In light of the publicly announced FBI investigation into the Donald Trump campaign for its alleged election-meddling collusion with Russia, public attention has focused on what happens if Donald Trump is impeached and removed from office. That answer is straightforward: Mike Pence becomes President. But what happens if Mike Pence and Speaker Paul Ryan also turn out to be complicit in the Russia scandal and are also impeached or nudged into resignation? Some have asked if eighty-three year old Orrin Hatch would become President.
To be clear, while there are varying degrees of circumstantial evidence that Trump, Pence, and Ryan may have conspired with Russia to rig the election, there is no publicly available proof that any of them did. This fact check simply answers the question of what would happen if all three did turn out to be demonstrably guilty and were forced out of power.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (link: senate.gov) firmly establishes that third in line after Vice President and Speaker of the House is the President pro tempore of the Senate. That role does currently belong to Senator Orrin Hatch. There is a common mistaken belief that the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, is third in line. But as it turns out, Senate Majority Leader is nowhere in the line of succession at all.
Thus on a factual basis, yes, Orrin Hatch would automatically become President of the United States if Trump, Pence, and Ryan all simultaneously were impeached or resigned. As a practical matter, it’s worth pointing out that the odds of all of this happening are very small. Even if all three men end up caught red-handed in the Russia scandal, it’s more likely that they would be forced out of power one at a time. Historical precedent comes from the Richard Nixon administration.
In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was facing a financial scandal at the same time Nixon was facing a deepening Watergate scandal. Agnew was allowed to avoid jail time in exchange for pleading no contest and resigning (source: senate.gov). This allowed a scenario in which Nixon and the Senate agreed upon non-controversial Congressman Gerald Ford as Nixon’s new appointee for Vice President. The Senate confirmed Ford as VP with a nearly unanimous 92-3 vote (source: NY Times archive), with the tacit understanding that Ford would rise to President if Nixon was ousted.
So it’s plausible that the same roadmap will be followed if it turns out that multiple people at the top of the Order of Succession have to be ousted over the Trump-Russia scandal. As a hypothetical, if Trump were impeached and removed, Pence would immediately become President. He could then nominate a non-controversial new Vice President that both parties in the Senate would find acceptable and confirmable. Then if Pence were subsequently ousted, that new VP would become President. This new President would not have been voted into office by the public, but would at least be a consensus pick among the Senate – and it would avoid elevating the eighty-three year old and ill-prepared Orrin Hatch to the Oval Office.
In other words, the odds of Hatch rising to the Presidency from third in line are probably very, very small no matter how the Trump-Russia scandal plays out. Even the odds of Paul Ryan automatically ascending to the Presidency from second in line are probably very small. There’s an even wilder (but technically possible) scenario in which the Democrats win the midterms, Nancy Pelosi becomes Speaker of the House, Trump and Pence are both swiftly impeached and removed, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi automatically becomes President. Again, these are very unlikely scenarios in a practical sense.
But as a strictly factual matter, yes, Senator Orrin Hatch would become President if Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan were ousted in simultaneous or near-simultaneous fashion which didn’t allow a consensus new VP to be nominated and confirmed in the interim. So we rate that assertion as True.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report