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If the absolute worst ever happens... here's who calls the shots in Washington


Updated February 05, 2019 10:05 PM EST

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, was held out of the 2019 State of the Union on Tuesday night as he was named the designated survivor of the Cabinet.

If the absolute worst ever happens... here's who calls the shots in Washington

WATCH:  A designated survivor gets picked to skip major political events and potentially run the country in the event everything goes to hell. No, they don't root for destruction.

Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, served as the Designated Survivor during the 2016 State of the Union

UPDATE:  Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson was the 'designated survivor' for the Trump inauguration according to the White House. He had been the pick back in 2016 and previously served in that capacity during the State of the Union in 2016.

The Designated Survivor

When Donald Trump takes his place on the steps of the United States Capitol on Inauguration Day, he'll be joined by his family, friends, Cabinet choices and pretty much every other Washington, D.C. power player. But somebody is going to miss the big moment. They're called the designated survivor.  

You may have heard that phrase thanks to Kiefer Sutherland and a show on ABC. But it's actually a very real thing meant to keep the country running in the event of a major catastrophe. 

On standby in the event of...

Trump's transition team isn't the first to think about naming a potential successor just in case the world blows up.  The designated survivor has been in place for many years. For big events like the inauguration, the State of the Union and major speeches to joint sessions of Congress, someone in the line of succession is left out -- just in case. On the bright side, there's a tiny chance that person could be President. But pretty much everyone else in power would have to die to make that happen. 

It's a unique experience that only a few people in our nation's history have ever had.
Anthony Foxx, Designated Survivor for 2015 SOTU

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx talks about serving as the "Designated Survivor" during the 2015 State of the Union

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is one of the few who've served as designated survivor. "Did I think about what color drapes I might put into the Oval Office? No," he explained while talking for the first time about the experience with Circa.

For 59 minutes during President Obama's 2015 State of the Union, Foxx could have become President. He said he was taken to a secure location he won't discuss. Just like the others before him, he sat with the nuclear codes and waited to see whether he'd unexpectedly rise to power.

Foxx didn't root for tragedy. Or play Madden.  He said, "It’s not one of those things where you play video games or something like that. It’s a heavy responsibility actually, and thank goodness for the country they didn’t have to worry about President Foxx.”

GWU professor and political historian Matt Dallek talks about the country's need for a designated survivor during big political events

Choosing a designated survivor is about making sure someone can run the country if there's a worst case scenario. George Washington University political historian Matt Dallek says the idea goes back as far as Franklin Roosevelt.

These have been longstanding fears in American life.
Matt Dallek, GWU professor/political historian

Administrations didn't start officially picking a worst case scenario successor until the 1980s. Generally, Dallek said, they're a cabinet member who is a little lower on the food chain. 

Circa looked through choices dating back to 1981. The most common pick? The Secretary of the Interior. The person in that post has been chosen seven times as the designated survivor. The Secretary of Agriculture has been chosen six times. Since the attacks of September 11th, the choices have been more high profile. 

Who's had a shot at the Presidency? A look back at past Designated Survivors

Vice President Dick Cheney was the odd man out during the address to the Joint Session of Congress in 2001. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates served as the designed survivor on Inauguration Day in 2009. And Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson sat out 2016's State of the Union.

Dallek says being chosen is a compliment, "These have a symbolic, psychological and policy implications that when a crisis happens are really significant.”


Girl Power

Women have also been selected as designated survivors in years past. Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services, was the first woman chosen as designated survivor. That was in 1985 during Ronald Reagan's second inauguration. Donna Shalala was the chosen one during the 1996 State of the Union while serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior, was chosen twice. She was designated survivor in 2002 during the State of the Union and in 2005 for the inauguration.

A surreal experience

Anthony Foxx would tell you the experience was a pretty cool one. He was just steps from the Presidency...  until he wasn't. 

"There is an element of you know, you were the flash in the pan and then all of sudden it’s all over," Foxx said.

Designated Survivor - Official Trailer

WATCH: ABC launched a whole show exploring what would happen if the "Designated Survivor" scenario became real life

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