(Quick note: on Friday, my podcast presented an April Fools Challenge. The answer to that challenge will be at the bottom of today’s post. If you haven’t listened to it yet, there’s still time! Just click on that link.)
Four years ago, I ran my original “The Presidential Line of Succession” post during the early part of the Trump Administration. It was well-received, perhaps because many Americans fantasize about many federal officials getting forcibly removed from office.
That initial list, however, is out of date. With a new president, new Congressional leadership, and a new cabinet, it’s time for an updated version.
Let’s learn about the new people in the presidential line of succession. (Note that these are accurate as of April 4, 2022. Surely all these officials won’t remain in their positions until the end of Biden’s term.)
Tier 1: The Vice President
1. The Vice President
Current office-holder: Kamala Harris, the 49th VP
First to hold the office: John Adams, 1789
Random info: We’re pretty good at keeping track of the presidential numbers, so most of us know that Joe Biden is the 46th president. But if he’s 46th, why is Kamala Harris the 49th Vice President?
It’s complicated. Nine VPs became president as a result of their boss’s term being cut short (eight deaths and one resignation). Of those nine, the first eight did not appoint new VPs for the remainder of the term. (The exception is the most recent: President Ford, after Nixon’s resignation, picked Nelson Rockefeller.) That means even though we had a new president nine times, we did not have a new VP in eight of those instances.
For the purposes of keeping track of the number of vice presidents as we go, we therefore drop from 46 potential VPs (which would mirror the 46 presidents) to 38 VPs. That’s annoyingly further from our goal of understanding why Kamala Harris is our 49th Vice President.
Time to start climbing back up.
Of those eight mid-term presidential ascensions, four did not win their own new term (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and the considerably mustached Chester Alan Arthur) but four did (Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson). Those four winners had a running mate for their own term and therefore a new vice president upon their victory. That gives us four more VPs, bringing us from 38 to 42.
To get us from 42 to 49, we have to hunt down the presidents who had multiple vice presidents. Five POTUSes had two VPOTUSes each:
- Thomas Jefferson was paired with Aaron Burr for his first term and George Clinton for his second, a switch having less to do with Burr killing Alexander Hamilton in 1804 and more to do with Burr being a reeeeal piece of work.
- Abraham Lincoln ran with Hannibal Hamlin in his first election, then southern Democrat Andrew Johnson in his re-election to help heal the divided nation.
- Ulysses Grant ran with Schuyler Colfax and then Henry Wilson, two of the most forgettable vice presidents ever.
- William McKinley ran with Garret Hobart first and then Theodore Roosevelt second. The latter, upon McKinley’s assassination six months into his second term, quickly became our youngest president ever.
- 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 then ascended upon Nixon’s resignation. Ford remains the only president never to be elected president or vice president.
That brings us to 47, just two away from our goal. All we have left is King Franklin Roosevelt who across his four elections twice replaced his running mate: John Nance Garner for two terms, Henry Wallace for one, and then Harry Truman for the fourth, abbreviated term.
And that brings us to 49.
Now you know.
Tier 2: Congressional leaders
About the tier: The Second Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, which placed our two highest ranking Congressional officials — the Speaker of the House and Senate Pro-Tempore — 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. They’ve been there ever since.
2. The Speaker of the House
Current office-holder: Nancy Pelosi, the 52nd Speaker
First to hold the office: A household name: Frederick Muhlenberg, 1789
Random info: Neither the Speaker nor anyone beneath the Speaker 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 Vice President John Hoynes 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: Patrick Leahy
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, above the Speaker of the House, the leader of the “lower chamber.” Upon their re-insertion in 1947, however, 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 three departments to help him run the executive branch, each with a secretary to run it. He also appointed an Attorney General, an office that later led the Department of Justice starting in 1870. These four individuals became Washington’s first cabinet and make up the next four spots in the line of succession.
4. The Secretary of State
Current office-holder: Anthony Blinken, the 71st State Secretary
First to hold the office: Thomas Jefferson, 1789. Ever heard of him? Of course you have. He’s the 24th most influential figure in Western history.
Random info: I’ve ranked 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 show, but it sounds absurd. (You know, unlike kidnapping the President’s daughter in The West Wing.)
5. The Secretary of the Treasury
Current office-holder: Janet Yellen, the 78th Treasury Secretary
First to hold the office: His name is Alexander Hamilton, 1789
Random info: Did you know there’s a musical about Alexander Hamilton? Few people know this.
6. The Secretary of Defense
Current office-holder: Lloyd Austin, 28th or 84th, depending on how you look at it.
First to hold the office: Henry Knox (as Secretary of War), 1789; James Forrestal (as Secretary of Defense), 1947
Random info: This position was actually the Secretary of War until 1947. Austin is the 28th Defense Secretary, but there were 56 Secretaries of War before the position.
7. The Attorney General
Current office-holder: Merrick Garland, the 86th Attorney General
First to hold the office: Edmund 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. What’s he gonna do? Sue the terrorists?
Tier 4: The Rest of the Cabinet
About the tier: Our federal bureaucracy has become increasingly bloated over the years. Nowhere is that more evident than the expanded cabinet. Since Washington’s original four, we’ve added eleven departments and secretaries to the executive branch, a pace that quickened over time. The order in which they were added determines 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, which is attended by the president, vice president, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the rest of the cabinet. Were catastrophe to strike the Capitol building at that moment, the hidden cabinet member — dubbed the “designated survivor” — would become president. (A member of the House and Senate are also pulled in order to lead and help rebuild our Congressional chambers.)
