In virtually every show about Washington politics, there’s some kind of plot arc about an anomaly in the presidential line of succession. On The West Wing, it was John Goodman’s archconservative Speaker of the House Glen Allen Walken becoming acting president in the absence of a vice president after Josiah Bartlet’s daughter is kidnapped and he temporarily steps down. On House of Cards, Frank Underwood basically orchestrates a double coup to install himself as V.P. and get the president to resign (and we’ll just see where his wife’s ambitions go next season, post-Kevin Spacey). Even on Veep, Selina Mayer becomes president for exactly one year after her predecessor steps down — and she loses when neither candidate in the 2016 election gets 270 electoral votes, through the decision to the House of Representatives.
It makes for delicious intrigue, no question. What’s funny is that in real life, the American presidency has never seen such stability as during the last quarter-century. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each served exactly two terms, making three executives in 24 years — the unremarkability of which is actually very remarkable in light of how the period from 1961-1981 saw five presidents. You could read it as the system functioning smoothly or as institutional rot — two of the last three presidents were part of political dynasties — but it’s definitely not instability. No V.P. acceded to the highest office, either. Each presidency ended anticlimactically in a peaceful transfer of power to the other side.
Yet the current moment looks to bring that to a crashing end. The Mueller investigation might be maddeningly opaque to people who can’t wait to see Donald Trump in chains, but no one can doubt that the investigation isn’t closing in on the president. The office of Secretary of State is vacant, with Mike Pompeo‘s nomination to fill it looking iffy. And Speaker Paul Ryan has announced his resignation from Congress at the end of this term, something that’s already made the loss of GOP control in that chamber seem like a near-certainty.
That’s a strong positive, to be sure, but it introduces further chaos into a situation we will have to deal with before seating the next crop of legislators: What happens if and when Trump fires Mueller (maybe along with Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein)? What if he pardons himself and everyone around him? What if his successor pardons him like Ford did Nixon? Ryan barely ever stood up to Trump in the past, but one fewer counterweight means Trump is freer to act recklessly, sensing an opportunity to spread chaos for his own short-term gain — like always.
What if Trump goes? The presidential line of succession is a strange beast, and right now, it looks as though the slow-moving constitutional crisis that has beset the federal government for the last year — or maybe since 1974 — has just accelerated. After Donald Trump, the next person to assume the presidency is obviously Vice President Mike Pence — the only federal official whom Trump can’t fire and someone whose squeaky-clean image may be a charade.
Mike Pence knew.
Mike Pence lied.
Mike Pence covered it up.
Mike Pence still knows.
Mike Pence is complicit.
Mike Pence was Manafort’s choice.
Which is why he’s been super quiet, isn’t that right @VP? 🤫
— Ricky Davila (@TheRickyDavila) April 10, 2018
After that, it’s the Speaker of the House, which will be Paul Ryan until January 2019, but if Trump and Pence go down, then the leadership battle within the GOP caucus suddenly becomes a war for America writ large. After Ryan, No. 4 is the President Pro Tem of the Senate. Who might that be? Technically, it’s the longest-serving senator of the president’s own party, which would be Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. That sounds simple until you realize that Hatch is also set to retire at the end of this term, and the next-most-senior senator is Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who happens to chair the judiciary committee — which would certainly have a say in any impeachment proceedings. After Grassley, it’s none other than Mitch McConnell, who’s the Senate Majority Leader and will likely continue to be as of January, barring a true Democratic wave that yields at least a net gain of two seats for Team Blue.
After the President Pro Tem, things turn to the Cabinet. (This is why at events like the State of the Union speech, at least one member of the Cabinet is taken to a secure location, to ensure continuity of government in case of catastrophe. It’s also the premise of Battlestar Galactica.) Secretary of State is first, but that post is vacant. Next is Treasury, and while Secretary Seth Mnuchin has been out of the hot seat since those pics of him and his wife posing ostentatiously with freshly minted dollar bills (or jetting off to see the total solar eclipse at taxpayer expense) he’s pretty obviously not presidential material. After him, it’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who’s apparently so out of the loop, he has no idea what his boss wants to do in Syria.
After that, it’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The same Trump frenemy whose decision to take the post set in motion a chain of events that led to both a Democrat taking his old seat and to Robert Mueller leading the Trump investigation. If exactly the right planets come into alignment, he could be the ultimate beneficiary of this entire imbroglio — but that’s the stuff of fiction. Still, almost no one on this list is a neutral player in the multidimensional scandal.
Ryan’s retirement had been rumored for some time. A pseudointellectual charlatan who’d dreamed of sticking it to the poor and disadvantaged since college, it’s not likely that history will remember him kindly. Long a foe of Medicare and Social Security, the “zombie-eyed granny-starver” finally pushed through the irresponsible tax cut required to set the stage for their drastic curtailment. Buttressing the plutocracy is likely all he ever cared about, which is why he jumped at the chance to be Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.
Surely, Ryan will go to work for some multinational financial corporation and get paid far more handsomely than the quarter-mil salary he’s been drawing. Maybe he’ll even go into cannabis like his predecessor John Boehner (an appalling move to anyone who cares about equity concerns or helping to fix the lives shattered by the War on Drugs). No doubt Ryan found his restive, and occasionally batshit-insane, caucus to be immensely frustrating and prone to kneecapping itself. But by making his plans public now, Paul Ryan has exacerbated the constitutional crisis.