If, a week ago, you asked most people if the U.S. Capitol could be invaded by a Trump and Confederate flag-waving, fact-free militia fueled by social media lies and a seditious president, they would have laughed and said it impossible. But it happened. And now we should rethink the upcoming inauguration with an eye toward preserving the line of succession and the continuity of government.
How we got here
All Americans are now familiar with the images of misinformed individuals organizing a violent insurrection against the United States Congress. They were motivated by a months-long misinformation campaign from President Trump and his surrogates. They attacked the Capitol building as members of Congress and the vice president counted the 2020 electoral votes. Present were the top three individuals in the line of succession —Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley—as well as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Video and audio inside the Capitol as it was under siege showed throngs of Trump supporters who took orders from their White House pep rally shortly before. These terrorists were chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as they scoured the building, trying to hunt down the vice president and other officials. Their actions were violent, and assassinations were their goal.
The challenges of Inauguration Day
In just over a week, the Capitol will once again be used for an important constitutional process—the presidential transfer of power. After last week, we can no longer label it “peaceful”. An unprecedented number of threats, which we must treat as credible based on last week’s violence, are being directed at it.
Inaugurations are always National Special Security Events in which the United States Secret Service takes the lead in coordinating dozens of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as the Department of Defense. The goal is to protect an event which most of the top officials of government attend. Any time such an event occurs, like the State of the Union address, there exists a threat of decapitating the government—killing off a number of top-ranking officials in the line of succession. This year, that threat is chillingly real.
Inaugurations present other unique continuity of government risks. First, the event is almost always held outdoors. Second, the president, vice president, president-elect, vice president-elect, House speaker, and president pro tempore of the Senate all typically attend. They are the top four officials in the line of succession, prior to noon on January 20th or from that point forward. Next, most Cabinet secretaries’ terms of office end at noon that day (typically via resignation) which means that most of the Cabinet departments are headed by acting officials—often lower ranking appointees or in some cases civil servants. That means in the event of the death of the president, vice president, speaker, and president pro tempore, a fairly anonymous individual could ascend to the presidency. For example, in 2009 in the day prior to Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State, and in 2017 in the 12 days prior to Rex Tillerson’s confirmation, the next person in line (in each case) was the acting secretary of state, who was the undersecretary for political affairs.
How to protect the continuity of government in 2021
This year we know the president will not attend his successor’s inauguration, although Vice President Pence has indicated that he will go. And while the National Special Security Event designation will make the inauguration one of the most secure spaces on the planet, additional precautions should be taken.
The challenge for the new administration is balancing the worry about looking intimidated by racist rioters and being serious about protecting the continuity of government. Some have suggested Mr. Biden be inaugurated elsewhere, an idea tossed aside because of the optics of a fearful commander-in-chief.
A better option is to have Mr. Biden inaugurated as usual, and for Ms. Harris to be inaugurated elsewhere, at an undisclosed location, before witnesses, TV cameras, and journalists—a ceremony that could be livestreamed to the in-person event at the Capitol. At the same time the congressional members in the line of succession, at a minimum, should not be present in case of a deadly attack. In the same way that State of the Union Addresses have designated survivors—typically a Cabinet member prepared to assume the presidency—the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore should be in secure locations, with witnesses, TV cameras, journalists, and a federal judge prepared to administer the oath.
Former Brookings Expert
Director of the Office of Cannabis Policy - Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services
The narrow division in the U.S. Senate would also mean that both Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the current president pro tempore of the Senate, and Senator Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the incoming president pro tempore, should be in secure locations—separate from each other and separate from Speaker Pelosi. After Ms. Harris becomes Vice President, Mr. Leahy will serve in that role. Prior to her assumption of the vice presidency, Mr. Grassley will serve in that role.
Unfortunately, we are in a moment where supporters of the losing presidential candidate would destabilize democracy rather than accept reality. A subset of his supporters would rather commit an act of terror against their own government and threaten to assassinate top officials (not named Donald Trump) rather than engage in fruitful, democratic discussion. Instead of working to convince people of their ideas and win future elections, they would rather overthrow the government and install Donald Trump as their unelected leader, leaving the bodies of duly elected officials in their wake. This is a profoundly dangerous moment in our nation’s history, and one I never expected to have to write about.
But here we are. When President Donald Trump is the leader of a social media-organized group of domestic terrorists, we have to think seriously about protecting the continuity of government for a reason we never imagined: the outgoing president is its biggest threat.