“Mr. President, there’s a lot I like in the union bill. My staff reviewed it and we like Halsey’s amendment. I think he’ll get the votes . . .”
As Stan drones on, President Markham nods and listens. The schedule, as he recalls, allotted their meeting ten minutes. He thinks it’s gone over. He waits to find a moment when Stan isn’t looking at him to steal a quick glance at his grandfather clock on the mantle. It shows twelve noon.
“The deputy secretary went through and highlighted two key provisions. If you referred to these in your remarks in West Virginia tomorrow morning . . .”
“I’ll look at it. They’re proofing those remarks this afternoon.”
“If we can put some pressure on the caucus with a little traction in the news, we might just get this deal where we want it.”
The president is relieved to see Bill pop his head in from the side door adjoining the chief of staff’s office.
“Yes, Bill,” the president says.
“The delegation is here.”
The president and the labor secretary stand up from the sofa.
“Mr. Secretary, it’s been a pleasure.” He gives him a sturdy smile and handshake.
“Thank you, Mr. President. It’s good to talk to you. Together, we’ll see this through to the Senate.”
“Yes, very good. We’ll tag team ’em. Keep up the good work, Stan. ”
“Yes indeed.” Stan chuckles as he maneuvers around the furniture. He heads for the main door. The president catches Bill’s eye and points to the east door. Bill directs Stan to exit east instead.
With Stan out of the office, Bill moves to the main door. “Still awake?”
“That’s not fair to Stan. He can’t help Ambien flows through his veins.”
Bill smiles. “Do you have all your notes for Uruguay?”
“I think so. And after that?”
“General staff meeting.”
“I’ll sit that one out today.”
“No problem, sir. I’ll handle it.”
The president rubs his brow. “Before we let the Uruguayans in . . .”
Bill pauses mid-step. “Sure. What is it?”
“I’ve been trying to get five minutes to myself since the press conference. A personal matter.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“It’s been wall-to-wall. But no hurry. I’m going to take it now.”
“Absolutely, sir. I’ll let them know you’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
The president gives a quick nod to Bill, who exits out the main door.
The president picks up the phone on the end table. A voice answers, “Yes, sir. Agent Sterling.”
“Bud, I need you to send Grant in here.”
“Grant. Right away, sir. I believe he’s just on the other side of the wall.”
“Very good.” He hangs up and walks to the Resolute desk.
In moments, Grant Messner, head secret service agent of the president’s detail, enters the Oval Office.
“Hi, Grant. Come on in. Have a seat.”
The president sits behind his desk. Grant sits in one of the chairs facing it.
“Grant, I need you to call Tom in.”
Grant hesitates as he raises his wrist mic. “Tom Hayes, the military aide?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Grant speaks quietly into his wrist. “Agent Banks, locate the president’s military aide, Tom Hayes, and escort him to the Oval.”
The president takes a small plastic index card out of his breast pocket and looks at it closely. There’s something mesmerizing about the numbers on it today, something comforting. The digits represent to him nothing less than the safety and security of the entire world. Today more than ever they hold in his mind an exalted place. He looks off and smiles to himself as he taps the edge of the card on his desktop.
“How are you today, Grant?”
“Fine, sir. Fine.”
The door from the inner walkway opens and Tom emerges, carrying a black leather briefcase. “You called, sir?”
“Yes. Come in and sit down, please.”
Tom makes what seems like a long journey across the presidential seal seared onto the wood floor of the office as he approaches the two men. He stands before the Resolute desk.
The president holds out his hand, indicating the chair next to Grant’s. “Please.”
Tom sits, setting the briefcase on his lap. He and Grant make eye contact briefly, each nodding a curt greeting.
“Men, I’ve asked you here to review the emergency military response protocol.”
Tom moves to respond first. He seems uneasy. “Sir, would this be in addition to the review and preparedness training scheduled for February?”
“This is an impromptu review, yes.”
Tom nods. “Okay. Where would you like me to begin?”
“What is the response-time chain and sequence?”
“Okay, yes sir, once you would enter a particular code, the Command Center is notified. The Secretary must second the order, through that secured channel, which we expect would be little more than a formality, candidly—though it is one of the official safeguards. He would have eighteen minutes to do that.”
“He has eighteen minutes?”
“Yes, sir, that’s right. He could well provide that assent more rapidly, but by law he is given eighteen minutes, during which he might study the attack plan, perhaps confer further with the president . . . uh, you. This time interval was at one time four minutes, from I believe Kennedy until the Reagan administration. Under Clinton, I understand, the protocol was elongated as an additional safeguard, with the likelihood of a strike by the Soviet Union at that time obviously being greatly decreased after the . . . uh, its collapse.”
“I understand. No need for the history lesson. Just a practical overview.”
“Of course, sir. My apologies.”
“Is anyone else involved in the chain?”
“Well, from the Pentagon on down to the launch officers in the silos, the protocol is that two officers must agree that the command is authentic, and it is their sworn duty to then carry it out. At the silo level the officers are armed and operate a double-key system.”
“I see. And that process could take how long?”
“There are three layers of command in that structure. Presumably it would all take place rather rapidly. Again, perhaps more of a formality. There’s really no way to estimate exactly how—”
“Just a ballpark.”
“Uh, I would expect it would take place quite rapidly. But again, no real way to—”
The president looks away and holds up his hand indicating that Tom’s made his point.
“And as far as the preparedness protocol,” the president says, turning to Grant.
“Yes, you and your detail, and chief of staff would, as well as possibly the Joint Chiefs, depending on the nature of the emergency, move into PEOC here at the White House, or at one of the several other locations. In an extreme scenario, such as during 9/11, Air Force One can also serve as a temporary secure location.”
The president nods knowingly.
Grant continues, “The vice president, other cabinet members, those down the line of succession are to be taken to separate secure locations.”
“And that’s in there, right?” the president asks, pointing to Tom’s briefcase.
“Yes sir, there’s a directory of the secure sites, papers for succession and other emergency legal decisions that might need to be made. Things of that nature. Emergency Broadcast System codes. Whatnot.”
“Let’s crack her open. Let’s take a look,” the president says cheerfully.
Tom swallows, nods, and then takes a key out of his pocket. He moves it toward the lock on the briefcase and lets out a short, audible breath.
The president leans back and smiles.
Tom inserts the key in the case lock and turns it. The spring-loaded handles pop up with a pronounced click.