Trump's illness rocks U.S. election, now on edge of uncharted territory

The United States is teetering near uncharted political water, rocked by news with no obvious historical precedent about a health risk to an incumbent president so close to election day.

Bombshell news raises questions such as: What happens if a candidate can't finish the race?

U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he walks from Marine One to the White House in Washington on Thursday. Trump and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the coronavirus. White House officials said late Friday that Trump would spend several days at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

The United States is teetering near uncharted political water, rocked by news with no obvious historical precedent about a health risk to an incumbent president so close to election day.

The bombshell news of President Donald Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis had presidential historians struggling to conjure a comparison, with the closest perhaps being Dwight Eisenhower's stomach surgery in June 1956.

It unleashed an immediate spike in Google searches for an uncomfortable, yet inevitable, question given the president's age, 74, as well as that of his chief rival, Joe Biden, 77: What would happen if a major-party nominee died or became incapacitated this close to election day?

The short answer is it would be complicated and likely exacerbate the troubles of an already difficult year for American democracy — plagued by deep partisan distrust, a pandemic, legal battles over mail-in voting, civil unrest, and now, already, a gusher of malicious online conspiracy theories related to Trump's condition.

The high recovery rate for the virus renders unlikely the scenario of an incapacitated presidential candidate. However, one election-law expert acknowledged his concern.

"As a matter of national importance, we need to ask what would happen if one of the presidential candidates died or became incapacitated before election day," University of California election-law expert Rick Hasen wrote on his blog. 

"In short, there would be a ton of uncertainty if we faced such a tragedy as a presidential candidate dying during this period. As if 2020 could not get more complicated and crazy."

That election question is not to be conflated with questions about governing.

WATCH | Trump to spend several days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center:

Trump goes to the hospital

3 years ago
Duration 1:39
U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he boards Marine One on his way to hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

What's clear, what isn't

The U.S. Constitution's Article II and 20th and 25th amendments make clear that the vice-president assumes the office in the event of the death, or incapacity, of a president or a president-elect.

The rules are more ambiguous about the prospect of a presidential death during a campaign where the president is running for re-election.

The short answer is parties have their own rules allowing them to replace a candidate. The Republican Party rule book puts that decision to a vote of national committee members.

But it would be a monumentally complex task, if not impossible, at this late stage, a month out from the Nov. 3 election, to get individual states to reprint their ballots with the names of all the candidates running in national, state and local races.

WATCH | What was Trump doing in days prior to diagnosis:

Timeline of Trump events and contacts leading up to positive coronavirus test

3 years ago
Duration 4:15
The CBC's Laura McQuillan breaks down U.S. President Donald Trump's activities and contacts in the days and hours leading up to his positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

Millions have already voted

Advance voting is already underway in a number of states, and more than two million Americans have already cast ballots in this election.

James Gardner, an election-law expert at the University of Buffalo, said it's theoretically possible states could invalidate previous votes and order new ballots.

"But that seems increasingly unlikely [at this stage]," he said in an email.

The next, likeliest option, would be to turn the issue over to electoral college voters. Both Gardner and Hasen cited that as a plausible scenario.

Under the 18th-century rules of the U.S. Constitution, those electoral college voters must hold meetings across the country in December to formally name the election winner. 

Early and mail-in voting has already begun in some states. Priscilla Bennett was the first person to cast an early ballot in Philadelphia at a satellite location on Temple University's campus in Philadelphia on Tuesday. (Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters)

The electoral college

The electoral-college scenario raises other challenges. 

Various states have rules that force electoral college voters to elect the candidate who was on the ballot and won the most votes.

A Supreme Court decision this year on a loosely related issue offered little clarity.

The majority opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan in the Chiafalo vs. Washington State case contained a footnote referring in passing to such a scenario.

Kagan wrote that some argue that electoral college voters should be free to choose their preferred candidate given the possibility of a candidate dying after election day. 

Kagan said some states give their electoral college voters discretion when a candidate has died; as for states that don't, she said, she would "suspect" the states would give their electors flexibility in the event of a candidate's death but made clear she was not offering a precedent-setting opinion as that scenario was not the primary focus of the case before her.

Gardner said he has "no doubt" states would give electors some flexibility to choose their party's favoured nominee.

WATCH | What are the biggest COVID-19 risk factors for someone of Trump's age:

Age the biggest risk factor for Trump after COVID-19 diagnosis, expert says

3 years ago
Duration 1:56
U.S. President Donald Trump 'could potentially get very ill from this,' says infectious disease specialist Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, who believes Trump being in his 70s is the biggest concern after his COVID-19 diagnosis.

The effect on the campaign trail

Terry Madonna, a presidential historian and director of the Pennsylvania-based Franklin and Marshall College Poll, said that several presidents have gotten ill or died in office.

"That's not new," he said. "The novel aspect is, obviously, COVID-19 has been the major issue of the presidential election. Now, the president comes down with it." 

He said it's much too early to gauge the political impact as a variety of variables will figure in, ranging from the president's state to the way parties respond.

Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 951 in Grand Rapids, Mich., Friday. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

He suspects Democrats will say the appropriate things about wishing the president well — and then keep driving home their central message about his mishandling of the pandemic.

"[Democrats are] obviously going to make the point, 'You see? The president didn't take this seriously enough,'" Madonna said.

Details are starting to emerge about the White House's own role in the virus spread.

Trump hosted an event last weekend for his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, where guests were seen in close quarters, shaking hands and not wearing masks.

Several attendees now have the virus: Trump, his aide Hope Hicks, a university president and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Other guests have tested negative, including Vice-President Mike Pence and some of the president's relatives.

WATCH | Joe Biden heads back out on campaign trail:

Biden back on the trail

3 years ago
Duration 0:47
After testing negative for COVID-19, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden spoke in Michigan, wishing U.S. President Donald Trump well as he and wife Melania deal with the illness. Biden also urged the American people to remain vigilant to help stop the spread of the virus.

Some Democrats cite 'karma'

Democrats continued their campaign events Friday.

Biden wore a mask throughout a speech in which he offered Trump his best wishes while some members of his party laced into the White House.

Trump had mocked Biden for always wearing a mask at Tuesday night's presidential debate. "I don't wear masks like him, he said during the debate. "Every time you see him, he's got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away, and he shows up with biggest mask."

Tim Ryan, a member of Congress from Ohio, said he was at the presidential debate in Cleveland this week and couldn't believe the sight of Trump family members not wearing masks.

"It's like the rules don't apply to these people," Ryan said on MSNBC. "They don't pay their taxes; they don't have to wear masks; if they have trouble with a porn star, they pay [her] off.

"It's so irresponsible. This [debate] was being hosted by the Cleveland Clinic. We weren't in some bar. … And they walked in without masks. It was really a level of arrogance you rarely see."

Ryan called the president's health setback the "ultimate karma."

WATCH | What happens when a presidential nominee can't finish out the campaign trail:

What happens if a presidential nominee can't finish the campaign?

3 years ago
Duration 4:16
The news that U.S. President Donald Trump has tested positive for the novel coronavirus has dropped a new layer of disarray on the presidential election. Our Washington correspondent Alex Panetta says U.S. election law has no clear path for such a situation.