Madam President, page 24
“Sounds good. Everything going smoothly with Richard and Lucy?”
Craig raised an eyebrow. “I think so. Why?”
“I was planning on babysitting them all afternoon, and I wasn’t able to, so I just wanted to make sure they hadn’t caused any incidents.”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Not yet, anyway, right?” Dale tried to make a joke.
“Dale, I’m serious. If you think of anything that I can do for you, please let me know.”
Dale walked out of his office and closed the door behind her.
On days when the CIA director didn’t travel to the White House to brief Charlotte personally and on all of the days when she was on the road, she received her daily intelligence briefing from a woman named Sydney Travers. Charlotte and Sydney had spent countless hours together discussing the threats facing the United States from the various Al Qaeda networks and their more lethal affiliates in Iraq and Syria, ISIS and ISIL. Not once had Sydney suggested that an attack on the U.S. was imminent. But not once had Sydney failed to mention the groups’ ongoing desire and intent to strike America again, in the same way and with similar effect as it had done on September 11, 2001. Even her shortest briefings and those delivered by classified top-secret white papers included Sydney’s reminder that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State remained committed to planning and carrying out another attack on the homeland. Now Sydney was sitting across from the president, and they were discussing the identities of the bodies found in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Sydney handed the president the two-pager she’d quickly compiled on the Chicago bomber. Charlotte read it carefully.
“Madam President,” Sydney interrupted.
“I’m almost done, Sydney.”
“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry,” Sydney whispered.
“Madam President, I was twenty-six years old on September eleventh. I remember watching the towers fall a couple of hours after the planes hit them and swearing that I would spend the rest of my career making sure it never happened again.”
Charlotte smiled sympathetically at her briefer. They’d all missed something, but the members of the CIA would face harsh recriminations from their critics on Capitol Hill, given the legacy of September 11 and the growing list of intelligence lapses. Charlotte suspected that these attacks would embolden the agency’s harshest detractors, who would call for investigations into the counterterrorism units that were supposedly strengthened and augmented after September 11.
“Sydney, the failure is ultimately mine, and I will make sure that everyone who needs to understand that hears it from me. You are going to have your hands full in the coming weeks, and you need to tell your colleagues that I have their backs. I’ll take the blame, but I want everyone focused on the task at hand.”
Sydney nodded and returned to her file of notes about the suicide bombers.
Charlotte looked up again when she saw Sam standing in front of her desk.
“He’s here,” Sam whispered.
Charlotte had reluctantly filled Sam in on the details of their strategy to find out if Craig was leaking to CBS.
“Sydney, give me a minute?”
Charlotte watched as Sydney exited and Craig entered the Oval.
“Craig, did the national security advisor talk to you?”
“Yes, Madam President. That’s why I’m here. I want to talk to you about this assignment. You have an entire advance operation that is designed to plan days like this. I don’t have the first clue about how to move you to five cities and get you back in time for a memorial service. I’m really, honestly not the best guy to oversee the planning and advance work for your trip tomorrow.”
“Craig, I was afraid you’d feel that way, but this is the most sensitive and important day of my entire presidency. Someone has to be on the phone with the mayors and first responders and thinking about getting the correct congressional delegations on board Air Force One for the trip. The White House chief of staff is uniquely positioned to move the mountains that are going to need to be moved to make this trip happen.”
“With all due respect, Madam President, there are also established lines of communication between the offices of intergovernmental affairs and the local officials. Those are the people who are accustomed to doing these trips. I would add a layer of bureaucracy.”
“I doubt that. You are the only person who can actually speak with authority about what I want for a trip like this. That can’t fall to a twenty-eight-year-old advance person. I will not put those kids in that position. I would make the calls and set up the trip myself if I could. It’s that important to me. But we both know that I can’t do that. I need you to lead the countdown meetings and be my eyes and ears and mouthpiece on the ground with these mayors and local officials.”
Craig knew he was losing the argument.
“Please,” she implored.
“Thank you. Did you have a chance to review the speech yet?”
“I sent in my comments. It’s a good start.”
“You liked it?”
“I liked parts of it.”
“Good.” Charlotte offered a closed-mouth smile and looked back at the papers in front of her.
Her natural instinct was to smooth things over, but she resisted the urge. She needed him to be angry with her. As soon as he left, she asked Sam to get Melanie on the phone.
“How’d it go?”
