Most high-ranking administration officials will be in attendance at President Trump's State of the Union address at the Capitol on Tuesday — except for Rick Perry, who's this year's "designated survivor." Per tradition, the designated survivor will stay at an undisclosed location instead, and prepare to assume the presidency in case tragedy strikes and everybody else in the presidential line of succession is killed during the speech. The White House doesn't reveal exactly how the designated survivor is chosen — but there are a few things that we do know.
CBS News reports that the president and their staff are responsible for selecting the designated survivor, and Jon Favreau, Barack Obama's former lead speechwriter, spoke to The Ringer about the designated survivor selection process in 2016. Favreau initially said that the process is "entirely random," but then backtracked a bit and said that sometimes, the designated survivor depends on what the president intends to say in their speech.
"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 said at the time. "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."
The practice of picking a designated survivor is a consequence of the Presidential Succession Act, which establishes the protocol for determining who becomes commander-in-chief if both the sitting president and their vice president are killed, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to serve. Under the law, the first person in line after the vice president is speaker of the House, followed by president pro tempore of the Senate (which usually means the longest-serving senator in the majority).
In the unlikely event that the president, vice president, speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate are all incapacitated at once, presidential duties fall to a cabinet official. The Presidential Succession Act establishes the order in which cabinet members — beginning with Secretary of State and ending with the Secretary of Homeland Security — assume the office of the presidency. The designated survivor is usually chosen from this lot — although in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney was the designated survivor for a speech President Bush gave after the attacks of Sept. 11.
According to the Senate Historical Office, the practice of having a designated survivor dates "at least to the early 1960s," when the Cold War was in full swing and the prospect of a nuclear attack was a regular concern for Americans. Since 2003, the Senate and House of Representatives have each internally chosen their own "designated survivor," CBS News reports; these are the lawmakers who will assume the roles of Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House, respectively, in case something catastrophic happens at a speech to a joint session of Congress.
In order to be the designated survivor, a cabinet member must be eligible to be president. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, for instance, can't be the designated survivor, as she was born in Taiwan and is thus constitutionally disqualified from serving as president.
If you're wondering exactly where the designated survivor goes during the speech, you'll have to keep wondering, as that's a closely-guarded secret. Nevertheless, the concept of the designated survivor continues to be a source of fascination for the public, as evidenced by the recent third season renewal of the show Designated Survivor.