Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton
“Well, Mr. President, if one of the largest newspapers in Europe is publishing it, I’m not sure it’s much of a secret anymore.”
“My answer is the same,” I say. God, I sound like an ass. Worse yet, I sound like a lawyer.
reports that”—he holds up a paper—“‘US president Jonathan Duncan arranged and participated in a phone call with Suliman Cindoruk, leader of the Sons of Jihad and among the most wanted terrorists in the world, seeking to find common ground between the terrorist organization and the West.’ Do you deny that, Mr. President?”
I can’t respond, and he knows it. He’s batting me around like a kitten bats a ball of yarn.
“I’ve already given my answer,” I say. “I’m not going to repeat myself.”
“The White House never commented on that
report one way or the other.”
“Suliman Cindoruk did, though, didn’t he? He released a video saying, ‘The president can beg all he wants for mercy. The Americans will get no mercy from me.’ Isn’t that what he said?”
“That’s what he said.”
“In response, the White House released a statement. It said, ‘The United States will not respond to the outrageous rants of a terrorist.’”
“That’s right,” I say. “We won’t.”
“Did you beg him for mercy, Mr. President?”
My political adviser, Jenny Brickman, is practically pulling her hair. She doesn’t have security clearance, either, so she doesn’t know the whole story, but her main concern is that she wants me to be seen as a fighter in this hearing.
If you can’t fight back,
then don’t go. You’ll just be their political piñata.
And she’s right. Right now, it’s Lester Rhodes’s turn to put on the blindfold and whack a stick at me, hoping a bunch of classified information and political miscues will spill out of my torso.
“You’re shaking your head no, Mr. President. Just to be clear: you are denying that you begged Suliman Cindoruk for mer—”
“The United States will never beg anyone for anything,” I say.
“Okay, then, you deny Suliman Cindoruk’s claim that you begged—”
“The United States,” I repeat, “will never beg anyone for anything. Is that clear, Mr. Speaker? Would you like me to say it again?”
“Well, if you didn’t beg him—”
“Next question,” I say.
“Did you ask him nicely not to attack us?”
“Next question,” I say again.
He pauses, looking over his notes. “My time is expiring,” he says. “I have just a few more questions.”
One down—almost down—but another twelve questioners to go, all prepped with their fresh one-liners and zingers and
The Speaker is known just as much for his closing questions as he is for his openers. I already know what he’s going to say anyway. And he already knows that I won’t be able to answer.
“Mr. President,” he says, “let’s talk about Tuesday, the first of May. In Algeria.”
Just over a week ago.
“On Tuesday, May the first,” he says, “a group of pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia separatists assaulted a ranch in northern Algeria where Suliman Cindoruk was believed to be hiding. And in fact he was hiding there. They had located Cindoruk, and they moved on that ranch with the intention of killing him.
“But they were thwarted, Mr. President, by a team of Special Forces and CIA operatives from the United States. And Suliman Cindoruk escaped in the process.”
I remain completely still.
“Did you order that counterattack, Mr. President?” he asks. “And if so, why? Why would an American president dispatch US forces to save the life of a terrorist?”
he chair recognizes the gentleman from Ohio: Mr. Kearns.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose, fighting the fatigue setting in. I haven’t slept but a handful of hours over the last week, and the mental gymnastics I have to perform while defending myself with one hand tied behind my back are wearing on me. But more than anything else, I’m annoyed. I have things to do. I don’t have time for this.
I look to my left—the panel’s right. Mike Kearns is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Lester Rhodes’s protégé. He likes to wear bow ties so we’ll all know how intelligent he is. Personally, I’ve seen Post-it notes with more depth.
But the guy knows how to ask a question. He was a federal prosecutor for years before entering the political ring. The mounted heads on his wall include two pharmaceuticals CEOs and a former governor.
“Stopping terrorists is a matter of grave national security, Mr. President. You’d agree?”
“Then would you also agree that any American citizen who
with our ability to stop terrorists would be guilty of treason?”
“I would condemn that action,” I say.
“Would it be an act of treason?”
“That’s for lawyers and courts to decide.”
We’re both lawyers, but I made my point.
“Would it be an impeachable offense if it were the president who interfered with stopping terrorists?”
Gerald Ford once said that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives says it is.
“That’s not up to me,” I say.
He nods. “No, it’s not. Earlier, you refused to say whether you ordered US Special Forces and CIA operatives to stop an attack on Suliman Cindoruk in Algeria.”
“I said, Mr. Kearns, that some matters of national security cannot be discussed publicly.”
“According to the
New York Times,
you acted on classified information indicating that this anti-Russia militia group had located Suliman Cindoruk and was about to kill him.”
“I read that. I won’t discuss it.”
Sooner or later, every president faces decisions in which the right choice is bad politics, at least in the short term. If the stakes are high, you have to do what you think is right and hope the political tide will turn. It’s the job you promised to do.
