Read The President Is Missing: A Novel Online

Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton

The President Is Missing: A Novel (5 page)

I
close the folder on my desk after reviewing the various items that my White House counsel, Danny Akers, and his staff have prepared for me in consultation with the attorney general.

A draft executive order declaring martial law throughout the nation and a legal memorandum exploring the constitutionality of doing so.

Draft legislation for Congress and a draft executive order declaring the suspension of habeas corpus throughout the nation.

An executive order instituting price controls and rationing of various consumer goods along with authorizing legislation where needed.

I just pray that it doesn’t come to this.

“Mr. President,” says JoAnn, my secretary, “the Speaker of the House.”

Lester Rhodes smiles politely at JoAnn and strides into the Oval Office, his hand outstretched. I’m already out from around my desk to greet him.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” he says, shaking my hand and sizing me up, probably wondering why I have the scruffy beginnings of a beard.

“Mr. Speaker,” I say. Usually I follow up with a
Thanks for coming
or
Good to see you,
but I can’t summon pleasantries with this man. Rhodes, after all, was the architect of his party’s reclamation of the House during midterm elections, based exclusively on the promise of “taking our country back” and that ridiculous “report card” on my performance that he blew up for all the candidates, grading me on foreign policy, the economy, a number of hot-button issues, with the tagline “Duncan is flunkin’.”

He takes the couch, and I sit in the chair. He shoots his cuffs and settles in. He is dressed for the part of the powerful legislator: the slate-blue shirt with white collar and cuffs, the bright red tie perfectly dimpled, all the colors of the flag represented.

He still has that cocky glow of newly acquired power. He’s only been Speaker for five months. He doesn’t realize his limitations yet. That makes him more dangerous, not less.

“I asked myself why you invited me here,” he goes on. “You know one of the story lines coming out of cable news is that we’re cutting a deal, you and I. You agree not to seek reelection, and I call off the hearings.”

I nod slowly. I heard that one, too.

“But I told my aides, I said, go back and watch those videos of the POWs who were captured in Desert Storm along with Corporal Jon Duncan. See how scared they were. How scared they
must
have been to denounce their own country on camera. And then, after you see that, ask yourself what the Iraqis must have done to Jon Duncan for being the only American POW from that unit who refused to go on camera. And after you’ve wrapped your mind around that, I told them, ask yourself if Jon Duncan is the sort of fellow who will back down from a fight with a bunch of congressmen.”

Which means he still doesn’t know why he’s here.

“Lester,” I say, “do you know why I never talk about that? What happened to me in Iraq?”

“I don’t,” he says. “Modesty, I suppose.”

I shake my head. “No one in this town is modest. No, the reason I don’t talk about that is that some things are more important than politics. Most rank-and-file congressmen never need to learn that lesson. But in order for the government to function, and for the good of the country, the Speaker of the House does. The sooner the better.”

He opens his hands, signaling that he’s ready for the punch line.

“Lester, how many times have I failed to discuss covert operations with the intelligence committees since I’ve been president? Or if it was particularly sensitive, with the Gang of Eight?”

The law says that I must make a finding before engaging in a covert action and must share that finding with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees—in advance of the action if possible. But if the matter is particularly sensitive, I can limit disclosure to the so-called Gang of Eight—the Speaker and House minority leader, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chairs and ranking members of the two intelligence committees.

“Mr. President, I’ve only been Speaker a few months. But in that time, as far as I understand it, you always have complied with your disclosure commitment.”

“And your predecessor—I’m sure he told you that I always complied when he was Speaker as well.”

“That’s my understanding, yes,” he agrees. “Which is why it’s so troublesome that not even the Gang of Eight heard one word about Algeria.”

“What’s troublesome to me, Lester, is that you don’t realize that I must have a good reason
why
I’m not disclosing this time.”

His jaw clenches, some color rising to his pale face. “Even after the fact, Mr. President? You’re allowed to act first, disclose later, if time is of the essence—but you’re not even disclosing now, after that debacle in Algeria. After you allowed that monster to escape. You’re breaking the law.”