“He’s not pleased about heading up logistics for my trip tomorrow. He expected to be running the national security meetings, and in asking him to oversee the advance operation, I essentially demoted him in the middle of the most serious crisis of my presidency. I feel sick about having to do this today, but I can’t worry about everything I say and do ending up in the press.”
“It sounds like you handled it perfectly, Madam President.”
They needed Craig to be mad enough to want to do something to show Lucy and Richard that he was still running things.
“Do you really think this will work?” Charlotte asked.
“If he’s our man, it will work.”
“How will we know if he leaks the speech?”
“Either they will start talking about it on the air at CBS, or CBS reporters and producers will start calling around to get a second source.”
“We’ll have to wave them off it by telling them it’s an early draft and not the speech that you plan to deliver. The rest of what we do is up to you.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“You have time to figure that out.”
“We have time to figure that out,” Charlotte corrected.
“Yes, ma’am,” Melanie replied.
Charlotte felt reassured. It was unsettling to contemplate that Craig had been leaking information to the press about her actions all day. “How much longer until you’re on the ground?”
“About forty minutes,” Melanie said.
“See you then.”
HMX is transporting you from Andrews to the South Lawn of the White House on one of the president’s helicopters,” Melanie’s military aide reported. HMX stood for Marine Helicopter Squadron One and included the elite group of pilots responsible for flying the president.
“We land in ten minutes. Do you need anything?”
“No, thank you.”
Melanie buckled her seat belt for landing and made a note to herself to buy a maternity wardrobe as soon as she got a chance. The skirt she’d changed into was so tight she had to leave the top buttons open. She’d stretched her loose sweater over her stomach and chest. Melanie wiggled her toes in the black heels that were squeezing her feet and took a last sip of coffee before one of the flight stewards took it away.
The CNN feed was fi
Anderson Cooper thanked the correspondent in L.A. and turned to a reporter in Chicago who had a similar story from a near-identical location at the airport curb. This reporter had more details than even Melanie’s classified briefing a couple of hours earlier had provided. She watched as he reported that thirty-two people had lost their lives, and another sixty-four remained at hospitals in the area. At least seven of the injured were children. Among the dead in Chicago were a couple from Evanston, Illinois, who had been traveling to Orlando with their two young sons to visit Disney World. They’d been unlucky enough to be standing next to the bomber when he detonated his explosives, and they all died. Melanie took out her notepad and jotted down their names. Charlotte would want these details when she drafted letters to the family members of the victims, and she might even want to pay tribute to some of the victims in her address to the nation.
Once the plane landed, Melanie watched a live report from Times Square while she waited for her press corps to unload and set up their cameras so they could film her walking from her plane to Marine One. CNN was reporting that more than a hundred people had died in the attacks there. Melanie knew from her briefings that the second explosion had killed more people than the first, because people had rushed to the victims of the first attack to help. The New York attack was the second most lethal because it took place in the most concentrated area. Melanie stood to leave just as CNN was getting ready to cut to the Miami site. Other than the still images she’d seen as part of the FBI briefing, Melanie hadn’t seen any live footage of the ship in Miami, but she knew that it had sunk in the last hour. She wanted to watch the report, but the president was waiting. Melanie walked down the stairs of her aircraft and onto the helicopter that was waiting for her. She recognized the Marine One pilot as one of the president’s regulars.
“Good evening, Madam Secretary.”
“Good evening. How are you guys doing?”
“All right, all things considered. We’re going to get you to the South Lawn as quickly as possible. I understand the president is eagerly awaiting your arrival.” He smiled.
As they neared the White House, one of the crewmembers pointed out the window of the helicopter to the flashing lights below. Melanie looked down and saw the still-smoldering site of the D.C. blast. The museum looked like someone had stomped on it. The entire front of the building was crushed. A perimeter had been erected around the blast sites, and emergency vehicles surrounded an area the size of a baseball diamond. Melanie could see the beginnings of what looked like a crime-scene investigation. The forensic experts would examine every piece of bomb-blast material, glass, and clothing from the victims to determine exactly how a deadly terrorist attack had occurred less than half a mile from the White House. The smell of smoke was making Melanie feel sick again. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Are you all right, Madam Secretary?” one of the crewmembers asked.
“Yes. Thank you. The travel is catching up with me.”
“We’ll be on the ground in another minute,” he offered.
Melanie returned her gaze to the window to watch as the Truman Balcony appeared in front of her. They descended onto the South Lawn so softly that Dale wasn’t sure they’d touched the ground until the helicopter door opened. A press pool had been assembled to film her arrival. She knew from her last conversation with Brian that he wasn’t part of the pool, so she didn’t bother looking over at them. She saluted the pilot and followed her security detail straight to the Oval Office.