“Mr. President, are you familiar with title 18, section 798, of the United States Code?”
“I don’t have the sections of the United States Code committed to memory, Mr. Kearns, but I believe you’re referring to the Espionage Act.”
“Indeed I am, Mr. President. It concerns the misuse of classified information. The relevant part says that it’s a federal offense for anyone to deliberately use classified information in a manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States. Does that sound right?”
“I’m sure your reading is accurate, Mr. Kearns.”
“If a president deliberately used classified information to protect a terrorist bent on attacking us, would that fall under this statute?”
Not according to my White House counsel, who says that the section couldn’t apply to the president, that it would be a novel reading of the Espionage Act, and that a president can declassify any information he wants.
But that doesn’t matter. Even if I were inclined to get into a semantic legal debate about the reach of a federal statute—and I’m not—they can impeach me for anything they want. It doesn’t have to be a crime.
Everything I did was done to protect my country. I’d do it again. The problem is, I can’t say any of that.
“All I can tell you is that I have always acted with the security of my country in mind. And I always will.”
I see Carolyn in the corner, reading something on her phone, responding. I maintain eye contact in case I need to drop everything and act on it. Something from General Burke at CENTCOM? From the under secretary of defense? From the Imminent Threat Response Team? We have a lot of balls in the air right now, trying to monitor and defend against this threat. The other shoe could drop at any minute. We think—we hope—that we have another day, at least. But the only thing that is certain is that
is certain. We have to be ready any minute, right now, in case—
“Is calling the leaders of ISIS protecting our country?”
“What?” I say, returning my focus to the hearing. “What are you talking about? I’ve never called the leaders of ISIS. What does ISIS have to do with this?”
Before I’ve completed my answer, I realize what I’ve done. I wish I could reach out and grab the words and stuff them back in my mouth. But it’s too late. He caught me when I was looking the other way.
“Oh,” he says. “So when I ask you whether you’ve called the leaders of ISIS, you say no, unequivocally. But when the Speaker asks you whether you’ve called Suliman Cindoruk, your answer is to invoke ‘executive privilege.’ I think the American people can understand the difference.”
I blow out air and look over at Carolyn Brock, who maintains that implacable expression, though I can imagine a hint of
I told ya so
in her narrowed eyes.
“Congressman Kearns, this is a matter of national security. It’s not a game of
. This is serious business. Whenever you’re ready to ask a serious question, I’ll be happy to answer.”
“An American died in that fight in Algeria, Mr. President. An American, a CIA operative named Nathan Cromartie, died stopping that anti-Russia militia group from killing Suliman Cindoruk. I think the American people consider
to be serious.”
“Nathan Cromartie was a hero,” I say. “We mourn his loss. I mourn his loss.”
“You’ve heard his mother speak out on this,” he says.
I have. We all have. After what happened in Algeria, we disclosed nothing publicly. We couldn’t. But then the militia group published video of a dead American online, and it didn’t take long before Clara Cromartie identified him as her son, Nathan. She outed him as a CIA operative, too. It was one gigantic shitstorm. The media rushed to her, and within hours she was demanding to know why her son had to die to protect a terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, including many Americans. In her grief and pain, she practically wrote the script for the select committee hearing.
“Don’t you think you owe the Cromartie family answers, Mr. President?”
“Nathan Cromartie was a hero,” I say again. “He was a patriot. And he understood as well as anyone that much of what we do in the interest of national security cannot be discussed publicly. I’ve spoken privately to Mrs. Cromartie, and I’m deeply sorry for what happened to her son. Beyond that, I won’t comment. I can’t, and I won’t.”
“Well, in hindsight, Mr. President,” he says, “do you think maybe your policy of negotiating with terrorists hasn’t worked out so well?”
“I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
“Whatever you want to call it,” he says. “Calling them. Hashing things out with them. Coddling them—”
“I don’t coddle—”
The lights flicker overhead, two quick blinks of interruption. Some groans in response, and Carolyn Brock perks up, writing herself a mental note.
The congressman uses the pause to jump in for another question.
“You have made no secret, Mr. President, that you prefer dialogue over shows of force, that you’d rather talk things out with terrorists.”
“No,” I say, drawing out the word, my pulse throbbing in my temples, because that kind of oversimplification epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our politics. “What I have said repeatedly is that if there is a way to peacefully resolve a situation, the peaceful way is the better way. Engaging is not surrendering. Are we here to have a foreign-policy debate, Congressman? I’d hate to interrupt this witch hunt with a substantive conversation.”
I glance over to the corner of the room, where Carolyn Brock winces, a rare break in her implacable expression.
“Engaging the enemy is one way to put it, Mr. President. Coddling is another way.”
