Most of Rep. Mike Thompson’s lawmaking colleagues were at the Capitol on Tuesday night, listening to President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress.
Thompson, a Napa Valley Democrat who has served in the House since 1999, was at his home in Washington, doing his laundry after a regular day at the office. He was among the nearly 48 million people who tuned in the hourlong, prime-time speech on television.
“I was a designated survivor,” he said.
Thompson said he was tabbed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as one of the legislators to sit out the address — and ensure the continued operation of the government of the United States should calamity strike the Capitol while senators, representatives, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and military commanders were all in one room.
“I washed and dried my clothes,” said Thompson, whose district includes Santa Rosa.
The only other congressional designated survivor he knew of was Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.
House Democrat and Republican leaders could not be reached last week to determine who else sat out the address for the same purpose.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, a physician nominated to his Cabinet post by Trump and unanimously confirmed by the Senate last month, was the designated survivor for the executive branch. Shulkin would have become commander-in-chief had tragedy befallen Trump and the 13 people ahead of Shulkin in the presidential line of succession.
That line starts with the vice president, followed by the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore and then cabinet officers in line according to the chronological order of their department’s creation, starting with the secretary of state.
Only John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, was behind Shulkin, 15th and last in the order of succession.
The practice of naming a designated presidential survivor dates back to the 1960s, when the threat of a cold war turning thermonuclear was tangible. Since 2005, members of Congress have served in the same capacity.
The obscure position gained a bit of glamor with the September debut of “Designated Survivor,” a TV series in which Kiefer Sutherland — think tough Jack Bauer of “24” — plays the nerdy Tom Kirkman, a housing and urban development secretary propelled by catastrophe into the post as leader of the free world.
In reality, what happens to a designated presidential survivor is cloaked in secrecy. He or she is whisked by the Secret Service to a secure government facility a couple of hours from Washington, along with military and communication aides, including the officer carrying the nuclear weapons codes.
Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, the designated survivor during President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech in 2006, said he was flown by helicopter to the secret locale, where he was briefed on his duties in a drab command center-like room, according to NBC News.
Nicholson said he dined on a juicy steak and watched the speech on TV. He was even called “Mr. President,” he said.
Back in 1997, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman had it better during President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union, when he was allowed to stay at his daughter’s apartment in Manhattan, NBC said.