who's the president?

ok it is 11:50 AM Jan 20 and george w bush is 10 minutes from the oath of office
clinton is shot dead on the podium-
chaos ensues-
just then a missle is detected heading for new york city and the new president must make a quick decision to retaliate in kind-
who would be sworn in as prez?
gore or W?
or would hillary try to take control?
no really, who would be sworn in?

The current president dying shortly before an inauguration doesn’t change anything. The vice president takes over until the president-elect is sworn in (and the searing-in occurs on-schedule). It doesn’t make any difference if we’re talking about a ten-minute interval or a three-year interval.

Yeah… but you said it all happens at 11:50. Dick Chenwy is sworn in before Bush, at 11:50, and Bush is at noon. So Dick would be Vice. Thus, Dick Cheney would take over in office.

I was thinking about that myself: Between 11:50am and noon on Inauguration Day, Bill Clinton was still president, and Dick Cheney was VP!

No. Al Gore’s term ended at noon, just as Clinton’s did.

Taking the oath of office is required (which means that a lot of stories about “other presidents” are probably bullshit), but it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is in office–until your predecessor’s term is up.

If Bush doesn’t actually take the oath for a few minutes after noon, he’s not actually president–although no one, including the history books, would make that claim. However, it is not true that Cheney was vice president while Clinton was president.

The precedent is clear; until everything is cleared up, Al Haig is in charge.

What about at 12:15, when Saddam Hussein sends a hit team that takes out Bush, Cheney, Hastert, and Thurmond… does Powell become president in spite of not being confirmed, or is that Czech lady still secretary of state, in which case the honor falls to the old Treasury secretary? Must Congress address the issue at this point, or is some nonpolitical technocrat the acting secretary of state until Congress acts on the Powell nomination? And do things change if Bush hasn’t yet signed the nominations?

That’s actually a quite interesting question, dqa, at least theoretically, and maybe more so than the OP.

I’ve only found part of the answer so far, but definitely Powell would not be eligible to succeed. From U.S. Code Title 3. Section 19:

Since the Senate has not confirmed Powell, he could not become President.

While I am not sure about this, AFAIK Clinton’s cabinet has all resigned, so that the executive departments are presumably under the direction of some acting head until Bush’s picks are confirmed. Since I believe none of them have been yet (I could be wrong), there are technically no Cabinet Secretaries at the moment. Since the statute makes no reference to acting heads of departments being eligible - and they would presumably need Senate confirmation anyway - in the circumstance you describe there might be no clear successor, and the issue might have to be decided by the Supreme Court.

In fact, the seven least controversial nominees, including Powell, were confirmed around 3pm January 20.

But the real issue is who heads those departments in the intervening hours/days between the new president taking office, and the new cabinet members being confirmed.
Are the old cabinet members actually out of a job, or do their resignations not take effect until they are replaced? Or until their resignations are accepted by the new prez? Or do they resign at all?

If we assume there is no legitimate authority (constitutionally speaking) heading the respective departments, i believe Congress would select the new president, deriving its authority from their role in selecting the president every four years under normal circumstances. In the present circumstances, they’d probably go with Powell, thus fulfilling the spirit of the succession rules, and choosing a politically safe personality in a crisis situation. I think the Supreme Court would review this and allow the Congressional action, not prospectively dictate a process as Colibri may have been suggesting. And i’d say he stays four years before an election, although in such extraordinary circumstances, who knows.

Well, I’m pretty sure that Janet Reno is not still officially in charge of the Justice Department while we wait for Ashcroft to be confirmed!

I tried to do a search for the info but got nowhere. So I’ll offer a WAG: the resignations of Clinton’s cabinent were made to be effective at the moment he left office, and he would have accepted them before leaving office, not Bush. For those departments where Bush’s nominee has not yet been confirmed, I’d bet the undersecretary is currently in charge, but would not be eligible to be succeed because he/she would need Senate confirmation to head the Department.

Now that I think about it a little more, in the circumstance that all of Clinton’s Cabinet had resigned but none of Bush’s had been confirmed, and there was no immediate legal successor, there is a simple and obvious solution: the House would just select a new Speaker, who would automatically become President. There would be no need to mess around with the Cabinet Officers, who come later in the succession. As far as I can see this would not present any Constitutional problems or require any Supreme Court review.