The president stood to greet her. “Thank you for coming,” Charlotte said.
“Thank you for the ride.”
They’d spent the entire day talking on the phone, but she couldn’t remember the last time they’d been alone in the Oval Office together. When the awkward silence that followed their overly polite greetings was finally broken, it was because they both spoke at once.
Charlotte cleared her throat nervously. “Sorry. Go ahead.”
“No, you go ahead,” Melanie insisted.
“I was going to suggest that maybe we run through the speech on the teleprompter.”
“The news about Warren is going to break before your speech. We need to finalize a statement from you. I started working on something on the plane,” Melanie said.
Charlotte sat down to read Melanie’s draft. “This is good,” she said.
“Do you want to add anything?”
“Should we say a little more about his military service?”
“Sure. I’ll add something about his four tours.”
“And maybe something about how he’ll rest for all eternity with his fellow soldiers?”
“Let’s save that for a memorial service or something,” Melanie suggested.
Charlotte frowned. “When do you think this will break?” she asked.
“Any second, Madam President.”
“The statement is good.”
“I’ll give it to Sam to get to Marguerite. I’ll instruct her to hold it until the second the news breaks.”
“Thanks for taking care of that, Mel.”
Melanie stepped out of the Oval Office and reviewed the statement one final time before she handed it to Sam. Writing a statement for the president about the death of one of her most beloved friends was the very last thing she’d expected to do on the flight home from Iraq. Melanie grabbed a peppermint out of the candy dish on Sam’s desk.
“Do you want me to order you dinner?” Sam asked.
“I won’t have time to eat before the speech.”
“Take this. You look pale.” Sam handed her a Luna bar, which she finished in three bites before returning to the Oval Office.
Dale closed her eyes and rested her face in her hands. Clare had been arguing with Lucy for nearly five minutes, and it didn’t sound like she was going to come out on the winning side. Reluctantly, Dale opened her office door and motioned for Lucy to come inside. Clare looked relieved and mouthed, “Sorry.”
Lucy marched inside and stood in front of Dale’s desk, crossing and uncrossing her arms while Dale walked around it and sat down.
“I understand that you are frustrated that we’ve had to limit your access today, Lucy,” Dale started.
“You think I’m frustrated?”
Lucy had one hand on her hip, and the other was supporting a giant purse slung over one shoulder. The bag was so heavy that Lucy couldn’t stand up straight. She dropped it to the ground with a thud.
“Frustrated is the word I’d use to describe the rest of your press corps, the ones you screwed when you decided that it was acceptable for them to take cabs back to the White House, only to find themselves locked out of the complex by overzealous security goons at the front gate. They pay for those godforsaken workspaces beneath the press office because it is their job to cover your boss when she hands out the Teacher of the Year award. But they come here every day in case the world blows up, and today it did, and you fucked them over. Frustrated describes their state of mind. I’m enraged. I know that today wasn’t a day for us to stay close to the presi
It was true that Lucy had given Dale an opportunity to pull the plug on the “Day in the Life” production right after the attacks. Dale had decided that it would appear more hysterical to have the entire press corps report that the White House had changed course on a long-planned special. In hindsight, it would have been a much better idea simply to ask Lucy to film the “Day in the Life” on another day.
“Lucy, I’m really sorry. I had not realized the magnitude of the crisis when I said you could stay.”
“I’m not done. The fact that you picked us for the interview and then completely abdicated any and all responsibility for us as your carefully scripted day fell apart speaks not only to your profound disrespect for your former peers in the media but also to your complete disregard for making sure that the press has a complete picture of what your boss is going through.”
“Dale, I know that you were lying to me when I asked you about the president being in the Oval. But I didn’t report it. I also know that she did, for a fact, storm out of the PEOC, and I don’t blame her. Neither would our viewers. But you didn’t deign to level with me, which is fine. That’s your choice. And maybe you had all of the access you needed while you were sleeping with the president’s husband when you were covering the White House, but some of us still have to work our sources.”
“Let me finish,” Lucy demanded. She reached into her oversized purse and pulled out a brown envelope that Dale recognized as the one that contained the copy of the president’s speech that Dale had given to Craig. Lucy threw the envelope onto Dale’s desk and sat down across from her. “What the hell is this, and why was it handed to me? Are you trying to entrap me so your Justice Department can prosecute me along with your suspected leaker or something?”