“The House Select Committee will come to order . . .”
The sharks are circling, their nostrils twitching at the scent of blood. Thirteen of them, to be exact, eight from the opposition party and five from mine, sharks against whom I’ve been preparing defenses with lawyers and advisers. I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how prepared you are, there are few defenses that work against predators. At some point, there’s nothing you can do but jump in and fight back.
Don’t do it, my chief of staff, Carolyn Brock, pleaded again last night, as she has so many times. You can’t go anywhere near that committee hearing, sir. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
You can’t answer their questions, sir.
It will be the end of your presidency.
I scan the thirteen faces opposite me, seated in a long row, a modern-day Spanish Inquisition. The silver-haired man in the center, behind the nameplate MR. RHODES, clears his throat.
Lester Rhodes, the Speaker of the House, normally doesn’t participate in committee hearings, but he has made an exception for this select committee, which he has stacked with members of Congress on his side of the aisle whose principal goal in life seems to be stopping my agenda and destroying me, politically and personally. Savagery in the quest for power is older than the Bible, but some of my opponents really hate my guts. They don’t just want to run me out of office. They won’t be satisfied unless I’m sent to prison, drawn and quartered, and erased from the history books. Hell, if they had their way, they’d probably burn down my house in North Carolina and spit on my wife’s grave.
I uncurl the gooseneck stem of the microphone so that it is taut, fully extended, as close to me as possible. I don’t want to lean forward to speak while the committee members sit up straight in their high-backed leather chairs like kings and queens on thrones. Leaning forward would make me look weak, subservient—a subliminal message that I’m at their mercy.
I am alone at my chair. No aides, no lawyers, no notes. The American people are not going to see me exchanging hushed whispers with an attorney, my hand over the microphone, removing it to testify that I have no specific recollection of that, Congressman. I’m not hiding. I shouldn’t have to be here, and I sure as hell don’t want to be here, but here I am. Just me. The president of the United States, facing a mob of accusers.
In the corner of the room, the triumvirate of my top aides sits in observation: the chief of staff, Carolyn Brock; Danny Akers, my oldest friend and White House counsel; and Jenny Brickman, my deputy chief of staff and senior political adviser. All of them stoic, stone-faced, worried. Not one of them wanted me to do this. It was their unanimous conclusion that I was making the biggest mistake of my presidency.
But I’m here. It’s time. We’ll see if they were right.
“Mr. Speaker.” Technically, in this context, I should probably call him Mr. Chairman, but there are a lot of things I could call him that I won’t.
This could begin any number of ways. A self-congratulatory speech by the Speaker disguised as a question. Some light introductory setup questions. But I’ve seen enough video of Lester Rhodes questioning witnesses before he was Speaker, back when he was a middling congressman on the House Oversight Committee, to know that he has a penchant for opening strong, going straight for the jugular, throwing off the witness. He knows—in fact, after 1988, when Michael Dukakis botched the first debate question about the death penalty, everyone knows— that if you blow the opener, nobody remembers anything else.
Will the Speaker follow that same plan of attack with a sitting president?
Of course he will.
“President Duncan,” he begins. “Since when are we in the business of protecting terrorists?”
“We aren’t,” I say so quickly that I almost talk over him, because you can’t give a question like that oxygen. “And we never will be. Not while I’m president.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Did he really just say that? The heat rises to my face. Not one minute in, and he’s already under my skin.
“Mr. Speaker,” I say. “If I said it, I meant it. Let’s be clear about that from the start. We are not in the business of protecting terrorists.”
He pauses after that reminder. “Well, Mr. President, maybe we are parsing words here. Do you consider the Sons of Jihad to be a terrorist organization?”
“Of course.” My aides said not to say of course; it can sound pompous and condescending unless it’s delivered just right.
“And that group has received support from Russia, has it not?”
I nod. “Russia has given support to the SOJ from time to time, yes. We’ve condemned their support of the SOJ and other terrorist organizations.”
“The Sons of Jihad has committed acts of terror on three different continents, is that correct?”
