Orrin Hatch was far away from the Capitol Tuesday night during the State of the Union. The senator was chosen as the “designated survior” in a tradition dating back to the Cold War when there were fears a sudden strike could decapitate America’s political leadership.
The tradition goes back to the cold war, when there were fears that a sudden Soviet nuclear strike could leave the United States leaderless and vulnerable. Although the Berlin Wall fell nearly three decades ago, this practice has continued up until the present.
For one night, the designated survivor is treated almost as if they are the president. Secret Service agents accompany them and there is a military aide carrying the “nuclear football”, the briefcase that contains the codes, which allow the president to authorize a nuclear strike.
Designated survivors are often relatively low-ranking cabinet members. Last year, it was Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who is 13th in the line of succession under statute. In addition, the White House hasannounced that secretary of homeland security Jeh Johnson “has been designated as the Cabinet member who will not attend the State of the Union address this evening”. However, with Hatch not attending, Johnson would not succeed to the presidency in case of catastrophe. Behind only Joe Biden and Speaker Paul Ryan in the line of succession, Hatch is the highest ranking designated survivor in over a decade. However, what’s most unusual about Hatch taking this role is that he is a Republican.