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.

The Russian Caper

March 4, 2017–Even as two days ago Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any inquiry on the Russian caper, the Trump White House was busily asserting that Mr. Sessions was being improperly accused. Just another step in this delicate dance. Let’s review the latest developments in the story of the Russian caper.

First, the Russians. The evidence on them grows by the day. Yesterday the New York Times reported that Dimitri K. Simes, of the Center for the National Interest, introduced the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei I. Kislyak, to Donald J. Trump. That happened in April 2016 at a Center dinner. On March 2, Trump adviser Carter Page admitted on an MSNBC telecast, “All In with Chris Hayes,” that he had met with Ambassador Kislyak in Cleveland during the Republican Convention last July. Jeff Sessions who gave the nominating speech for Trump at Cleveland, also met with Kislyak at the convention. Michael T. Flynn, the retired Army general who initially led Trump’s national security staff, was in Cleveland too, but his contacts there with the Russian ambassador have yet to be established.

Now there are new skeins of yarn atop those. In the early days of the Trump campaign the candidate hardly had a foreign policy advisory shop. Just a few people, really, and Trump explicitly mentioned Carter Page as one of them. J.D. Gordon was another. Both participated in a Global Partners in Diplomacy round table event held at Case Western Reserve University during the convention, where they spoke afterwards with the Russian ambassador. Both men, when initially questioned, denied having met Mr. Kislyak. Equally to the point, Gordon had an official role at the convention as representing Trump’s interests on the Republican Platform Committee, and there he acted to block language in the party platform that would have condemned Russia’s aggressive actions in the Ukraine. Here the quid for the quo begins to come into view.

On July 25 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it had begun investigating Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Two days after that Mr. Trump virtually invited the Russians to hack America, in the guise of asking if they could find emails of Hillary Clinton that were missing from her computer servers.

Jeff Sessions saw the Russian again, in Washington at the then-senator’s Capitol Hill office, on September 8. According to the assorted reports on the Russian hacking from U.S. security services, the cyber intrusions peaked around May 2016. Readers of this space will know that already last year we observed that the American spies botched their inquiry into the Russian caper by serving up watered down evidence that permitted both the Russians and the Republicans wide scope for denial. But you can see in this chronology a logical progression– the Russian links with Trump, Russian cyber positions itself to act, Russians apparently all over the Republican convention, Trump invites them to do more, Kislyak sees Sessions at least one other time.

Sessions’s role is underlined by the odd way he responded at his confirmation hearing for Attorney General, when asked if he would recuse himself from any U.S. investigation of the Russian Caper. Sessions did not answer that question at all. Instead the nominee talked about his contacts with Russians: “I didn’t have–did not have communications with the Russians.” Since Senator Sessions was under oath when he said this, the categorical denial amounted to perjury.

Another key Trumpian power player, son-in-law Jared Kushner, had more contacts with Ambassador Kislyak during the transitional period following the November 2016 vote. The Washington Post reminds us of an important Russian comment, just after the election, from deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, who told the Interfax news agency not only that there had been Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, but went on, “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage.”

Now let’s bring back General Flynn. It became apparent shortly after Mr. Trump’s inauguration that, in December, when President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia to respond to the hacking, Flynn was on the phone to Kislyak the same day. The general lied to Vice-President Michael Pence about the contacts, leading the latter to spread falsehoods in defending the Trump campaign. Flynn’s lies were serious enough to force him to resign as national security adviser.

What is it that requires multiple participants to obfuscate, lie, or otherwise obscure their roles when asked about an activity? Guilty knowledge. This is not an individual event. There is a pattern here. Whether or not the conspiracy was criminal can be established only by investigation. The FBI itself is not entirely in the clear. Its questionable role adds to the mystery. It’s a good thing Mr. Sessions recused himself, but I fear America is going to need more than that to get to the bottom of this.

 

 

Flynn’s Suspenders Showing

February 10, 2017–Yesterday in this space appeared a discussion of the new National Security Council staff headed by retired general Michael T. Flynn. There I referred to a still-concealed disaster in Flynn’s management of the Defense Intelligence Agency as a potential scandal waiting to happen. Today’s news reminds that there is a bigger controversy in Mr. Flynn’s involvement in backchannel contacts with the Russians both before last year’s elections and during the interregnum between Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s entry into the White House.