“That’s an accurate summary, yes.”
“They’re responsible for the deaths of thousands of people?”
“The explosions at the Bellwood Arms Hotel in Brussels that killed fifty-seven people, including a delegation of state legislators from California? The hacking of the air-traffic control system in the republic of Georgia that brought down three airplanes, one of them carrying the Georgian ambassador to the United States?”
“Yes,” I say. “Both of those acts occurred before I was president, but yes, the Sons of Jihad has claimed responsibility for both incidents— ”
“Okay, then let’s talk about since you’ve been president. Isn’t it true that just a few months ago, the Sons of Jihad was responsible for hacking into Israeli military systems and publicly releasing classified information on Israeli covert operatives and troop movements?”
“Yes,” I say. “That’s true.”
“And far closer to home, here in North America,” he says. “Just last week. Friday, the fourth of May. Didn’t the Sons of Jihad commit yet another act of terror when it hacked into the computers controlling Toronto’s subway system and shut it down, causing a derailment that killed seventeen people, injured dozens more, and left thousands of people stranded in darkness for hours?”
He’s right that the SOJ was responsible for that one, too. And his casualty count is accurate. But to the SOJ, that wasn’t an act of terror.
That was a test run.
“Four of the people who died in Toronto were Americans, correct?”
“That’s correct,” I say. “The Sons of Jihad did not claim responsibility for that act, but we believe it was responsible.”
He nods, looks at his notes. “The leader of the Sons of Jihad, Mr. President. That’s a man named Suliman Cindoruk, correct?”
Here we go.
“Yes, Suliman Cindoruk is the leader of the SOJ,” I say.
“The most dangerous and prolific cyberterrorist in the world, correct?”
“I’d say so.”
“A Turkish-born Muslim, is he not?”
“He’s Turkish-born, but he’s not Muslim,” I say. “He is a secular extreme nationalist who opposes the influence of the West in central and southeastern Europe. The ‘jihad’ he’s waging has nothing to do with religion.”
“So you say.”
“So says every intelligence assessment I’ve ever seen,” I say. “You’ve read them, too, Mr. Speaker. If you want to turn this into an Islamophobic rant, go ahead, but it’s not going to make our country any safer.”
He manages to crack a wry smile. “At any rate, he’s the most wanted terrorist in the world, isn’t he?”
“We want to capture him,” I say. “We want to capture any terrorist who tries to harm our country.”
He pauses. He’s debating whether to ask me again: Are you sure about that? If he does, it will take all the willpower I can summon not to knock over this table and take him by the throat.
“Just to be clear, then,” he says. “The United States wants to capture Suliman Cindoruk.”
“There’s no need to clarify that,” I snap. “There’s never been any confusion about that. Never. We’ve been hunting Suliman Cindoruk for a decade. We won’t stop until we catch him. Is that clear enough for you?”
“Well, Mr. President, with all due respect— ”
“No,” I interrupt. “When you begin a question by saying ‘with all due respect,’ it means you’re about to say something that doesn’t show any respect. You can think whatever you want, Mr. Speaker, but you should show respect—if not for me then for all the other people who dedicate their lives to stopping terrorism and keeping our country safe. We aren’t perfect, and we never will be. But we will never stop doing our best.”
Then I wave at him dismissively. “Go ahead and ask your question.”
My pulse banging, I take a breath and glance at my trio of advisers. Jenny, my political adviser, is nodding; she has always wanted me to be more aggressive with our new Speaker of the House. Danny shows nothing. Carolyn, my levelheaded chief of staff, is leaning forward, elbows on her knees, her hands pitched in a temple under her chin. If they were Olympic judges, Jenny would give me a 9 for that outburst, but Carolyn would have me under a 5.
“I won’t have my patriotism questioned, Mr. President,” says my silver-haired adversary. “The American people have grave concerns about what happened in Algeria last week, and we haven’t even gotten into that yet. The American people have every right to know whose side you’re on.”
“Whose side I’m on?” I come forward with a start, nearly knocking the base of the microphone off the table. “I’m on the side of the American people, that’s whose side I’m on.”
