On November 2, less than a week before last month’s election, current CIA director and 1977 Fordham University alumnus John Brennan addressed a group of Fordham Law School students on the presidential succession system.
During the visit to Fordham Law’s Presidential Succession Clinic, taught by Professor John Feerick and Adjunct Professor John Rogan, Brennan talked with students about national security considerations related to presidential succession. Drawing on his current position as well as his time in the Obama White House as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Brennan fielded questions on clinic topics such as the line of succession, contingency planning in the White House, and methods for handling a case of vice presidential disability.
Presidential disabilities are a major focus of the clinic’s work. When the president disputes that a disability exists against the conclusion of the vice president and a majority of the cabinet, the 25th Amendment makes Congress the final arbiter. The students questioned Director Brennan about such a scenario.
“Director Brennan was concerned that too much of a public proceeding could raise national security concerns, what with the president’s personal records being at issue,” said Jonathan Coppola ’17, a student in the clinic. “One issue we were dealing with was whether the succession proceeding should be completely public or allow some closed-door proceedings, and he recommended making those national security concerns a main priority.”
The Presidential Succession Clinic deals extensively with the 25th Amendment. Feerick advised Congress in drafting the amendment, assisting lawmakers like Senator Birch Bayh, the amendment’s principal author. The amendment was ratified 50 years ago this February.
Students from the clinic said that the amendment’s architects intentionally left some of its procedures ambiguous in an effort to limit its complexity and increase its chances of ratification. By offering clarifications for the amendment’s remaining ambiguities, Feerick’s students aim to strengthen its role in safeguarding government stability.
The clinic continues Fordham Law’s history with presidential succession, which started with Feerick’s 1963 Fordham Law Review article on the topic and includes a 1976 symposium on the vice presidency, a 2010 symposium on the adequacy of the succession system, and a first clinic that published a comprehensive report in 2012.
Brennan was among several distinguished clinic visitors, including Second Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann and former Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush Frances Townsend, who leant important context to the clinic’s work over the semester.
“Director Brennan talked for well over an hour,” said clinic student Timothy Deal ’17. “Based on what he said, it was clear he had read a lot about the 25th Amendment. In his position he obviously has to be conversant with many important areas, and it’s impressive that he would take the time to talk to a bunch of law students.”
After the visit had concluded, students said that Brennan made a significant impression.
“There’s this idea that the director of the CIA is this very secretive, imposing figure,” said clinic student Marcella Jayne ’18. “But you meet him and he’s warm, friendly, and approachable.”
On the subject of transitioning between administrations, Brennan counseled cooperation and transparency.
“Another thing that Director Brennan stressed was the importance of a well-run transition team and how important it is for the transition of administrations to be efficient in a well-prepared way,” said Coppola.
A distinguished alumnus of Fordham University and one of the highest-ranking intelligence officials of the U.S. government, Brennan and his reputation preceded him.
“As an undergraduate, I studied Middle Eastern politics under Professor John Entelis, who Director Brennan had when he was a student,” said Coppola. “It was an honor to meet such a legendary alumnus and a pleasure to have the opportunity at Fordham.”