resigned accordingly. Nixon was then allowed to use the 25th Amendment to appoint anyone he wanted as his new vice president, so long as the House and Senate approved. To be clear, this is a different part of the 25th Amendment, not the part that talks about the president being forcibly removed. Yes, this is all confusing.
The only way to find someone is if both parties come to consensus. Gerald Ford, who was the House Minority Leader at the time, was the only person whom both parties and Nixon could agree on. So Nixon appointed Ford, Congress approved him, and Ford became vice president, even though he wasn’t anywhere in the line of succession. When Nixon later resigned, Ford became president. Throughout the entire process, the line of succession never came into play.
We’re now entering a potentially similar situation. Let’s say that Donald Trump and Mike Pence are both so thoroughly incriminated, the Republican Party decides it selfishly needs to oust them both, in order to have any chance of remaining a viable political party. In such case the GOP would urge Trump and Pence to resign in staggered fashion, so that the last of the two out the door could nominate a replacement, thus preventing Nancy Pelosi from simply inheriting the White House.
In this scenario the Senate GOP could simply threaten to withhold its votes for removing Trump and Pence simultaneously, thus leaving the Democrats with no choice but to go along with ousting them one at a time. But the Democrats would then have the leverage to force an outgoing Trump or Pence to nominate a new vice president who was mutually agreeable to both parties.
If that sounds confusing, here’s all you need to know: even if Trump and Pence are both ousted, the Democrats cannot simply wave a magic wand forcing them to go at the same time, so Nancy Pelosi can inherit the presidency. The Democrats just don’t have the Senate votes for that. The most likely “replacement president” will be installed as a result of the 25th Amendment, and will be a bipartisan figure who can get confirmed by both the House and Senate. In other words, it’ll be a Gerard Ford type.
So who’s the Gerald Ford of 2018? That’s a whole other conversation. Senate Republicans would never sign off on any Democrat, and again, they can KO any nominee by threatening to withhold their removal votes. The Democrats would only sign off on a Republican if it were someone extremely moderate, with no political future, who wouldn’t turn around and run for reelection in 2020. It’s not clear that anyone in the GOP fits that description. Until this past week I would have thought it might be James Mattis, until he angered both parties by lying to Congress about Saudi Arabia.
The bottom line is this: the only way Pelosi can inherit the presidency is if things end up getting so chaotic and panicked, Donald Trump and Mike Pence somehow end up both deciding to voluntarily resign in such rapid fashion that no new VP can be nominated and confirmed in between their respective ousters. Is this possible? Sure. These days, anything is possible. But it’s unlikely, even if Trump and Pence are both ousted.
So I would urge the Resistance to put the “President Pelosi” sentiment aside, at least for now. Nixon and Agnew taught us that when it comes to the president and vice president being ousted in scandals, the line of succession largely only exists in theory. Even if Trump and Pence both go, it probably won’t fall to Speaker of the House; for better or worse, that’s just not how politics plays out.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report