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STORY BY LARA SELIGMAN - POLITICO.COM

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Published on October 3, 2020 8:53 PM

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Trump's health condition highlights gaps in the 25th Amendment
On March 3, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower penned a terse, 190-word letter to his deputy and would-be successor, Richard Nixon. Eisenhower, then 67 and still in poor health after a 1955 heart attack, wanted to document the informal understanding he and Nixon had reached about how a president should hand over his powers "in the event of inability."

Only later would the "personal and secret" agreement between the two men be disclosed to the public — but it formed the basis for the oft-discussed, and seldom-invoked 25th Amendment, proposed after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and finally ratified in 1967.

"[W]hat must be clearly understood," Nixon would later write about his understanding with Eisenhower, is that any such deal was "only as good as the will of the parties to keep them." He worried that "jealousies and rivalries can develop within an administration which could completely destroy such an agreement."

Sixty-two years after Eisenhower's letter, another American leader is in the hospital, and the circumstances around his condition are equally murky. His doctor insists he is well, while anonymous officials whisper to reporters that he might not be.

Questions are swirling about what happens if President Donald Trump, a man not known for his probity or transparency, becomes incapacitated. To a large extent, Covid-19 remains a mysterious disease, with uncertain long-term consequences and a penchant for taking sudden, violent lurches for the worse in its hosts.

And the 25th Amendment, a rough map for replacing a president should he die, resign, or become disabled in some way, provides some answers — but not all.

It allows for temporary transfers of authority, such as in 2002 and 2007 when President George W. Bush transferred authority temporarily to Vice President Dick Cheney for a few hours each time while he underwent routine colonoscopies. In 1985, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush performed the duties of the presidency for roughly eight hours while President Ronald Reagan underwent colon surgery.

But today, the rules governing a temporary transfer of power remain anything but clear, former officials say, with sweeping implications not only for governing the United States but also American national security.

After the announcement of Trump's diagnosis early Friday morning, the White House counsel would normally begin drafting a letter in case of a transfer of power, said one former White House official. But in previous scenarios, the transfer of power was ...