Designated survivors recount nights as doomsday presidents


For a few fleeting hours two decades ago, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman was Washington's designated survivor.

If a catastrophic event had wiped out a packed House chamber during President Bill Clinton's State of the Union, Glickman — waiting in the wings outside the capital — would have become the acting commander in chief.

"You would have had a President Glickman," he said.

His potentially life-altering appointment as the designated survivor comes from tradition — one that will carry on Tuesday night as President Donald Trump gives his first State of the Union address. 

Last year, when Trump addressed his first joint session of Congress, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was tapped as designated survivor and sent to a secure and undisclosed location. This year's chosen one isn't expected to be announced until just before the political pageantry on Capitol Hill begins.

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US President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 28 February 2017.

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U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, center, arrives for a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. President Donald Trump will press Congress to carry out his priorities for replacing Obamacare, jump-starting the economy and bolstering the nations defenses in an address eagerly awaited by lawmakers, investors and the public who want greater clarity on his policy agenda.

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U.S. First Lady Melania Trump stands as attendees applaud during a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. President Donald Trump will press Congress to carry out his priorities for replacing Obamacare, jump-starting the economy and bolstering the nation's defenses in an address eagerly awaited by lawmakers, investors and the public who want greater clarity on his policy agenda.

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US President Donald Trump (C) arrives to address a joint session of the US Congress on February 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.

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U.S. Rep Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrive to a joint session of the U.S. Congress with U.S. President Donald Trump on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress is expected to focus on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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U.S. President Trump addresses Joint Session of Congress - Washington, U.S. - 28/02/17 - U.S. first lady Melania Trump (bottom, center) is applauded on her arrival as daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner (R) look on.

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US President Donald Trump arrives to address a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on February 28, 2017.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (R) looks on as U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress focused on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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US President Donald Trump arrives to address a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on February 28, 2017.

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, center, greets Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), right, while arriving for a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. President Donald Trump will press Congress to carry out his priorities for replacing Obamacare, jump-starting the economy and bolstering the nations defenses in an address eagerly awaited by lawmakers, investors and the public who want greater clarity on his policy agenda.

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U.S. President Donald Trump's limo is seen upon his arrival to address a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017.

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U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress is expected to focus on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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US President Donald Trump (C) arrives to address a joint session of the US Congress on February 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.

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Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) arrive to a joint session of the U.S. Congress with U.S. President Donald Trump on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress is expected to focus on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan arrives for U.S. President Donald Trump's first address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress is expected to focus on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) arrive to a joint session of the U.S. Congress with U.S. President Donald Trump on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress is expected to focus on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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US President Donald Trump (C) arrives to address a joint session of the US Congress on February 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.

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Vice President Mike Pence (L) and House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) arrive to a joint session of the U.S. Congress with U.S. President Donald Trump on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress is expected to focus on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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U.S. Capitol is seen minutes before President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington, U.S. February 28, 2017.

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U.S. President Donald Trump addresses Joint Session of Congress - Washington, U.S. - 28/02/17.

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US President Donald J. Trump (L) shakes hands with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) as he arrives to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 28 February 2017.

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First lady Melania Trump (R), Ivanka Trump (top 2ndR) and White House Senior Advisor to the President for Strategic Planning Jared Kushner (top R) arrive to a joint session of the U.S. Congress with U.S. President Donald Trump on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress is expected to focus on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, arrives for a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. President Trump will press Congress to carry out his priorities for replacing Obamacare, jump-starting the economy and bolstering the nation's defenses in an address eagerly awaited by lawmakers, investors and the public who want greater clarity on his policy agenda.

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U.S. President Donald Trump addresses Joint Session of Congress - Washington, U.S. - 28/02/17 - Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) arrives.

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US President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 28 February 2017. / AFP / POOL / JIM LO SCALZO (Photo credit should read JIM LO SCALZO/AFP/Getty Images)

Denisha Merriweather (C) is recognized as US President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the US Congress on February 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.

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US President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 28 February 2017.

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Megan Crowley (C) is recognized as US President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the US Congress on February 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.