“Mr. Pres— ”
“I’m on the side of the people who work around the clock to keep our country safe. The ones who aren’t thinking about optics or which way the political winds are blowing. The ones who don’t seek credit for their successes and can’t defend themselves when they’re criticized. That’s whose side I’m on.”
“President Duncan, I strongly support the men and women who fight every day to keep our nation safe,” he says. “This isn’t about them. This is about you, sir. This is no game we’re playing here. I take no pleasure in this.”
Under other circumstances, I’d laugh. Lester Rhodes has been looking forward to the select committee hearing more than a college boy looks forward to his twenty-first birthday.
This whole thing is for show. Speaker Rhodes has engineered this committee so that there is only one real outcome—a finding of presidential misconduct sufficient to refer the matter to the House Judiciary Committee for impeachment proceedings. The eight members of Congress on his side are all in safe congressional districts, gerrymandered so cartoonishly that they could probably drop their pants in the middle of the hearing, start sucking their thumbs, and not only would they be reelected in two years, they would also run unopposed.
My aides are right. It doesn’t matter if the evidence against me is strong, weak, or nonexistent. The die is already cast.
“Ask your questions,” I say. “Let’s get this charade over with.”
Over in the corner, Danny Akers winces, whispering something to Carolyn, who nods in response but maintains her poker face. Danny doesn’t like the charade comment, my attack on these hearings. He’s told me more than once that what I did looks “bad, very bad,” giving Congress a valid reason for inquiry.
He’s not wrong about that. He just doesn’t know the full story. He doesn’t have the security clearance to know what I know, what Carolyn knows. If he did, he’d have a different take. He’d know about the threat to our country, a threat like none we’ve ever faced.
A threat that led me to do some things I never thought I’d do.
“Mr. President, did you call Suliman Cindoruk on Sunday, April 29, of this year? Just over a week ago? Did you or did you not contact the most wanted terrorist in the world by phone?”
“Mr. Speaker,” I say. “As I’ve said many times before, and as you should already know, not everything we do to keep our country safe can be disclosed publicly. The American people understand that keeping the nation safe and conducting foreign affairs involve a lot of moving parts, a lot of complex transactions, and that some of what we do in my administration has to remain classified. Not because we want to keep things secret, but because we must. That’s the point of executive privilege.”
Rhodes would probably contest the applicability of executive privilege to classified material. But Danny Akers, my White House counsel, says I will win that fight, because we are dealing with my constitutional authority in foreign affairs.
Either way, my stomach clenches as I say these words. But Danny said that if I don’t invoke the privilege, I might waive it. And if I waive it, I have to answer the question of whether I placed a phone call to Suliman Cindoruk, the most wanted terrorist on the planet, two Sundays ago.
That is a question I will not answer.
“Well, Mr. President, I’m not sure the American people would consider that much of an answer.”
Well, Mr. Speaker, I’m not sure the American people would consider you much of a Speaker, either, but then again, the American people didn’t elect you Speaker, did they? You got eighty thousand measly votes in the third congressional district in Indiana. I got sixty-four million votes. But your buddies in your party made you their leader because you raised so much damn money for them and promised them my head mounted on a wall.
That probably wouldn’t play so well on television.
“So you don’t deny that you called Suliman Cindoruk on April 29—would that be accurate?”
“I’ve already answered your question.”
“No, Mr. President, you haven’t. You’re aware that the French newspaper Le Monde published leaked phone records, along with statements from an anonymous source, indicating that you called and spoke with Suliman Cindoruk on Sunday, April 29, of this year. You’re aware of that?”
“I’ve read the article,” I say.
“Do you deny it?”
“I give the same answer I gave before. I’m not discussing it. I’m not getting into a game of did-I-make-this-call-or-didn’t-I. I don’t confirm or deny or even discuss actions that I take to keep our country safe. Not when I’m required to keep them secret in the interest of national security.”
“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.
“Le Monde 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 Le Monde 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, she said, 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 gotcha questions.
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?”