Are you rooting hard for President Trump to be impeached and removed from office? Or, as the anonymous New York Times op-ed last week discussed, hoping there will be an invocation of the (completely unrealistic) 25th Amendment? Or better yet, for him to hang his head in shame and resign?
If so, you’re certainly not alone, as every passing day there is new reason to doubt Trump’s competence and evidence linking him to criminal behavior is piling up. But there’s a huge risk: If Trump vacates the office, we could face almost 10 years of President Mike Pence. Is that something you really want?
After all, Pence is a true believer right-wing conservative. He is virulently anti-abortion and anti-gay rights and has a long history of slashing government programs. He once even had a talk radio show that he himself described as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
Anyone with basic knowledge of the U.S. presidency and Constitution is probably a bit puzzled by the possibility of Pence serving 10 years, given the two-term (eight-year) limit.
Originally, there were no term limits for the presidency, but for a century and a half those who held the office followed George Washington’s model of serving only two terms. Until, that is, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times in a row. He and his supporters argued that his continued service was needed during extraordinary times (World War II). After FDR died just months into his fourth term, the issue of term limits for the president became a national priority.
As a result, in 1951, the Constitution was amended. The 22nd Amendment now limits the president to two four-year terms: “No person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice.”
How could Pence get around this limit and serve a possible 10 years total? The 22nd Amendment has something akin to small print. If someone becomes president by filling a vacancy in the office (such as when the president is impeached, resigns or dies) – but does so for less than two years – that person can run for office two more times, not just once.
In other words, if Pence became president anytime after noon on January 20th, 2019, he would be allowed to run for two more terms.
Of course, this is not a terribly likely scenario. But, as January 20th approaches, it’s not completely far-fetched either. Consider this. It is looking increasingly likely that the Democrats will take back the House this November 6th and maybe even the Senate (though that’s much less likely). The new Democratic-controlled Congress begins service on January 3rd. All it takes to impeach a president in the House is a majority vote. Given all that we know about President Trump, the House might act quickly and then send the impeachment to the Senate, which needs a two-thirds vote to remove the president – a much taller order.
Even under the most optimistic Democratic scenarios, the party will not have a two-thirds majority in the Senate. But maybe by this point, if there is in fact a big blue wave in November, enough Republican senators will have gotten the message that Trump is toxic. Or maybe other Republicans, after a big defeat in November, will look at Pence and see a stable (read: boring), staunch conservative who can redeem the Republican Party after the chaos of Trump. So, enough Republican Senators join the Democrats to get to two-thirds, removing Trump from office.
Or it could happen much quicker than that. Fearing bruising congressional investigations or even an imminent indictment, he could decide it’s smarter to resign, like President Nixon did, rather than suffer the consequences of a public airing of all that Special Counsel Robert Mueller – or even prosecutors in the Southern District of New York – have been gathering.
If he were to leave office in either of these ways, it would be entirely possible that Pence would just be a placeholder and the Democrats would take over after the 2020 election, like Gerald Ford after Nixon resigned. But it’s also possible that the country would feel massive relief from someone who, no matter what you think of Pence’s politics, is not Donald Trump. Would that translate into Pence winning national elections? Who knows, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility that, just by virtue of not being Trump, Pence could get a huge boost.
If that were to happen, we could be facing Pence running for president twice after completing Trump’s first term and ultimately serving in the office for up to 10 years. When you read the fine print of the Constitution, that’s perfectly acceptable.
So, for those of us clamoring for Trump to be removed from office or resign in disgrace, we really have to be careful what we wish for.