Trump coronavirus fears: How former US president kept illness ‘secret’ for months

The US is leading the world in terms of number of coronavirus cases at over 200,000 and third in the world in terms of deaths at over 5,000, if China’s are not counted, as it is not known what their accurate figures are. Mr Trump, 73, is in an age bracket that is more vulnerable to the virus, with eight percent of people in their seventies dying with it. While the President tested negative for COVID-19 on March 15, there have and will be many more opportunities over the coming weeks for him to contract the virus.

Amid these concerns, questions are being asked as to what might happen if the President is taken ill.

There are clear provisions in place for if a President dies ‒ there is a line of succession for who should take over starting with the Vice President, currently Mike Pence, followed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, currently Chuck Grassley, and the Leader of the House of Representatives, currently Nancy Pelosi.

If the President is “incapacitated” through illness there is a provision in the 25 Amendment for the Vice President to take control of the President’s powers and duties.

Either the President must write a written declaration declaring themself unable to discharge their powers and duties, or if they are unable or unwilling to do this, the Vice President can write the letter themself, as long as they have the support of the majority of the Cabinet or some other body “as Congress may by law provide”.

Astonishingly however, the 25th Amendment was only made law in 1967 and before then there was serious ambiguity as to what should happen if a President becomes incapacitated.

No one could be sure what constituted an “inability” to govern, or who would decide if the President was “unable”.

Twice this led to a complete government standstill.

In October 1919, President Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and was left seriously ill for the remainder of his term.

Nearly blind and partially paralysed, he spent 17 months secluded in the White House, trying not to let the world know his condition.

Even his Vice President, Thomas Marshall, as well as the Cabinet and the nation were kept in the dark about the severity of his illness for several months.

Mr Marshall was too afraid to ask about Mr Wilson’s health or preside over Cabinet meetings in his absence, fearful that he would be accused of “longing for his place”.

This meant that in the period from October 1919 to March 1921, the government was largely disabled from exercising any presidential power.

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It goes to show how unwell Mr Wilson was that when he left office and attempted to continue practicing law, he was unable, and could not manage any public role at all.

He died three years later in February 1924.

A similar constitutional crisis happened around 40 years earlier when President James Garfield was shot in July 1881.

For 80 days between the assassination attempt and when he succumbed to his wounds in September, there was a complete impasse in government.

Congressional leaders urged Vice President Chester Arthur to step up and exercise presidential authorities while the President was disabled, but he declined, fearful of being labeled a usurper.

Aware that he was in a delicate position and being scrutinised from all sides, he refused to go to Washington and stayed in his New York home until he heard Mr Garfield had died.

With the passing of the 25th Amendment in 1967, there are clear provisions for what should happen if a president is unable to discharge their powers and duties.

Three times it has been invoked, but only for a few hours.

Ronald Reagan invoked it while he had surgery, with George HW Bush standing in as Acting President, and George W Bush invoked it twice while he had a colonoscopy done, with Dick Cheney standing in as Acting President.

However, there have been times when it was rumoured a President was suffering from ill health that it was not invoked.

President Reagan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease five years after leaving office, was rumoured to have been suffering from the condition towards the end of his term, although this is unproven.

It will nevertheless be a relief to many that there are provisions for Mike Pence to take over presidential duties were Mr Trump to become incapacitated with coronavirus, so that a standstill does not happen, as it did in the past.

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