Please don’t give Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch any grief for missing Donald Trump’s inauguration — he’s the new president’s designated survivor. And he tricked us all into thinking he wouldn’t be.
ABC’s excellent new hit drama “Designated Survivor” has shined a light on a position that rarely received much attention in the past: that of the member of the presidential line of succession who is hidden away when a huge number of government officials are all in the same place.
Hatch announced Friday that he was Trump’s answer to Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the “Designated Survivor” of the show’s title. “As much as I would have liked to participate in the ceremony and festivities, I am honored to perform this important constitutional duty, which ensures the continuity of government,” Hatch said in a statement.
The statement resolved a big mystery about how the designated survivor question would be resolved for the inauguration. Hatch faked out everyone by pretending he planned to attend the inauguration. Utah newspaper The Deseret News reported before the inauguration that he would “have a prominent role in the new president’s escort party.”
In most cases, use of a designated survivor makes perfect sense — but in the case of a presidential transition, the choice of designated survivor, and the validity of the position, becomes far more complicated than it is during the annual State of the Union address.
In the show, Sutherland plays Housing and Urban Development Secretary Tom Kirkman, who is sequestered during the State of the Union. He ascends to the presidency when the Capitol building is bombed during the address. (For more on the particulars of the designated survivor tradition, read this.)
The practice of using a designated survivor dates back to the middle of the Cold War, though of course we’ve never actually needed it in real life. Though the designated survivor is typically associated with the State of the Union address, it’s also standard practice for a designated survivor to be in place during presidential inaugurations. For more on the designated survivor tradition, read this.
When there is a presidential transition, the designated survivor is chosen by the outgoing administration because an incoming administration won’t have a confirmed cabinet that can make up the standard line of succession. An exception came back at the 2009 inauguration, when President Obama took over from George W Bush. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was the designated survivor — an easy choice, since Gates served in that role continuously under both Bush and Obama.
There was no such easy choice this year, as there isn’t anyone from the Obama administration who will serve under Trump.
The identity of the designated survivor was kept secret before the inauguration because everybody knowing who it is would defeat the purpose of having the position.
In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was absent from President Obama’s State of the Union, but she wasn’t the designated survivor because everyone knew she was in London for a conference and wouldn’t be at the SOTU. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was the designated survivor that year.
Of course, the constitutionality of the designated survivor in this sort of situation is pretty messy because the 20th Amendment, which details what should happen if the president-elect dies between the meeting of the Electoral College and the inauguration, doesn’t set any provision for a line of succession if both the president-elect and vice president-elect both die, except to say that Congress could pass legislation that would set a succession plan for that situation.
Congress has not, however, ever done that. It was unlikely that one of Trump’s unconfirmed cabinet picks would have been eligible for the line of succession, either before or after he’s sworn in.
The natural choices would have been Speaker of the House Paul Ryan or Hatch — the Senate President pro tempore. But Hatch had been expected to be at the inauguration, until he wasn’t. His plans to attend were apparently a clever head-fake.
If the designated survivor had been a member of Obama’s outgoing cabinet, and a worst-case scenario had occurred before Trump was sworn in, the Obama appointee could have become president — albeit probably for a very short time, as America addressed its national crisis.
Any other scenario would be far murkier and messier, and if a “Designated Survivor”-type event were to occur at the inauguration, it would probably, constitutionally, fall to Congress to choose a new president. There were, notably, a lot of congresspeople skipping the inauguration. But there will be many more present.
On the show, special congressional elections were held to fill seats, after only two members of Congress survived the terrorist attack that kicks off the series. In the real world, vacancies in the House of Representatives can only be filled by election, but in many states the governor is allowed to appoint Senate replacements — though some states require that their Senate vacancies be filled by special election.
Really, though, there’s just no legitimate constitutional provision for a situation in which everyone at the inauguration of a new president is killed, and so trying to predict what would happen next would be foolhardy. It’s entirely possible we just wouldn’t have a president for a while. Let’s hope we never find out.