How Many Cards Has Putin ?

May 12, 2017–Seeing Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov parade through the White House two days ago was highly suggestive. The minister exhibited the facial expression of a person enchanted, entering their new domain for the first time, the scene documented by a photographer from the Russian news agency TASS. That in itself speaks volumes for the competence–or lack thereof–of the Trump White House, which had deliberately excluded press from the event but not bothered to check whether the Russian photographer worked for the Foreign Ministry or some other government entity (like TASS). In any case Lavrov had the air of someone surveying property, or potentate meeting vassal.

You can’t say that is evidence for the Russian Caper, but the White House parade is consonant with behavior you might expect from a successful conspirator. The very next day the chiefs of the U.S. intelligence agencies–now Donald Trump’s intelligence agencies–were at the other end of The Mall, on Capitol Hill, presenting their annual run down of threats facing the United States. Cyberattack took the lead, with the Russian attempt to manipulate the U.S. 2016 election the top exemplar. Mr. Trump may think the Russian Caper a hoax but only fabulists of his stripe will agree.

Readers of this space will know we’ve been following the Russian Caper for months. Articles here identified a quid and a quo, discussed the evolving events, related them to figures in the Trump election campaign, and analyzed the parallel, equally damaging, actions of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James B. Comey.

Yesterday I analyzed the president’s actions using the game of Bridge (“Trump Trumps Comey,” May 11, 2017). We left the piece with a few tricks still to play and the question, among others, of what cards Vladimir Putin may hold. This is a fair, in fact a crucial question.

First is the existence of the Russian Caper. As a real thing. With a timeline, strategy, and players. A story. Making Moscow’s manipulation public would instantly blow away Mr. Trump’s pathetic squirming in his attempt to suppress investigation. More than that, revelation of the cover-up would instantly plunge American politics into crisis. If the aim of a Russian political action operation was to create chaos in the United States, that would be a huge success. Moreover the threat of such a revelation–with President Trump now having fired his FBI director in commission of a cover-up–could be expected to incline the American leader to act as Moscow desires. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates lost her job warning of the dangers of a national security adviser (Michael Flynn) who could potentially be a Russian operative, imagine the scope for a president as an agent. That’s an Ace of Spades. In No-Trump Bridge there is no higher card.

To continue that analogy, Mr. Putin also holds the King of Spades. Last December the Russian security service FSB arrested two of its own, General Sergei Mikhailov, a deputy director of the service’s computer security unit; and Major Dmitri Dokuchaev, an operating hacker. Mikhailov, we are told, was interrupted in the middle of a meeting, a black cloth bag put over his head, and frog-marched away. Also taken was Ruslan Stoyanov a top cybersecurity expert at a contractor firm. Rumored reasons for the arrests included that these individuals were engaged in cybercrime, or that they were CIA agents. But these people were also linked to “Fancy Bear,” as Western cybersecurity experts have dubbed the hacking entity responsible for the penetrations into American political parties and networks, believed to be a unit of the military intelligence service GRU. If this is correct, the FSB can at any time roll out a set of witnesses to put details into the so-far hazy picture of exactly how the Russian Caper worked.

Next to the Ace, the King of Spades is the strongest card in No-Trump. The president does not control these cards and is, in fact, beholden to them. After firing Director Comey, President Trump’s hand is nearly exhausted amid a political situation in which specific concern over the Russian Caper is at fever pitch.