Brian C. Kalt


On his book Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies

Cover Interview of January 09, 2012

A close-up

I think that the six scenarios in my book are all compelling and dramatic. I hope that they draw the reader in, and inspire him or her to delve into the legal and political discussion in the remainder of the chapter.

Here is an excerpt of what I already mentioned—part of the opening scenario to Chapter 4, in which the Speaker of the House and the secretary of state are both claiming the presidency:

As President Lewis arrives at a public event one morning, an assassin detonates a huge bomb, killing the president and dozens of others. In a homemade video produced before the assassination, the bomber decries “the coward Lewis” and announces his intention to kill Lewis so that the stalwart Wilton will become president and continue the war. Within two hours of the assassination, the video has saturated television and the Internet.

The assassin seemingly gets his wish. Wilton condemns the assassination in the most strident terms, obviously, but she takes an oath of office that morning as acting president. Her political position is tenuous. Supporters of the martyred President Lewis blame Speaker Wilton for fueling the rhetoric that led to Lewis’s assassination, and for her role in stalling to keep the vice presidency vacant. In other words, they feel as though the country has just suffered a coup d’état. They latch onto a legal argument that, just hours earlier, had been an academic one: that it is unconstitutional for the succession law to include members of Congress. Wilton’s opponents argue—with the support of several prominent legal experts—that the dovish secretary of state, John Allen, is the legitimate acting president.

Secretary Allen decides to contest Wilton’s claim to the presidency. He too takes an oath of office as acting president and, without using force, he assumes physical control of the White House. “The struggle over our war policy has been ugly, but it’s a political struggle,” he says in a national address from the Oval Office. “In America, we don’t settle political questions by mass murder.”

It has only been ten hours since the assassination—a shocking and surreal day. No violence has broken out yet, but it feels like only a matter of time before it does. No one is in the mood to compromise, and control of the government and the military hangs in the balance as Allen and Wilton vie for control.