The Presidential Line of Succession

Today’s title says it all. Let’s learn about the presidential line of succession.

Tier 1: The Vice President

1. The Vice President
Current office-holder: Mike Pence, the 48th to hold the office
First to hold the office: John Adams (1789)
Random info: We’re pretty good at keeping track of the presidential numbers; most of us know that Donald Trump is somehow the 45th president. So why is Mike Pence the 48th VP?

It’s complicated. Nine VPs became president as a result of their boss’s term being cut short (eight deaths and one resignation), but of those nine, the first eight did not appoint new VPs for the remainder of the term. (The exception: President Ford picking Nelson Rockefeller.) That means even though we had a new president in eight of those occurrences, we did not have a new VP. For the purposes of keeping track, we therefore drop from 45 to 37 VPs, away from our goal of 48. Time to start climbing back up.

Of those eight ascensions, four did not win their own new term (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur) but four did (Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson). Those four winners had a running mate and therefore a new vice president. That gives us four more VPs, bringing us to 41.

For the rest, we have to hunt down the presidents who had multiple vice presidents. Five had two:

  1. Thomas Jefferson was paired with Aaron Burr for his first term and George Clinton for his second.
  2. Abraham Lincoln ran with Hannibal Hamlin in his first election, then Andrew Johnson in his second.
  3. Ulysses Grant ran with Schuyler Colfax and then Henry Wilson.
  4. William McKinley ran with Garret Hobart first and then Theodore Roosevelt second. (The latter quickly became President upon McKinley’s assassination six months into his second term.)
  5. Richard Nixon ran with Spiro Agnew for both his winning elections, but Agnew resigned in his second term and was replaced by Gerald Ford (who, as mentioned, was the first replacement president to appoint a new VP).

That brings us to 46. Add to that FDR, who, across his three re-elections, twice replaced his VPs, and that brings us to 48.

Now you know.

Tier 2: Congressional leaders

About the tier: The Second Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, which places two of our highest ranking elected officials after the President and Vice President in the line of succession. In 1886, a new act removed them in favor of the president’s cabinet, but they were restored by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

2. The Speaker of the House
Current office-holder: Paul Ryan, the 62nd Speaker of the House
First to hold the office: A household name: Frederick Muhlenberg, 1789
Random info: Neither the Speaker nor anyone beneath him on this list has directly ascended to the presidency, so I’m going to add a new category for some of these…
Fictional ascension!: In the closing episodes of The West Wing‘s fourth season, a scandal convinced the Vice President to resign. Shortly after, President Bartlet had to momentarily step down as a result of his daughter’s kidnapping. As a result, Speaker of the House Glen Allen Walken, a member of the opposing party, was sworn in as acting president. It was tense.

3. The Senate Pro-Tempore
Current office-holder: Orrin Hatch, the 90th Senate Pro-Tem
First to hold the office: John Langdon, 1789
Random info: The Senate Pro-Tem is the longest-serving Senator from the majority party.  Interestingly, up until 1886, these two offices were reversed in order; it was actually the Senate Pro-Tem, as the leader of the upper chamber, next in line after the vice president. Upon their re-insertion in 1947, the Speaker was placed ahead. Many feel this was because VP-less Truman wanted his friend, Speaker Sam Rayburn, next in line instead of Senate Pro-Tem Kenneth McCellar, who was 78 and not an ally of Truman’s.

In a quirky piece of trivia, we once had a Senate Pro-Tem as unofficial acting president. On Sunday, March 4, 1849, President James Polk left office as his term expired. However, for religious reason, his elected successor, Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn in on a Sunday. Same with his running mate, Millard Fillmore. Since this was still before 1886, the Senate Pro-Tem, David Rice Atchinson, acted as president until Monday. His gravestone boasts this moment of power.

Tier 3: The Original Cabinet

About the tier: President Washington created four departments to help him run the executive branch, each with a secretary to run it. They became his first cabinet and make up the next four spots in the line of succession.

4. The Secretary of State
Current office-holder: Mike Pompeo, the 70th State Secretary
First to hold the office: Thomas Jefferson, 1789
Random info: I recently wrote about our five best Secretaries of State.
Fictional ascension!: In the opening episode of Madame Secretary‘s second season, the White House lost communication with Air Force One, which was carrying the President and Speaker of the House. Meanwhile, the VP was in surgery and the Senate Pro-Tem showed some signs of dementia. As a result, the show’s main character, State Secretary Elizabeth McCord, was sworn in as acting president. I haven’t watched this, but it sounds absurd. (You know, unlike kidnapping the President’s daughter.)

