What if the Russia scandal takes down every GOP leader?
The Republican Party holds the White House and both houses of Congress. A majority of the justices on the Supreme Court have been appointed by Republican presidents. The GOP controls a majority of state governments. Yet members of the president's senior staff and immediate family are under investigation, and the president himself may well come to face impeachment and/or calls to resign, not to mention indictment and prosecution for charges ranging from violations of election laws to obstruction of justice and even treason.
The Trump-Russia scandal may well come to be the biggest in American history. There's nothing funny about that.
And yet ... there is something a little amusing about the prospect of the Republican leadership in Washington attempting to replace a President Trump who's been taken down by the Russian scandal. The fact is that if the scandal grows wide enough to topple the president, it's quite likely to touch a number of other high-ranking Republicans, several of whom stand in the line of succession. What happens then?
Let's start with Vice President Mike Pence, the man who would be tapped first to take over in the event that Donald Trump doesn't complete his term. A Pence spokesperson appeared uncertain on Wednesday when asked whether the vice president had ever met during the presidential campaign or transition with representatives of the Russian government. By Thursday morning, the uncertainty had been replaced by assurance that no such meeting ever took place. It would be nice to think that this is true, though the Trump administration's record is somewhat … spotty when it comes to forthrightness about Russian contacts.
But let's assume it's true: Pence never met with Russian officials. Good! But is it also the case that he knew nothing about meetings and conversations that clearly did take place between a prominent Russian attorney and Donald Trump's eldest son, son-in-law, and one-time campaign manager? And between the Russian ambassador and Mike Flynn? And Jeff Sessions? On several (vaguely remembered) occasions? Unless Pence can show that the Trump circle made concerted efforts to keep him out of this rather large and permeable loop, the claim sounds implausible on its face. Or at least implausible enough that leading Republicans are likely to consider it ill-advised to allow Pence to succeed Trump as commander-in-chief when he could end up having to govern under the same cloud of Russian suspicions.
That's how we could easily end up with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, second in the line of succession, ascending to the presidency (as some intelligent commentators have already begun to predict).
There's just one problem with that scenario: Reports have indicated that Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have known about Russia's attempts to meddle in the election on Trump's behalf as early as last summer, more than two months before Election Day. That means it's possible, and perhaps likely, that Ryan and his Senate counterpart will end up tainted by the Russian scandal as well — at least enough to raise concerns about allowing anyone from the Republican leadership to take over for a disgraced President Trump.
And that brings us to the third person in the line of succession: the president pro tempore of the Senate, who just so happens to be … the 83-year-old Republican from Utah, Orrin Hatch.
That's right: There is a non-negligible chance that at some point prior to the 2020 election, we could see President Hatch in the White House. And here's the thing: Given the available options and the still-unclear scope of the Russian scandal, Hatch may well be the best choice around. If you doubt it, take a look at who comes immediately after him in the line of succession: Secretary of State Rex "Russian Order of Friendship" Tillerson. And he's followed by a series of other Trump Cabinet members, all of whom could end up tainted by the scandal as well. Only Hatch is sufficiently distant from both the White House and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill to be a safe bet.
It's not as crazy as it sounds. Remember, former President Gerald Ford was never elected to anything larger than a congressional seat representing Michigan. As the top-ranking House member of his party, he became vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, and president when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974.
There's another compelling wrinkle in the Hatch thought experiment, too: He's a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormon folklore includes an 1843 prophecy by church founder Joseph Smith according to which a Mormon will one day become president of the United States at a moment when the Constitution is "hanging by a thread," thereby saving the country from calamity. Mormons call this the "White Horse Prophecy."
Could the deeply pious octogenarian be America's gallant knight riding in on a white steed, sent by God himself to save us from civic doom? Sure, it's unlikely. But then again, two years ago the idea of America electing a septuagenarian reality-show star and transparent con artist to the highest office in the land sounded like a bad joke.
Actually, it still sounds like a bad joke — bad enough to make the prospect of Orrin Hatch taking over in his place sound pretty good. And also a little funny.