What happens if Pence goes down with Trump? Here’s what history tells us about vice presidents and impeachment scandals

What happens if Pence goes down with Trump? Here’s what history tells us about vice presidents and impeachment scandals
Vice President Mike Pence tours the National Hurricane Center in Miami, FL Tuesday June 25, 2019 (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

If President Donald Trump were indicted on articles of impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and a majority in the U.S. Senate voted “guilty” — which is unlikely given the firewall of support Trump enjoys from most GOP senators — Vice President Mike Pence could be sworn in as president of the United States. But that’s assuming that the Ukraine scandal didn’t take Pence down as well. If both Trump and Pence went down, what then? History offers some insights, as do recent comments by the attorney who once represented former Vice President Spiro Agnew.

In an October 3 article he wrote for Time Magazine, retired attorney Martin London (who was part of the legal team that represented Agnew in the 1970s) stresses that Trump isn’t the only one who needs to be worried about the Ukraine scandal.

“The current House impeachment inquiry is focused on President Trump’s apparent effort to persuade a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 presidential election — specifically, to press Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the leading Democratic contender, Joe Biden,” London explains. “Trump is still the central U.S. civil officer in the spotlight, but now, it seems Vice President Pence may be implicated as well.”

London goes on to write that while “we do not know precisely” what Pence “said to Zelensky when they met last month, there’s a lot we do know — and it doesn’t look good.” London adds that although Pence was not present during Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with Zelensky, one of Pence’s top advisers was. And Pence, according to the Washington Post, should have had access to a transcript of that conversation within hours.

In 1973, London recalls, President Richard Nixon wasn’t the only one facing legal problems in the White House. Agnew was being investigated for bribery, and London was part of the vice president’s legal team.

London recalls that Chuck Colson, an attorney for Nixon, “told us he feared that given the state of the ongoing Watergate inquiry, once the House had started up the impeachment machinery, they might decide to impeach both Nixon and Agnew.”

Agnew ended up pleading no-contest to a charge of felony tax evasion and resigned as president. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford became Nixon’s new vice president, and Ford was sworn in as president after Nixon resigned in August 1974.

In an October 7 article for Vox, journalist Matthew Yglesias notes, “One reason Watergate ended up working out so badly for Nixon is that, sort of by coincidence, his original vice president had been driven from office by an unrelated scandal. Consequently, at the time of maximum peril for Nixon, the VP was Gerald Ford — a well-regarded Republican who genuinely had nothing to do with the Nixon White House or any of its crimes.”

In other words, there was no danger of Ford being impeached along with Nixon. But Yglesias stresses that “by contrast, Pence — like other modern VPs — is himself a senior member of the Trump Administration. As such, he appears to have been at least somewhat involved in the execution of Trump’s corrupt Ukraine policy.”

If both Trump and Pence went down because of the Ukraine scandal, the next person in line for the presidency — according to the Presidential Succession  Act of 1947 — would be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, followed by the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate (Sen. Chuck Grassley). After that, the person in line would be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, followed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Of course, it’s most unlikely that a GOP-controlled Senate under Sen. Mitch McConnell’s hyper-partisan leadership would remove Trump and Pence from office and hand the presidency over to Pelosi. But as the Ukraine scandal moves along, it’s safe to say that House Democrats will be taking a very close look at Pence and the role he played in the scandal.

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