How the ‘Designated Survivor’ Works in Real Life

Yes, the Kiefer Sutherland drama is based on a real thing

Last Updated: September 21, 2016 @ 9:53 PM

The new ABC drama “Designated Survivor” tells the story of U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) ascending to the White House after the Capitol building is blown up during the State of the Union address.

The premise here, as described by ads for the show, is that Kirkman is the “designated survivor” — a term used to describe the cabinet member who doesn’t attend the State of the Union so there’ll be somebody who is in the presidential line of succession left alive should, you know, a bomb kill everybody in attendance.

The designated survivor is a real practice by the U.S. government, one that comes into play any time the major players in the government are gathered in one place — including, but not limited to, the State of the Union. Other such events would be a presidential inauguration or a presidential address to a joint session of Congress.

Here’s how it works. The designated survivor is a Cabinet member will be chosen from those in the line of succession, often based on who has the least tangible reason to attend the event. (Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Obama, who is not that Jon Favreau, nicely explains some of the ins and outs of who is chosen as the Designated Survivor at The Ringer.)

“Designated Survivor” provides a good example: There’s a whole to-do about how Kirkman’s policy suggestions didn’t make it into the president’s speech, and thus Kirkman doesn’t need to attend the State of the Union, because he won’t be mentioned.

Once chosen, the designated survivor will be sequestered in a secret and secure location, with Secret Service protection. The “secret” part is crucial — simply being away on government business precludes someone from being the designated survivor.

The line of succession will remain intact, of course. Anybody in the line of succession who is ahead of the designated survivor and is still alive after the hypothetical event that wipes out a bunch of the government would still become president instead of the designated survivor. The position is just there as a worst-case scenario thing, which is what we see on the show.

The designated survivor must, of course, be someone who fulfills all the requirements to actually become President. Sally Jewell, current real-life Secretary of the Interior, cannot be a designated survivor because she was born in England and is not a natural-born citizen of the United States — and is thus not able to become President.

The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, by the way, is 13th in the line of succession (or, in the real world at this moment, 12th — because Secretary of the Interior is higher in line but Jewell is not eligible). That places the HUD secretary behind nine cabinet members, the President pro tempore of the Senate, the Speaker of the House and the Vice President. There are five other cabinet members lower on the totem pole, also.