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Designated survivor prepares for Inauguration Day

Posted: 7:04 PM, Jan 18, 2017
Updated: 2017-01-18 20:59:50-05

Inauguration Day is the one day where our leaders gather together on one stage to celebrate a peaceful transition of power. Well, almost all our leaders.

If you scan the President's cabinet assembled behind the President-elect on the Capitol's West Front, one person will be missing. That's the designated survivor, tapped to serve as president if the president, vice-president, and everyone else ahead in the presidential line of succession were wiped out in an attack.

"I got to sit around a conference room with a big TV screen and watch the festivities as they were taking place," said Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who was the designated survivor in 2005 for George W. Bush's second Inaugural.

Where exactly she was, though, Norton isn't saying.

"Some of the details of the designated survivor program are classified. What I can say is that I was at a secure undisclosed location," Norton says.

The program began during the cold war for the president's annual State of the Union address to Congress. Norton was the designated survivor for that, too, in 2002.

But even that wasn't the first time Norton, who served from 2001 to 2006, had to contemplate taking the reigns of government.

"I also had an interesting experience on the night of September 11th, 2001. I was at a secure undisclosed location and got a call from Vice President [Dick] Cheney, who said, 'we'd like you to stay there because you are the highest ranking official outside of Washington, DC, this evening.'"

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, "everyone took the designated survivor program much more seriously," says Norton.

When the White House changes hands, it's up to the outgoing administration to choose the designated survivor. In 2009, it was Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who stayed on to serve under President Obama.

This time, though, there won't be such continuity: no one from Obama's cabinet will be serving under President Donald Trump.