“Ask yourself why, Lester.” I sit back in my chair. “Why would I do that? Knowing exactly how you’d react? Knowing that I’m handing you grounds for impeachment on a silver platter?”

“There can only be one answer, sir.”

“Oh, really? And what’s that one answer, Lester?”

“Well, if I may speak freely…”

“Hey, it’s just us kids here.”

“All right, then,” he says with a sweeping nod. “The answer is that you don’t
have
a good explanation for what you did. You’re trying to negotiate some truce with that bastard terrorist, and you stopped that militia group from killing him so you could keep negotiating whatever peace-love-and-harmony deal you seem to think you can cut. And you almost got away with it. We never would have heard a word about Algeria. You’d have denied the whole thing.”

He leans forward on his knees, looking me dead in the eye, his gaze so intense his eyes are almost watering. “But then that American boy got killed, and they got it on video for all the world to see. You got caught with your pants down. And
still
you won’t tell us. Because you don’t want anyone to know what you’re doing until it’s signed, sealed, and delivered.” He jabs a finger at me. “Well, Congress will
not
be denied our oversight function on this. As long as I’m Speaker, no president will run off on his own and cut some deal with terrorists that they’ll never honor anyway and leave us looking like the weak stepchild. As long as—”

“That’s enough, Lester.”

“—I’m Speaker, this country will—”

“Enough!” I get to my feet. After a moment, stunned, Lester stands as well.

“Get this straight,” I say. “There are no cameras here. Don’t pretend that you believe what you’re saying. Don’t pretend that you really think I wake up every morning whispering sweet nothings to terrorists. You and I both know that I’d take out that asshole right now if I thought it would serve the best interests of our nation. It’s great political spin, Lester, I’ll give you that—that garbage you’re spewing about me wanting to ‘make love, not war’ with the Sons of Jihad. But do not walk into the Oval Office and pretend for one second that you actually believe it.”

He blinks his eyes, out of his element here. He’s not accustomed these days to someone raising his voice to him. But he remains silent because he knows I’m right.

“I’m doing you all kinds of favors here, Lester. I’m aiding and abetting you by remaining silent. Every second I say nothing, you get more fuel on your fire. You’re beating the ever-loving crap out of me in public. And I’m sitting there saying, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’
Surely
you are smart enough to realize that if I’m going to violate every political instinct I possess and remain mute, there must be a pretty damn important reason why I’m doing that. There must be something vitally important at stake.”

Lester holds his stare for as long as he can. Then his gaze drops down to the floor. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and rocks on his heels.

“Then tell me,” he says. “Not Intelligence. Not the Gang of Eight.
Me
. If it’s as important as you say, tell me what it is.”

Lester Rhodes is the absolute
last
person to whom I would give all the details. But I can’t let him know I think that.

“I can’t. Lester, I can’t. I’m asking you to trust me.”

There was a time when that statement, from a president to a House Speaker, would be enough. Those days are long in the rearview mirror.

“I can’t agree to that, Mr. President.”

An interesting word choice—
can’t,
not
won’t
. Lester is under so much pressure from his caucus, especially the fire-breathers who react to every sound bite on social media and talk radio, ginning up this whole thing. Whether it’s true or not, whether he believes it or not, they’ve now created a caricature of me, and Speaker Lester Rhodes cannot let it be known that he decided to
trust
that caricature during this important moment.

“Think about the cyberattack in Toronto,” I say. “The Sons of Jihad hasn’t claimed responsibility for it. Think about that. Those guys always claim responsibility. Every attack they’ve ever done has come with a message to the West to stay away from their part of the world, central and southeastern Europe. Get our money out, our troops out. But not this time. Why, Lester?”

“You could tell me why,” he says.

I motion for him to sit down, and I do the same.

“Your ears only,” I say.

“Yes, sir.”

“The answer is we don’t know why. But my guess? Toronto was a test run. Proof that he had the goods. Probably to get his down payment for his real job.”

