Who Was the Designated Survivor for the Inauguration? Outgoing Administration Doesn't Say

Guests attend the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.
Guests attend the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Trump administration did not reveal the "designated survivor" for Wednesday's inauguration ceremony, and it remains unclear whether the White House named one.

During major events, such as the State of the Union address or inauguration, the nation's top leaders in the presidential line of succession are gathered in one place, putting them -- and the nation -- at risk. One person, usually a Cabinet member or senator, is placed in an undisclosed location with one of the country's nuclear "footballs" -- the briefcase carrying the technology to launch the nation's nuclear arsenal, according to John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

In the case of an inauguration, the person is normally designated by the outgoing administration, he said.

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Given that President Joe Biden, as a former vice president, is familiar with the potential threat that faces the nation's leadership, the U.S. probably doesn't have to "worry that there is not [a designated survivor]," he added.

"Not announcing the designated survivor well in advance is acceptable behavior to me. Announcing it at the last minute is fine. ... It doesn't raise any alarms for me ... because the one thing you don't want to do is have the protocols in place, announce it early and then have something happen to that person," Hudak said.

For Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration, there were two designated survivors: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, President Barack Obama's pick, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican serving as president pro tem of the Senate who was in the line of succession.

A spokesman for the Trump administration's National Security Council did not respond to a query regarding the survivor-designate Tuesday.

According to Hudak, security in D.C. was so high around the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday that the risk of a catastrophe had been narrowed "pretty dramatically."

But Hudak, who expressed in a column that Vice President Kamala Harris should have been sworn in at a separate location from Biden, said the threat of attack remained viable.

"When you look at the counterintelligence and other investigations, you're hearing the same things about 'online chatter.' You are hearing about radicalization, extremist ideologies. We are talking about Americans in this sense, the way we said the same things about al-Qaida 20 years ago and the same thing about ISIS," Hudak said.

As VIPs were introduced during the inauguration ceremony Wednesday, one of the most obvious absences in the line of succession was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Several others took their seats on the scaffolding, including Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and incoming President Pro Tempore Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Hudak cautioned against determining who might be the designated survivor from those present and absent at the event, especially in a year where the outgoing president chose not to attend.

"The challenge is, if you get down into the cabinet, to see who is or who's not there, like if Mike Pompeo is not there, it might just be because he doesn't want to go," Hudak said.

Regardless, at noon Wednesday, Biden's codes for the nuclear arsenal were activated and he gained possession of the briefcase containing the technology to launch the nation's weapons. At the same time, Trump's were deactivated.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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