5. The Secretary of the Treasury
Current office-holder: Steve Mnuchin, the 77th Treasury Secretary
First to hold the office: Alexander Hamilton, 1789
Random info: Did you know there was a musical about Alexander Hamilton? Few people know this. I bet the tickets are super cheap.

6. The Secretary of Defense
Current office-holderJames Mattis, 26th or 82nd, depending on how you look at it.
First to hold the office: Henry Knox, 1789
Random info: This position was actually the Secretary of War until 1947. Mattis is the 26th Defense Secretary, but there were 56 War Secretaries before him.

7. The Attorney General
Current office-holderJeff Sessions, the 84th Attorney General
First to hold the officeEdmund Randolph, 1789
Random info: In the event of catastrophe, this is about where my confidence level starts to drop off. I feel like we’re in good hands with the Secretary of Defense during a time of crisis, but the country’s highest ranking lawyer? Yikes.

Tier 4: The Rest of the Cabinet

About the tier: Our federal bureaucracy has become increasingly bloated (and, of course, more expensive) over the years. Nowhere is that more evident than the steadily expanded cabinet. Since Washington’s original four, we’ve added eleven departments to the executive branch, a pace that picked up over time. The order in which they were added determined the order in which they would succeed to the presidency. By tradition, one of the following cabinet members does not attend State of the Union addresses and other presidential speeches to joint sessions of Congress. Were catastrophe to strike the Capitol building at that moment, the hidden cabinet member — dubbed the “designated survivor” — would become president.

8. The Secretary of the Interior
Current office-holderRyan Zinke, the 52nd Interior Secretary (and not a geologist)
First to hold the office: Thomas Ewing, 1849 (under 12th President Taylor)
Random info: There is literally nothing interesting about this department, whose head is basically a glorified park ranger.
Fictional ascension!: In the novel “Trinity’s Child,” a Soviet nuclear attack on Washington knocks out everyone above the Interior Secretary, who was in Louisiana during the attack, and he’s sworn in. Later, when the President is found miraculously alive, the new President refuses to step down, thinking the old President is a Soviet trick. They proceed to give competing orders to resolve the crisis. Drama!

9. The Secretary of Agriculture
Current office-holderSonny Perdue, the 31st Agriculture Secretary
First to hold the officeNorman J. Coleman, 1889 (under 22nd President Cleveland)
Random info: Coleman only held the office for the last 18 days of Cleveland’s term and wasn’t confirmed by the Senate. Cleveland’s successor, Benjamin Harrison, nominated Jeremiah Rusk, who was confirmed and served for Harrison’s full term.
Fictional ascension!: In the novel “Y: The Last Man,” nearly every man on the planet dies simultaneously, which eliminated almost everyone in the line of succession. The female Secretary of the Agriculture is tabbed to be the next President. She objects, noting there’s a female Secretary of the Interior, but the latter was on a plane that crashed after its male pilots died. Bummer.

10. The Secretary of Commerce
Current office-holderWilbur Ross, the 39th Commerce Secretary
First to hold the officeWilliam C. Redfield, 1913 (under 28th president Wilson)
Random info: You might recall Ross, a sleepy octogenarian, trying to sell President Trump’s tariffs by holding up soda cans. Let us pray this man does not become president.

11. The Secretary of Labor
Current office-holderAlex Acosta, the 27th Labor Secretary
First to hold the officeWilliam B. Wilson, starting the day after Redfield began his tenure as Commerce Secretary
Random info: Before 1913, there was one Secretary of Commerce and Labor. President Wilson split it into two, because Democrats love expensive redundancy.

12. The Secretary of Health and Human Services
Current office-holderAlex Azar, the 24th HHS Secretary
First to hold the officeOveta Culp Hobby, 1953 (under 34th President Eisenhower)
Random info: This department was originally the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare before evolving.
Fictional ascension!: In the TV series Jerichonukes have destroyed much of America and the line of succession down to the HHS Secretary. However, at that point, no one cares about federal law and have instead congealed into regional factions, each with their own leader. (This scenario strikes me as the most realistic result of such a catastrophe.)

13. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Current office-holderBen Carson, the 17th HUD Secretary
First to hold the officeRobert C. Weaver, 1966 (under 36th President Lyndon Johnson)
Random info: This is all part of Ben Carson’s plan to become president.
Fictional ascension!: In probably the most prominent example of a designated survivor becoming president, we have the show Designated Survivor. A terrorist attack during the State of the Union leaves the HUD Secretary, former Cornell professor Tom Kirkman, in charge.

14. The Secretary of Transportation
Current office-holderElaine Chao, the 18th Transportation Secretary
First to hold the officeAlan S. Boyd, 1967 (also under Johnson)
Random info: A couple interesting things about Chao: 1) She had previous served as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor, so getting knocked down the line kind of feels like a demotion. 2) However, she’s not technically in the line of succession. Born in Taiwan, she doesn’t qualify to be president. If the first 13 in line were to perish, she would be skipped in favor of number 15.

15. The Secretary of Energy
Current office-holderRick Perry, the 14th Energy Secretary
First to hold the officeJames Schlesinger, 1977 (under 39th President Carter)
Random info: Yes, that Rick Perry.

16. The Secretary of Education
Current office-holderBetsy DeVos, the 11th Education Secretary
First to hold the officeShirley Hufstedler, 1979 (President Carter again)
Random info: I’m telling you, Democrats reeeeally like departments.
Fictional ascension!: Though not a part of the U.S. line of succession, the phenomenal TV series Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) began with a massive strike against the human race across its 12 planetary colonies. Education Secretary Laura Roslin was the highest ranking member of the cabinet left and became the president — and a great one at that.

17. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Current office-holder: Vacant
First to hold the officeEd Derwinski, 1989 (under 41st President George HW Bush)
Random info: On March 28, President Trump dismissed the ninth VA Secretary, David Shulkin. Since then, Robert Wilkie, an Undersecretary in the Defense Department, has acted as Acting VA Secretary until the position is filled. The President announced his intention to nominate White House physician, Ronny Jackson, to take over the department, and everything has been really smooth since then.

18. The Secretary of Homeland Security
Current office-holderKirstjen Nielsen, the 6th Homeland Security Secretary
First to hold the officeTom Ridge, 2003 (under 43rd President George W. Bush)
Random info: Our newest cabinet position was created in 2003 and then added to the presidential line of succession in 2006. There was a push by some in Congress to elevate this office to number 8 in line — below the original four but above the rest — but tradition thwarted the charge. You can understand the reasoning, though; if things are so bad that we lost the eight highest ranking officials of the executive branch, I know I’d want to be led by someone who’s an expert in national security over someone who’s an expert in trout.

Tier 5: The Mystery List??

There is no public law which tells us who’s next in line after the cabinet, but you’d have to think there’s a contingency out there. If I had to guess who’s on this mystery list:

  • Experience would be crucial in such a situation. Therefore, next I’d put former presidents, in order of how recently they served. That would make Obama 19th, Bush 20th, Clinton 21st, HW Bush 22nd, and Carter 23rd. If capable to serve, they would serve out the term without the ability to be re-elected. In the case of outrageous old age or general incapacity — Bush Sr. and Carter would qualify — their first act of business would be to nominate a capable VP, someone whom Congress would confirm, and their second act of business would be to resign.
  • Former vice presidents in the same reverse order: Biden 24th, Cheney 25th, Gore 26th, Quayle 27th, Mondale 28th (yikes). They would be eligible to run in the next election, though Mondale would probably follow the contingency I laid out in the last bullet.
  • The most recent losing presidential ticket, which I justify by A) Them having the most recent national security briefings from their days as the nominees, and B) Under the original Constitution, the runner-up in the election became vice-president, which reflected their status as the second choice of the people. Therefore, Hillary Clinton 29th, Tim Kaine 30th.
  • With no experienced, relatively briefed, or nationally elected figures left, I would then turn to governors in order of experience. It would make sense to add these non-Washingtonians, just in case the city were obliterated.

I hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it! Now let’s just hope the line of succession never becomes necessary. See you next time.


6 thoughts on “The Presidential Line of Succession”

  1. An unanswered question: Who is the last conceivable person in a theoretical line of succession? I’m guessing it would be local postmasters. All of them.


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