On both the left and the right, the possibility of removing the president from office has become the elephant in the room: Public officials are acutely aware of it, but few are mentioning it out loud. The Russia investigation continues to intensify and infiltrate President Trump’s inner circle. But in December, for instance, Republicans and Democrats combined to stop articles of impeachment from reaching the House floor.
The issue has been sneaking warily into pop culture, too. The recent sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” casts Bruce Greenwood as a corrupt and sinister U.S. president who’s led off in handcuffs — on Fox News, no less. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has insisted that any parallel to Trump is coincidental. The History Channel ordered a six-episode drama series about the Bill Clinton impeachment trial and TV producer Ryan Murphy planned an “American Crime Story” season about the Monica Lewinsky scandal — both were nixed.
But two hour-long dramas are directly addressing the issue: “Madam Secretary” (on CBS) and “The Good Fight” (on the network’s streaming service, CBS All Access), each of which draws frequently from the issues of the day.
In early January, on an episode called “Sound and Fury,” “Madam Secretary” had Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) gathering other members of the Cabinet to discuss invoking Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, which declares the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and passes power to the vice president. And on the latest episode of “The Good Fight,” available Sunday, the firm of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart considers legal approaches to the impeachment question.
Yet the tricky balance for these shows — and for big-budget movies like “Kingsman”— is that Trump supporters are watching, too. How do you satisfy public curiosity over impeachment or the 25th Amendment without alienating Trump supporters?
Other lightly fictionalized takes on president removal emerged from the administrations of Andrew Johnson (who was impeached but not convicted), Clinton (same) and Richard Nixon (who resigned). The works include the hagiographic 1942 Johnson biopic “Tennessee Johnson,” Philip Baker Hall’s one-man Nixon show “Secret Honor” and Gabrielle Zevin’s recent novel “Young Jane Young,” which was inspired by Lewinsky. But those were all produced well after these presidents left office. To do it with a sitting president has little precedent.
For “Madam Secretary” creator Barbara Hall, a potentially galvanizing episode like “Sound and Fury” simply comes with the territory. “We just take things that are already in the atmosphere,” says Hall, “and if we find them interesting in terms of a civics lesson, we show you what it would look like. We’re not campaigning for it. We’re not politicizing it, really. We’re just saying, ‘Here’s what the process looks like.’”
It helps that “Madam Secretary” is an entirely fictional world, and that its party affiliations are kept so vague that President Dalton (Keith Carradine) secures his reelection as an independent. One of the compelling implications of “Sound and Fury,” which Hall wrote with David Grae, is how the 25th Amendment might actually play out. Unlike impeachment proceedings, which are probably led by political foes, the 25th is invoked by the vice president and the Cabinet, so Hall portrays that mutiny more as an act of protection than betrayal. In this case, Dalton responds erratically and drastically to a Russian sonic attack on the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria and the Cabinet steps in temporarily to prevent a tragic escalation.
“These are all his loyal appointees,” says Hall, “but they can recognize dangerous behavior and they all swore an oath to the Constitution, not to the president. So, in our view, it would have to be a situation that was dire enough that people who are loyal to the president would feel that a change needed to be made.”
By contrast, “The Good Fight” takes place in a world where Donald Trump not only exists but where the characters’ lives are affected by him. The episode titles for the new season cheekily reference the number of days Trump has been in office, and the priorities of his Justice Department trickle down the system. In “Day 450,” a DNC representative (Margo Martindale) includes Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart among the liberal firms “auditioning” to bring impeachment charges against Trump. With Democrats primed to win majorities in midterm elections, the show posits, the DNC is working ahead of time to find the right tack for congressional investigations.
Could this be a Democratic fantasy in action? Not so fast. The showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, who created “The Good Wife” spinoff with Phil Alden Robinson, see it more as a satire of liberal hysteria. The audition, for one, devolves into a screaming match over whether obstruction of justice, Russian collusion or violations of the emoluments clause are the best means to a desired end.
“It’s comical sometimes how intense the conversation can get,” says Robert King. “It’s become this wet dream. We wanted to satirize that while [being realistic] about how Democrats, in our imaginations, are preparing to prosecute it.”
At the same time, “The Good Fight,” which is set at a mostly African American law firm in Chicago, doesn’t try to soft-pedal the political conversations that animate the office where nearly everyone (with one major exception) voted for Hillary Clinton. The very first episode of the show opens with its lead character, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), looking aghast over Trump’s election, and the new season started with a “Previously On” segment that included a highlight reel of first-year Trump moments.
The Kings acknowledge that being on a streaming offshoot like CBS All Access gives them more latitude, but they’re also working at a time when television has embraced open partisanship, rejecting the firm political neutrality of the past. Late-night hosts, including Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and CBS’s own Stephen Colbert, have turned monologues into a toothsome left-leaning satire, and “The Good Fight” allows itself unusual candor.
“It’s very directly linked to this particular administration,” says Michelle King. “With previous administrations, people might disagree with [policies], but they would try to, I think, be a little more balanced. I think now there’s a sense of things are so far askew that you can’t hide your thinking.”
“With something very controversial in the news,” adds Robert King, “it’s always fun to drive toward it, not run away from it.” Later this season, the Kings promise an episode that deals with allegations in the explosive Trump-Russia dossier composed by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele. Removing the president may be the elephant in the room of American politics, but they’re intent to call out that it’s there.