It’s a cinema cliché — the moment when two ashen-faced senior aides, staring into the abyss of a breaking White House scandal, ask each other: “Shall we tell the president?”
Change one word, and you’ve got the question posed in Sam Bourne’s latest book, To Kill the President. (HarperCollins, £7.99).
The occupant of the Oval Office in question is a recently elected right-wing, misogynist, racist tycoon with an enormous ego, whose most enlightened policy is the creation of special squads to round up illegal immigrants and ship them off to Mexico, whether they came from there or not.
The words “Trump” or “Donald” are never mentioned — the president is not named and doesn’t appear in the book but Bourne’s inference is clear.
Bourne is, of course, the thriller-writing pen-name of Guardian and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland, who has been one of Trump’s fiercest critics in this country. Here, he imagines a scenario involving the president losing it in the Situation Room and threatening to rain nuclear death on North Korea.
Only the quick thinking of a junior military officer manages to avert global destruction but so spooked are the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of Defence that they decide it would be best all round if the president were to be removed — and we’re not talking about impeachment here.
Thrust into the middle of the conspiracy is White House counsel Maggie Costello, a Democrat-supporting former peace negotiator who was a close aide of the previous occupant of the Oval Office and was persuaded to stay on to work for the new guy. Predictably she hates herself for doing so.
Costello’s attempts to uncover the assassination plot and at the same time evade the attentions of the deadly security services make for a pacey, at times compelling read. As a journalist, Freedland has seen the Trump administration at first-hand, and there is a satisfying sense of authenticity.
The obligatory twist is a little heavily signalled but there’s another, right at the end, which comes with a Jewish flavour. However, the stand-out moment has nothing to do with the action; it comes when the president’s sinister adviser, Crawford McNamara, explains how America managed to elect a crazed demagogue.
“The President,” says the Steve Bannonesque McNamara, “is every white man with the filter taken off.”
White men are “top of the heap” again, “where you can look down on everyone who was always meant to be below you. Starting with the women and the blacks, the gays and the Latino community and the disabled community and all the others who’ve been whining so long they’ve made you apologise simply for getting up in the morning and being a straight white guy. Well, f*** that. No more apologising. We’re back where we belong.”