Interesting scenario of presidential succession

The US has an inordinately long time interval between the presidential election, held the day after the first Monday in November of quadrennial years, and January 20 of the following year when the new president is sworn in. This is a ridiculously long transition time, allowing for all manner of shenanigans by the outgoing president. In most parliamentary democracies, like the UK for example, the transition is made the very next day and seems to go pretty smoothly. James Robenalt argues that if Trump loses in November, he should resign immediately and have Joe Biden become president.

Why? Because he says that all the indications are that Trump will lose by a landslide

A landslide win by Biden will mean that the pandemic is not under control and probably that the economy remains in turmoil or perhaps ruins.

This makes Trump’s immediate removal from office all the more compelling because experts are warning that COVID-19 may build into another wave just as the regular flu season kicks into high gear starting in November. The health consequences could be catastrophic without a steady and clear national response.

Trump’s resignation and turning power over to the new president-elect may be the only way to keep the situation from spiraling.

Of course that is highly unlikely to happen. Even Robenalt concedes that the chances of Trump resigning are remote.

Of course, it is impossible to conceive of Donald Trump resigning, even with a widening crisis unfolding all around him. Then again, Richard Nixon was no quitter, as he acknowledged when he resigned. So who knows? Trump likes to sulk and feel sorry for himself—so he could say “to heck with you” if he is humiliated at the polls.

So given the unlikelihood, why do I even bother to even consider the possibility? It is because I was intrigued about how such a transition could occur without a constitutional amendment. Robenalt says that the deservedly much maligned former president Woodrow Wilson actually planned to resign if he lost his 1916 re-election bid to Charles Evans Hughes. At that time the transition period was even longer, until March 4, and because what came to be known as World War I was in progress in Europe and the US was being pressured to enter it. Wilson felt that a momentous decision such as that should be made by someone with a more current mandate. He actually typed out his plan, based on the line of succession then in effect.

He recognized, he wrote, that if Hughes prevailed, “I would be without such moral backing of the nation as would be necessary to steady and control our relationship with other governments.” The situation would be “fraught with the gravest dangers.”

He concluded that, in that event, he needed to appoint Hughes as his secretary of state, secure his vice president’s agreement to resign, and then resign himself. Under the rules of succession then in effect, Hughes would immediately become president.

“I would have no right to risk the peace of the nation,” Wilson wrote, “by remaining in office after I had lost my authority.”

Robenalt says that the line of succession is different now, requiring a different scenario to make Biden president.

Under the 25th Amendment, ratified and passed in 1967, a president can appoint a vice president in the event of a vacancy in the office, with the consent of the House and the Senate by simple majorities in each chamber. In this case, Trump would ask Pence to resign, appoint Biden as his VP, and then resign himself, allowing Biden to succeed to the presidency.

A final hurdle would be the Republican-controlled Senate, which has been Trump’s lapdog under Mitch McConnell. But clearly if Trump actually did his duty and resigned, it seems improbable that the Senate would stand in the way.

Of course, this is purely an academic exercise and will never happen because it assumes that Trump gives a damn about the country or indeed about anyone other than himself. Trump would be the last person to contemplate resigning because it would make him seem even more of a loser after losing the election. If Trump loses, he will use that transition time to alternatively sulk or rage against his enemies, claim that the election was rigged, try to find some way to remain in office and, when all that fails, use the transition time to enrich himself and his family as much as possible, then pardon all his family and cronies for all their crimes and try to pardon himself as well because they all surely fear all manner of investigations into his administration.

That’s how he rolls.


  1. DonDueed says

    You know, I wouldn’t be very surprised if Trump resigned during his last week in office, just so Pence could pardon him, a la Nixon -- Ford.

  2. says

    @1: No need. There’s nothing stopping a President from pardoning themself for all Federal crimes they may have committed before the date of the pardon.

  3. says

    Why would anyone want to resign? I hope that there are cameras on him when the secret service guys drag him across the carpet, kicking, crying, and whining, and that the NY AG is waiting by the car to serve him with his indictment.

    A guy can dream, can’t he? I’d also be satisfied if someone shoots him in some dark corner and then everyone is like, “Donald Who?”

  4. DonDueed says

    @2: Are you sure? Nixon didn’t pardon himself, nor has any other President. Seems like something that could end up at SCOTUS. It would be simpler and safer to follow the Nixon precedent, unless he doesn’t trust Pence to follow through.

    I think Marcus’ scenario is more likely than any of the resignation ones. Of course Trump could pardon himself without resigning if he was willing to risk it being challenged.

  5. Jean says

    I fear the transition period is going to be a very dangerous time. I think that Trump and Barr will try to vandalize everything they can (in addition to trying to protect everyone from future prosecution and trying to steal everything possible). But there will also be some external actors who will try to take advantage of the chaotic situation which will make the whole world unsafe.

    And any speculation about what could be done which involves Trump doing anything normal or decent or for the benefit of the country is less than irrelevant. I think that the time would be better spent thinking of ways to neutralize him right after the elections to minimize the damages and a way to return to a somewhat normal state (as much as the US can be ‘normal’ at this point).

  6. Matt G says

    Ford pardoned Nixon on September 8,1974. Proclamation 4311. It has its own Wikipedia page.

  7. ardipithecus says

    I don’t expect Trump to pardon himself because accepting a pardon is, legally, an admission of guilt.

  8. Mano Singham says


    You are ascribing a level of rationality to Trump that is unrealistic. His first instinct is to save his own skin. The pardon will do that. He will then deny any guilt and say that he had to pardon himself because the ‘deep state’ (that includes the judiciary) was out to get him with fake charges even though he is innocent. Win-win!

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I can’t see Trump resigning either. In fact, regardless of the result, I fully expect him to at least try to remain in office past inauguration day,claiming fraud or some other spurious excuse. There’s still time for him to start a distracting war.

  10. ionopachys says

    Actually there is an easier way to do it. I really don’t think the Senate would roll over and agree to appoint Biden as Vice President. However, the Senate can be bypassed. If Trump could get Pence to resign, then Pelosi could step down as Speaker, the House could elect Biden as Speaker, and then he would be next in line. There is nothing in the Constitution requiring the Speaker of the House of Representatives to be a sitting representative. They could pick anyone they wanted.

    Not that this would happen. I could just see, maybe, Trump quitting in a huff, but why would Pence resign? Trump would have no incentive to ask him, and even if he did, politically Trump will have lost a lot, maybe most, of his power in the party establishment. I also doubt the Democratic establishment would be willing to break norms to do this. Pelosi is close to retiring anyway, so she might agree to ascend to establish a “caretaker” presidency until the inauguration.

  11. KG says

    There’s a real danger Trump will do a Hitler if he loses and fails to annul the result: “If I’m going down, you’re all going with me!”. But Hitler could only refuse to end the war, and order the destruction of German infrastructure using puny explosives; Trump has a thermonuclear arsenal. Could we rely on those around him, or those who would actually need to turn keys to launch missiles, to prevent him launching it*? Not the former, I’d say -- Mary Trump’s book apparently has a lot to say about Trump’s enablers, and the psychological mechanisms that keep them tied to him.

    *At whom, one might ask. My guess would be Russia -- hard to believe there’s not a layer of bitter resentment under his subservience to Putin, and the latter would have let him down by failing to intervene effectively enough.

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