I sit back and let that settle in. Lester has the sheepish look of a kid who realizes he’s supposed to understand something but doesn’t and doesn’t want to admit it.

“Then why not kill him?” Lester asks. “Why rescue him from that attack in Algeria?”

I stare at Lester.

“My ears only,” he says.

I can’t give Lester all the details, but I can give him enough to nibble on.

“We weren’t trying to rescue Suliman Cindoruk,” I say. “We were trying to capture him.”

“Then…” Lester opens his hands. “Why did you stop that militia group?”

“They didn’t want to capture him, Lester. They wanted to
kill
him. They were going to fire shoulder-launched missiles into his house.”

“So?” Lester shrugs. “A captured terrorist, a dead terrorist—what’s the difference?”

“In this case, a huge difference,” I say. “I need Suliman Cindoruk alive.”

Lester looks at his hands, twists his wedding ring. Staying in listen mode, revealing nothing on his end.

“Our intel told us this militia group had found him. We didn’t know more than that. All we could do was piggyback their operation in Algeria, try to stop them from a full-on attack, and catch Suliman ourselves. We stopped their attack, but Suliman got away in the melee. And yes, an American died. Something we wanted to remain covert and highly classified became viral on social media within hours.”

Lester works that over, his eyes narrowed, head nodding.

“I don’t think Suliman is working alone,” I say. “I think he was hired. And I think Toronto was the warm-up, the trial run, the appetizer.”

“And we are the main course,” Lester whispers.

“Correct.”

“A cyberattack,” he mumbles. “Bigger than Toronto.”

“Big enough to make Toronto look like a stubbed toe.”

“Christ.”

“I need Suliman alive because he may be the only person who can stop it. And he can identify who hired him and who else, if anyone, is working with him. But I don’t want anyone to know what I know or what I think. I’m trying to do something that is incredibly difficult for the United States of America to do—fly under the radar.”

A hint of realization comes to the Speaker’s expression. He leans back against the couch like a man who’s holding all the cards. “You’re saying our hearings will interfere with what you’re doing.”

“Without a doubt.”

“Then why did you agree to testify in the first place?”

“To buy time,” I say. “You wanted to haul my entire national security team before your committee earlier this week. I couldn’t have that. I offered myself up in exchange for the time extension.”

“But now you need even more time. Beyond next Monday.”

“Yes.”

“And you want me to go back to my caucus and tell them we should give it to you.”

“Yes.”

“But I can’t tell them why. I can’t tell them any of what you told me. I just have to tell them that I decided to ‘trust’ you.”

“You’re their leader, Lester. So lead. Tell them you’ve decided that it’s in the best interests of our nation that we temporarily hold off on the hearings.”

His head drops, and he rubs his hands together, warming up for the speech that he probably recited into a mirror a dozen times before coming over here.

“Mr. President,” he says, “I understand these hearings are not something you want us to do. But just as you have your responsibilities, we have an oversight responsibility that serves as a check on executive power. I have members who elected me to ensure that we serve as that check. I can’t go back to my caucus and tell them we are going to shirk our responsibility.”

It was never going to matter what I said to him today. He’s got a playbook, and he’s following it. Patriotism was never going to factor in. If this guy ever had an unselfish thought, as my mama would say, it would die of loneliness.

But I’m not done trying.

“If this goes well,” I say, “and we stop this terrorist attack, you will be standing right next to me. I will tell the world that the Speaker put aside partisan differences and did the right thing for his country. I will hold you up as an example of what is right in Washington, DC. You’ll be Speaker for life.”

He continues to nod, clears his throat. His foot, on the floor, has begun to tap.

“But if…” He can’t bring himself to finish the sentence.

“If things go wrong? Then I’ll take the blame. All of it.”

“But
I
will be blamed, too,” he says. “Because I stopped these hearings without giving my members, or the public, any reason at all. You can’t promise me that I’ll come out of this unscathed—”

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