8. The Secretary of the Interior
Current office-holder: Deb Haaland, the 54th Interior Secretary
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-holder: Tom Vilsack, the 30th and 32nd Agriculture Secretary, serving under both Obama and Biden.
First to hold the office: Norman Jay Coleman, 1889 (under 22nd President Cleveland)
Random info: Before the Department of Agriculture was created in 1889 and Norman Jay Coleman was made its first Secretary, we had a “Commissioner of Agriculture” founded in 1862, because apparently the Civil War wasn’t distracting enough. The first Commissioner of Agriculture was Isaac Newton. (No, no, not THAT Isaac Newton. The other one.)
Fictional ascension!: In the novel “Y: The Last Man,” nearly every man on the planet dies simultaneously, which eliminated almost the entire 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. (A short-lived and boring TV series based on the book aired on Hulu last year, but the new president hadn’t been in the cabinet at all. Instead, she had merely been the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who is NOT in the line of succession, an original sin from which the show never recovered.)
10. The Secretary of Commerce
Current office-holder: Gina Raimando, the 40th Commerce Secretary
First to hold the office: William C. Redfield, 1913 (under 28th president Wilson)
Random info: Formerly the Governor of Rhode Island, Raimando accepted President Biden’s offer to be Commerce Secretary. I can’t tell if that’s a step up, a step down, or a step sideways. Coincidentally, about a hundred steps sideways gets you out of Rhode Island, no matter your starting location.
11. The Secretary of Labor
Current office-holder: Marty Walsh, the 29th Labor Secretary
First to hold the office: William 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-holder: Xavier Becerra, the 25th HHS Secretary
First to hold the office: Oveta Culp Hobby, 1953 (under 34th President Eisenhower)
Random info: This department was originally the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare before it stopped caring about humans’ education and welfare but started caring about their services.
Fictional ascension!: In the TV series Jericho, nukes 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. Have fun!)
13. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Current office-holder: Marcia Fudge, the 18th HUD Secretary
First to hold the office: Robert C. Weaver, 1966 (under 36th President Lyndon Johnson)
Random info: I did not make up the incumbent’s last name.
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. President Kirkman was played by 24‘s Jack Bauer, so you better believe they found those responsible for the attack. If only we could punish those responsible for the show.
14. The Secretary of Transportation
Current office-holder: Pete Buttigieg, the 19th Transportation Secretary
First to hold the office: Alan S. Boyd, 1967 (also under Johnson)
Random info: This is all part of Buttigieg’s plan to become president without having been elected to any office higher than mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
15. The Secretary of Energy
Current office-holder: Jennifer Granholm, the 16th Energy Secretary
First to hold the office: James Schlesinger, 1977 (under 39th President Carter)
Random info: Granholm isn’t actually eligible for the presidency, born in Canada to two Canadians. Big mistake.
16. The Secretary of Education
Current office-holder: Miguel Cardona, the 12th Education Secretary
First to hold the office: Shirley 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 truly phenomenal reimagining of the 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: Denis McDonough, the 11th Veterans Affairs Secretary
First to hold the office: Ed Derwinski, 1989 (under 41st President George HW Bush)
Random info: McDonough is an insider’s insider. He was White House Chief of Staff for four years, the Deputy National Security Adviser, and the chief of staff at the National Security Council. Now he’s in the cabinet. Number of elections won: 0.
18. The Secretary of Homeland Security
Current office-holder: Alejandro Mayorkas, the 7th Homeland Security Secretary
First to hold the office: Tom 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 Attorney General but above Secretary of the Interior — but tradition thwarted the charge. You can understand the reasoning, though; if things are so bad that we’ve 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.
Mayorkas, like Granholm, is ineligible for the presidency due to being foreign-born. (Cuba)
Tier 5: The Mystery List??
There is no public law that tells us who’s next in line after the cabinet, but you’d have to think there’s a contingency. If I were making the emergency list, it would be as follows:
- Experience would be crucial in this situation. Therefore, next I’d put former presidents, in order of how recently they served. That would make Trump 19th in line (wait, maybe I should rethink this), Obama 20th, Bush 21st, Clinton 22nd, and Carter 23rd. If capable to serve, they would serve out the term. In the case of outrageous old age or general incapacity — 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: Pence 24th, Cheney 25th, Gore 26th, and Quayle 27th.
- Next, I’d slot the three or four most recent losing presidential candidates, a choice I justify by A) Them having the most recent national security briefings from their days as the nominees, and B) Under the original Constitution, before the Twelfth Amendment, the runner-up in the election became vice-president, which reflected their status as the second choice of the people. Therefore, Hillary Clinton 28th, Mitt Romney 29th, and John Kerry 30th.
- With no experienced, nationally elected, or relatively briefed Americans left, I would then turn to governors in order of experience. They’re chief executives, which is helpful, and it would make sense to add these non-Washingtonians, just in case the capital were obliterated. Plus, this approach adds 50 people to the list, which should cover us.
But there’s probably a reason no one asks my opinions on these things.
Today’s featured image was brought to you by Wikipedia Commons and my Microsoft Paint’s super technical rotation feature.