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U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress focused on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. President Trump addresses Joint Session of Congress - Washington, U.S. - 28/02/17 - U.S. President Donald Trump arrives.

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US First Lady Melania Trump arrives before US President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the US Congress on February 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, speaks during a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. Trump will press Congress to carry out his priorities for replacing Obamacare, jump-starting the economy and bolstering the nation's defenses in an address eagerly awaited by lawmakers, investors and the public who want greater clarity on his policy agenda.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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While the process of selecting someone may seem cloaked in mystery — though it has found new popularity thanks to a TV show of the same name — members of the designated survivor club peeled back the curtain to NBC News.

"One part of it seems totally unrealistic. Then there's a certain realism that sets in and you have to take it seriously," said former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who was the designated survivor when President George W. Bush gave his State of the Union in 2006. 

Nicholson said Bush's chief of staff, Andy Card, asked him weeks in advance to be the designated survivor. It only became known publicly on the day of the address.

That night, a helicopter flew him to a hidden meeting place where he was briefed about his duties in a drab command center-like room. For dinner, he ate a "delicious steak," he said. The TV was tuned into the State of the Union.

Government workers gave Nicholson a rundown of what would happen should calamity strike.

"You kind of drill it and role-play ahead of time," he said. "They call you Mr. President."

He said he was chosen as a designated survivor because he was involved with the Bush administration's ongoing contingency planning, which became paramount after the events of 9/11.

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Designated survivors through the years
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Designated survivors through the years
2017: U.S. Veteran's Affairs Secretary David Shulkin
2016: Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson
2015: Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx
2014: Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz
2013: Former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu
2013: Former United States Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki
2012: Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
2011: Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
2010: Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan
2009: Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
2009: Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
2008: Former US Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne
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How a survivor is selected

The idea of singling someone out is an artifact from another perilous period in history: the Cold War.

Records go back to at least the 1980s on designated survivors, historians say. To be chosen, the person must be in the president's cabinet in a position that is part of the line of succession and falls under the criteria to run for the office, including being a natural-born U.S. citizen and at least 35 years old.

Theoretically, any of those cabinet members or cabinet-level officers could be selected, but historically, the appointed person has come from newer departments such as veterans affairs, homeland security or energy. 

Whittling down the list takes time, said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

For starters, who in the cabinet needs to be at the particular event? Generally, a vice president would, although an exception was made for Vice President Dick Cheney in September 2001, when he was a co-designated survivor in order to keep him safe while Bush addressed Congress post-9/11.

Related: Trump's Cabinet: What You Need to Know About It

Perry said anointing someone could also come down to whether the president will be talking about a particular department in his speech, which would require the cabinet secretary to be in the audience so cameras can pan to him or her, or a cabinet member is conveniently out of D.C. at that time.

Selecting a survivor last year was tricky since a number of Trump's cabinet appointees were still awaiting Senate confirmation. In addition, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was out of the running because she wasn't born in America.

Power, but only for a night

What might be in store for a designated survivor? In past administrations, the person might stay in the White House or travel out of town — there's no protocol for where they have to be.

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi told NBC News he was taken to a secure location in February 2001, when the recently sworn-in Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress.

"It was uneventful," Principi said of the night, which consisted of watching the address. "But that was before 9/11."

Since then, the Senate has also named its own designated survivor in order to keep that branch of government operating amid a doomsday scenario. 

In the run-up to the State of the Union in 1997, the White House called Glickman's chief of staff to tell him he was on the hook as designated survivor. He was given a briefing, but nothing extensive or as important as the nuclear codes, he recalled.

Glickman was permitted to stay with his daughter, who was then living in lower Manhattan.

On the night of the speech, he was swarmed by Secret Service who took him from Andrews Air Force Base to LaGuardia Airport on a small plane. They waited for him at his daughter's apartment.

After the address ended without a hitch, the Secret Service agents left. Glickman and his daughter went for a late-night bite at a Japanese restaurant 10 blocks away, and were later caught in a sleet storm without a ride home. At that point, it hit Glickman that being designated survivor had its perks — but those were short-lived.

"Only three hours before, I was potentially the most powerful person in the world," Glickman said. "Three hours later, I couldn't even get a cab."

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