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The State of the Union's Designated Survivor Was Holed up in a Secret Location


Feb. 5 2020, Published 1:41 p.m. ET

When President Donald Trump gave his third State of the Union Address on Feb. 4, at least one member of his cabinet skipped the proceedings. The absence wasn’t a boycott or a snub against No. 45, but instead part of a longstanding tradition intended to safeguard our nation’s government in the event of a mass-casualty incident.

Ahead of any occasion that sees a large number of U.S. leaders converge in one spot, a designated survivor is chosen to carry on the duties of the president should he and other members of his executive branch be taken out. Scroll down for more information about this fascinating ritual.

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Who was the designated survivor at the State of the Union?

For his 2020 address, Trump and his staff selected Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to be the designated survivor. During the speech, which was held in the House Chamber of the United States Capitol, the former attorney was kept in an undisclosed, secure location outside of Washington, D.C.

According to the Senate Historical Office, the act of appointing a designated survivor dates back to the 1960s, or possibly earlier, when the threat of nuclear war was on the minds of many Americans.

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David Bernhardt with President Donald Trump.

The thinking was if an attack of some sort wiped out most the government, at least one official would remain to maintain continuity of the country’s highest office. 

Though the designated survivor selection process has frequently been described as random, former Whiter House Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau — who worked under the Obama administration — previously revealed that several factors are considered when picking a cabinet member. 

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"Sometimes the designated survivor is chosen based on, 'Are their programs or policies going to be a highlight of the State of the Union?'" Favreau told The Ringer in 2016. 

"I remember years where education would be a big deal in the speech and therefore Arne Duncan, who was the education secretary at the time, could not be the designated survivor," he added. 

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The individual assigned to the role must also meet all three qualifications required in the Constitution to become President of the United States: he/she must be a natural-born U.S. citizen; he/she must be at least 35 years old; and he/she must be a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years. 

Two members of Trump’s current cabinet are ineligible to become president and therefore the designated survivor: Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, who was born in Frankfurt, which in 1962 was a part of West Germany.

There are also designated survivors for each chamber of Congress.

Since 2003, at least one member of the House of Representatives and one member of the Senate have bowed out of the State of the Union speech in order to preserve legislative succession should the need arise. 

Favreau denied that there is also a designated speechwriter. "Most of the speechwriters aren’t at the State of the Union. So there’s plenty of speechwriters," he told The Ringer. "There’s a full stock of speechwriters should something happen."

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