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What a 'designated survivor' does during the State of the Union

With President Donald Trump's first official State of the Union address on Jan. 30, the White House's security apparatus is making preparations for a grim worse-case scenario.


If there was a targeted attack on the Capitol, someone would have to take over the government.

Excluding the years immediately after a new president is elected, one member of the president's Cabinet has been selected every year since the 1960s to be the "designated survivor."

They sit out the State of the Union far away from the House chamber, so that in case there is a catastrophe, a Senate-confirmed official could take the reigns of the presidency. Since 2005, a designated survivor from Congress has also been selected in order to rebuild the legislative branch.

Also Read: A World Trade Center survivor left an amazing goodbye to his family

This year's designated survivor has not been announced yet. Although highly unlikely, this doomsday scenario has captured the imaginations of screen writers and TV producers, spawning a an entire show on ABC called simply "Designated Survivor."

In the real world, designated survivors have often tended to be low-ranking cabinet members, and until 9/11, had spent their evenings away from Washington, DC, in a variety of ways. Almost all choose to kick back, relax, and enjoy the perks of the presidential treatment for a few short hours.

Here are how past designated survivors have spent their State of the Union addresses as the possible president-to-be:

A designated survivor has been selected for the State of Union address since sometime in the 1960s, but the first one documented person was secretary of housing and urban development Samuel R. Pierce Jr. at former President Ronald Reagan's in January 1984.

Official portrait of then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce.

Source: The American Presidency Project

In 1986, agriculture secretary John Block spent Reagan's address from his friend's house on the shores of Montego Bay, Jamaica. "I was having a glass of wine probably," Block said after the fact.

John Block (Official US Secretary of Agriculture photo).

Source: ABC News

In 1990, secretary of veteran affairs Ed Derwinski had a pretty casual experience as the designated survivor. He had pizza near his home while his security detail stood by.

Former President George H.W. Bush's cabinet, with Derwinski standing in the top row, third from the right. (Wikipedia)

Source: ABC News

In 1996, secretary of health and human services Donna Shalala spent the State of the Union address in the White House. She reportedly ordered pizza for her staff after former President Bill Clinton told her, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Donna Shalala (Wikipedia)

Source: ABC News

In 1997, secretary of agriculture Dan Glickman visited his daughter in Lower Manhattan to hang out at her apartment — "nuclear football" and all. But after the State of the Union ended and Secret Service left, they were left looking for taxis in the pouring rain.

Dan Glickman, 26th Secretary of Agriculture, January 1995 - 2001. (Wikipedia)

Source: CBS News

In 1999, then-secretary of housing and urban development and now-governor of New York Andrew Cuomo opted to stay home to spend quality time with his kids.

Andrew Cuomo as HUD Secretary (Wikipedia)

Source: ABC News

In 2000, secretary of energy Bill Richardson spent his time as designated survivor hanging out with his family in coastal Maryland. They dined on roast beef and drank beers as the Secret Service watched over them.

Bill Richardson at an event in Kensington, New Hampshire. (Wikipedia)

Source: ABC News

But after the 9/11 attacks rocked the world, the role of designated survivor took on new gravity. From then on out, designated survivors were taken to an undisclosed location and didn't speak to reporters about their experiences.

U.S. President George W. Bush at the 2002 State of the Union address in January 2002. (Wikipedia)

Source: ABC News

"I think 9/11 created a new aura of reality," said interior secretary and 2011's designated survivor Ken Salazar. "It added a dimension of seriousness to that kind of protective measure."

Official portrait of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (Wikipedia)

Source: ABC News

In 2006, secretary of veterans affairs Jim Nicholson had to deal with this new level of seriousness when he was transported via helicopter to an unknown location and given a security briefing. But was able to enjoy a steak dinner in the process.

Jim Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs. (Wikipedia)

Source: ABC News

In 2010, an unusual circumstance meant that two designated survivors were selected.

Jan. 27, 2010
"As the President entered the House chamber to give his State of the Union address, I turned around to see his pathway to the podium. It reminded me of a scene from the movie, "The American President."
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Source: Washington Post

Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton was abroad in London during the State of the Union, but secretary of housing and urban development Shaun Donovan was also named designated survivor.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, 2009 (Wikipedia)

Source: Washington Post

Had anything happened to the president, Clinton would have succeeded former President Barack Obama because she was next in the line of succession, but because her location was known, another survivor had to be selected.

Photo by Marc Nozell | Wikimedia Commons

Source: Washington Post

Thankfully — outside of the fictional TV show on ABC — no real designated survivors have had to fulfill their doomsday missions.

Kiefer Sutherland plays President Tom Kirkman, who finds himself unceremoniously dumped into the Oval Office as the Designated Survivor. (Wikipedia)