The column yesterday referred obliquely to Flynn’s connections with Putin’s Russia, where he boasted of having been invited into the inner sanctum of the Russian military intelligence service GRU. He had also sat to dinner with Vladimir Putin on a public occasion, and taken money for the visit. During the election campaign Flynn was in touch with the Russian ambassador to the United States, both personally and on the phone, and by tweet. He spoke with the ambassador on the same day in December when then-President Obama imposed additional sanctions on Russia for its intervention in U.S. politics. Senior American intelligence officials largely agree Flynn discussed the sanctions with the Russian diplomat.

Flynn’s activities are disturbing at best, and may have impeded Obama’s conduct of U.S. foreign policy. There’s a legality issue as well, but I won’t go there because the facts are still too murky. Suffice it to say there’s already enough smoke for Trump spindoctors to be working, with their usual veering close to alternate facts, to minimize Flynn’s contacts and obscure his purposes. General Flynn’s suspenders are showing. Stay tuned!

Flynn Settles In: Trump’s NSC Staff

February 9, 2017–President Trump repeatedly told the public that all sorts of things were going to be accomplished on “day one,” whether it was building a wall on the Mexican border, sequestering the profits of the megalith corporations, or deporting all those immigrants. Here we’re approaching the one month mark, twenty days in from the inaugural, and those day one promises are starting to nag. A key area is government organization, because having the structure in place facilitates all other government activities. Today let’s take a look at the National Security Council (NSC) staff.

Retired Army general Michael Flynn is President Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn gained Mr. Trump’s confidence during the political campaign, when he stood by through thick and thin as many of the country’s foreign policy heavyweights shunned the Trump campaign. There is a reason, of course. The general and, now, the president, are kindred spirits who enjoy baiting and playing their adversaries, and they share an affinity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Flynn has also expressed disdain for religions and ethnicities, seeming to lump many Muslims in together with those Islamists who are actually fighting–not to mention viewing all of them as attacking the United States rather than each other. It’s a vision Mr. Trump shares too.

Flynn’s professional reputation is mixed. As a field officer and junior general he was regarded with awe as a “young turk,” an intelligence specialist who applied creativity to innovating new ways of slicing and dicing the data to derive new visions of the adversary. He did this for General Stanley McChrystal at the Special Operations Command and again in Afghanistan. Flynn was less successful when promoted to head the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), where he reportedly made a mess of reorganization, and alienated his rank and file with peremptory demands and far-fetched analytical positions. Details of what happened at DIA remain obscure to this day and there may be a Flynn scandal waiting in the closet.

Kellyanne Conway has her “alternate facts,” at DIA the general had “Flynn facts.” This might make for bitter infighting on the NSC staff but it could also lead to a cowed staff that dares not raise problems with proposals.

Flynn is in a position where he must somehow steer around the even bigger White House struggle for supremacy among Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner. It’s too early so far to do more than note that problem exists. Note this: all three of the big guys, along with Flynn, will share responsibility for overseeing a “Strategic Vision Task Force.”

Under President Obama the NSC staff had grown like a mushroom. There were more than four hundred policy professionals divided into different regional and functional sub units. National security adviser Susan K. Rice had to supervise twenty-three different directorates. (By way of contrast, on President John F. Kennedy’s NSC staff the total number of professionals remained small enough to fit on a single rubber stamp.) Flynn intends to cut the directorates by two-thirds, and the staff as a whole to 230 professionals, roughly two hundred of them delegated from the departments and agencies of the Washington bureaucracy. This is important : that statistic indicates the thinness of the Trump national security staff.

Traditionally in Washington about one third of NSC staffers are seconded from agencies, here the number approaches ninety percent. That datum testifies to Trump and Flynn’s failure to attract the talents of the experienced national security professionals, who are standing aside or have been blackballed by administration officials or talent scouts. Yet size reductions notwithstanding, there are sixty positions on the NSC staff still unfilled, about 30 percent of the anticipated departmental cohort.

From the names we have seen so far an inordinate number of the staff directors are military officers detailed to the White House. That does not promise well for breadth or depth of foreign policy experience.

Meanwhile, even with reductions the Trump national security staff reflects the bloating of bureaucracy, hardly the sleek image the new president affects. Kissinger’s NSC staff had about fifty–and that was viewed as swollen. The Brzezinski staff grew larger yet, and in Ronald Reagan’s day the security staff reached 150. Bottom line: expect the Trump NSC staff to be opinionated yet based on a narrow grasp of issues and implications.