The President is Missing
(2018) is a political thriller co-written by James Patterson and former President Bill Clinton. Mostly told from the first-person perspective, the story follows U.S. President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan as he races against time to find a traitor in his cabinet, preventing a massive cyberattack from crippling the country’s economics, infrastructure, and defenses. Within the first two months, the publisher Knopf reported that the book had sold over a million copies in North America.
The novel begins as Duncan engages in a mock session to rehearse for his Monday committee hearing before the House. Duncan stands accused of negotiating with Suliman Cindoruk, the leader of a cyberterrorist organization called Sons of Jihad (SOJ). The President’s advisors do not want him to testify, believing the results could lead to impeachment and even prison, but Duncan is stubborn and insists. The mock trial does not go well, because Duncan loses his temper multiple times.
Meanwhile, the President’s adult daughter is studying in Paris when a woman named Nina gives her a top-secret message about an imminent and cataclysmic cyberattack codenamed “Dark Ages” that would destroy the United States. Because only eight people in the world should know that code, Duncan believes there is a mole in their midst and invites Nina to the White House. She only knows part of the story and sets up a clandestine meeting at a baseball game between Duncan and her partner, Augie, so he can learn the rest.
The President decides to don a disguise, leave his Secret Service detail behind, and go undercover to meet Augie at the baseball game. At the game, everything goes wrong. Suliman’s mercenaries, including a female assassin codenamed Bach, ambush them. Nina dies in the attack, but Duncan, a former soldier, fights off a couple of the assassins himself before the Secret Service intervenes, rescuing Duncan and Augie. They spirit the President to a safe house in Virginia, but are attacked on the way, leaving two Secret Service agents dead. The President and Augie escape harm once more.
Duncan learns that Nina and Augie worked for Suliman and created the Dark Ages computer virus, which functions like ransomware by wiping all data from the infected systems. Realizing the true scope of their work only after they released the virus, they defected to warn the President. Augie explains that if the virus activates, America’s entire online infrastructure will collapse and all the data on every internet-enabled device will be irretrievably lost. This means that all financial institutions, electricity grids, defense systems, and every other Internet network that keeps the country up and running will be destroyed. To make matters worse, the clock is already ticking because the virus is only a day away from activation. The only positive news is that the United States military has been quietly working on an international network as a backup in case the primary network goes down. It may not keep the whole country running, but at least the United States will not be completely defenseless, either. Meanwhile, the President’s top cybersecurity team thinks they might have developed a way to stop the virus.
The test goes badly. Instead of stopping the virus, the program accidentally activates it. However, they find the failsafe in the virus—they have thirty minutes to enter an abort code, or the virus will reactivate fully, wiping all the data on every device in the country. The President and his aides try to guess the password, and at the very last moment, his chief of staff, Carolyn Brock, guesses the correct password and the virus aborts.
At the end of the novel, Duncan reveals that he already knew the password. The mole gave it to Nina in a text message, and not only does Duncan have her messages, but he entered the password right away without telling anyone. The password brainstorming session was a ruse to get the mole to panic and reveal him or herself. He confronts Carolyn with evidence of her treason and collusion with Suliman. Carolyn’s plan involved framing the vice president for the crime so she could take the vice president’s position and be a hero. Her plan nearly works; Duncan was convinced for a time that his VP, an embittered former rival who never quite forgave him for beating her in the primaries, was the mole.
Crisis averted, the President delivers a rousing, democratic speech to the American public that sends his approval ratings soaring from 30 percent up to 80 percent. The epilogue ties up loose ends as he reveals: the political powerplays between the Speaker of the House and the VP, who had formed an alliance to impeach Duncan so the VP could take over as President; the indictments against Carolyn Brock; an improvement in his own health (he has a rare autoimmune disease which could be fatal if not treated properly); and a utopic account of successful bipartisan legislation regarding gun violence, non-hackable voting, and law enforcement.