The tradition of a designated survivor probably dates to the 1960s Cold War era, but official records don’t begin until 1984.
If disaster strikes the Capitol during the State of the Union address, the fate of the nation falls to the designated survivor, a member of the Cabinet directed to steer clear of the building just in case.
Typically, the assignment goes to a lower-ranking member of the Cabinet. This year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has the job.
The tradition of a designated survivor probably dates to the 1960s Cold War era, but official records don’t begin until 1984. Although this is President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, there was a designated survivor during his first address to Congress last year: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration to serve in Trump’s Cabinet.
The most immediate responsibility of the designated survivor is to accompany the “football,” a 45-pound briefcase that contains a list of nuclear strike options and travels with the president’s security detail at all times.
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The exact origins of the powerful briefcase are unknown but can be traced to the Cuban missile crisis under President John F. Kennedy.
In the last 33 years, there have been only two women picked as designated survivor: Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in 1996 and George W. Bush’s Interior Secretary Gale Norton in 2002.
In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in New York during the State of the Union. Although she was not the official designated survivor, the job of president would have gone to her as she outranked the designated survivor, Shaun Donovan, the Housing secretary.
Typically, the opposing party selects its own survivor. There are at least 11 Democratic lawmakers skipping the State of the Union, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has selected two officially: Reps. Mike Thompson and Doris Matsui, both of California.
Although the public is not made aware of who the president’s designated survivor is until shortly before the address, the chosen man or woman is steered through a training process well beforehand. If called to serve, the designated survivor is prepared to take over the presidency.