“I do not
our enemies,” I say. “Nor do I renounce the use of force in dealing with them. Force is always an option, but I will not use it unless I deem it necessary. That might be hard to understand for some country-club, trust-fund baby who spent his life chugging beer bongs and paddling pledges in some secret-skull college fraternity and calling everybody by their initials, but I have met the enemy head-on on a battlefield. I will pause before I send our sons and daughters into battle, because I was
of those sons, and I know the risks.”
Jenny is leaning forward, wanting more, always wanting me to expound on the details of my military service.
Tell them about your tour of duty. Tell them about your time as a POW. Tell them about your injuries, the torture.
It was an endless struggle during the campaign, one of the things about me that tested most favorably. If my advisers had their way, it would have been just about the only thing I ever discussed. But I never gave in. Some things you just don’t talk about.
“Are you finished, Mr. Pres—”
“No, I’m not finished. I already explained all this to House leadership, to the Speaker and others. I told you I couldn’t have this hearing. You could have said, ‘Okay, Mr. President, we are patriots, too, and we will respect what you’re doing, even if you can’t tell us everything that’s going on.’ But you didn’t do that, did you? You couldn’t resist the chance to haul me in and score points. So let me say to you publicly what I said to you privately. I will not answer your specific questions about conversations I’ve had or actions that I’ve taken, because they are dangerous. They are a
to our national security. If I have to lose this office to protect this country, I will do it. But make no mistake. I have never taken a single action, or uttered a single word, without the safety and security of the United States foremost in my mind. And I never will.”
My questioner is not the least bit deterred by the insults I’ve hurled. He is undoubtedly encouraged by the fact that his questions have now firmly found their place under my skin. He is looking at his notes again, at his flowchart of questions and follow-ups, while I try to calm myself.
“What’s the toughest decision you’ve made this week, Mr. Kearns? Which bow tie to wear to the hearing? Which side to part your hair for that ridiculous comb-over that isn’t fooling anybody?
“Lately I spend almost all my time trying to keep this country safe. That requires tough decisions. Sometimes those decisions have to be made when there are many unknowns. Sometimes all the options are flat-out shitty, and I have to choose the least flat-out-shitty one. Of course I wonder if I’ve made the right call and whether it will work out in the end. So I just do the best I can. And live with it.
“That means I also have to live with the criticism, even when it comes from an opportunistic political hack picking out one move on the chessboard without knowing what the rest of the game looks like, then turning that move inside out without having a single clue how much he might be endangering our nation.
“Mr. Kearns, I’d like to discuss all my actions with you, but there are national security considerations that just don’t permit it. I know you know that, of course. But I also know it’s hard to pass up an easy cheap shot.”
In the corner, Danny Akers has his hands up, signaling for a time-out.
“Yeah, you know what? You’re right, Danny. It’s time. I’m done with this. This is over. We’re done.”
I lash out and whack the microphone off the table. I knock over my chair as I get to my feet.
“I get it, Carrie. It’s a bad idea to testify. They’ll tear me to pieces. I get it.”
Carolyn Brock gets to her feet, straightens her suit. “Okay, everyone, thank you. Please give us the room now.”
“The room” being the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office. A good place to hold a meeting—or in this case, a mock committee hearing—because it contains both the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback as a Rough Rider and the Nobel Peace Prize he won for settling the war between Japan and Russia. There are no windows, and the doors are easy to secure.
Everyone stands. My press secretary pulls off his bow tie, a nice little detail he threw in to complete his role as Congressman Kearns. He looks at me with an apology, but I wave him off. He was just playing his role, trying to show me the worst-case scenario if I go forward with my decision to testify next week before the select committee.
One of my lawyers in the White House counsel’s office, today playing the role of Lester Rhodes, all the way down to a silver wig that makes him look more like Anderson Cooper than the House Speaker, shoots me a sheepish look, too, and I give him the same reassurance.
As the room slowly empties, the adrenaline drains from me, leaving me exhausted and discouraged. One thing they never tell you about this job is how much it’s like your first roller-coaster ride—thrilling highs, lows lower than a snake’s belly.
Then it’s just me, staring at the Rough Rider portrait above the fireplace and hearing footsteps as Carolyn, Danny, and Jenny gingerly approach the wounded animal in the cage.
“‘Least flat-out shitty’ was my personal favorite,” Danny says, deadpan.
Rachel always told me I swear too much. She said swearing shows a lack of creativity. I’m not so sure. When things get really tough, I can get pretty creative with my cussing.
Anyway, Carolyn and my other close aides know I’m using this mock session as therapy. If they really can’t talk me out of testifying, at least they hope this will get the frustration, at its most colorful, out of my system, so I can focus on more presidential, profanity-free responses when it’s showtime.
Jenny Brickman, with characteristic subtlety, says, “You’d have to be a complete horse’s ass to testify next week.”
I nod at Jenny and Danny. “I need Carrie,” I say, the only one of them with the security clearance to speak with me right now.
They leave us.
“Anything new?” I ask Carolyn, just the two of us in the room now.
She shakes her head. “Nothing.”