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.

 

 

 

Who Trumps Whom ?

May 11, 2017–In the game Bridge the players establish a set of expectations and nominate a suit of wild cards before play of the hand begins. They do this in a ritual of bidding, four players in two teams for the game. The players also seek to signal their partners the strength of their hand through this same bidding process. The card suits have a rank order from the lowly Club to the top-notch Spade, and from the deuce at the bottom to the Ace at the top. “Two Clubs” is the smallest opening bid you can make. If your hand is not worth that you pass. To bid in “No Trump” is nirvana, indicating your hand is strong in every suit. If the bidding results in a named suit, by contrast, play of any card in that suit will beat the highest card of the suit currently on the table. This is relevant in today’s political controversy–I have heard pundits who could not resist the endearment of “Trump trumps Comey,” as the dismissed FBI director disappears out the door. But my thought is that the bidding was wrong–the card tricks will not play out the way Mr. Trump thinks.

The president, being Donald Trump, naturally bid “No Trump,” the strongest form of play. In No Trump the top card in the suit in play wins. There are no wild cards. The cards mean what they say. Sometimes a player with a weak hand bids in No Trump when he should not, or an inexperienced one does not know any better. This is problematic for President Trump because he has the lead in this game, and he is trying to escape the consequences of the Russian Caper.

There will be thirteen card tricks in the play of the hand. Mr. Trump took the first two when he benefitted from Russian intervention in the presidential campaign and then when he won the election. After that he started to squirm. The big reveal of partner Mike Pence’s hand showed the cards are not so strong after all. Trump bulled his way through a trick by insisting the Russian Caper is a hoax, then sacrificed one by remaining silent as Congress organized to investigate Moscow’s role in American politics. But the attempt to coax out the opponents’ high cards flubbed when the White House was revealed to be bending the congressional  investigators to its whim.

On the next trick came a major blowup, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught on surveillance tapes talking to the Russian ambassador. Flynn further complicated the play, at every step being caught in more compromising poses (taking Russian money, disguising that he did, neglecting to get required permissions, to register as a foreign agent; even carrying water for his foreign clients at the very moment of the election). The FBI, headed by James Comey continued its investigation throughout all this, and when Mr. Trump entered office the Flynn dossier had already grown thick. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates did Trump the courtesy of giving the White House advance notice of the burgeoning file. Rather than do anything about Flynn, the White House demanded to see the evidence. Trump lost a trick when Mike Pence rushed to Flynn’s defense, spouting Flynn’s phony denials as gospel truth. Trump’s spin doctors made it worse by attacking media for doing their jobs–and the president doubled down by, in fact, blaming the media for the dismissal of Michael Flynn.

Mr. Trump’s sixth trick was to blame Barack Obama, alleging the former president had ordered surveillance of his political campaign. That flubbed too.  Carter Page of the Trump campaign was a subject of FBI investigation for his role in the Russian Caper, but that flowed from solid investigative leads. When Mr. Trump fatuously declared the “leaks” of juicy tidbits from the investigations to be the problem, rather than the Russian Caper itself, he lost another trick. The latest press reports paint a president furious at the FBI for continuing to investigate the Caper instead of focusing on the phony Obama surveillance allegation. Trump still had one high card. He used it to fire Bureau director James Comey. But the incompetence and lack of political skills of Mr. Trump’s White House are such that no one made any preparations for handling the fierce questions that were sure to follow Comey’s dismissal. Trump took a trick but immediately lost another.

Now the president is stuck. The Russians actually have some of his cards. No one knows how many. Trump himself is down to, say, a deuce of clubs and a three of diamonds. The game continues. Opponents have the big cards and–because this is No Trump–there are no wild cards to smite them. It’s not enough any more to assert that no one is interested in this story, or that it’s yesterday’s news, or that it’s fake news, or any of the other low-grade deceptions Trump has relied upon in the past. Stay tuned.