The Would-be King's Gambit: Lessons in Trumpian Chess.
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The most captivating show on television for the last month has been The Queen’s Gambit, well, at least for those who have tried to wean themselves off a four-year political diet. It is the fictional story of a young woman who won the world championship by playing three-dimensional chess better than anyone else.
Interest in chess is on the rise – people stuck at home, trying to break the Trump TV habit, have been buying chess boards at a brisk pace.
Now, however, the lame-duck president is offering a new gambit for the holidays. His opening move was to pardon his short-time former National Security Advisor, Michael Thomas Flynn, a move that could also be called “pawn to king’s pawn – 4ever.” How good an opening will that prove to be?
The pardoning of Flynn on November 25 was no surprise and has everything to do with Trump’s attempt to protect himself. It is likely that other pardon moves will follow. Yet, there are ways to counteract the Trumpian gambit.
Presidential pardon power is mighty and broad — we read, for example, that among the hopefuls of presidential benevolence is media star Joe Exotic, lobbying to weasel out of a 20-year murder-for-hire conviction.
Presidential power may not extend to Trump’s ability to pardon himself, though do not put it past him to try. If Trump was worried enough about that move, he could always resign a few hours before January 20, 2021 and get a pardon deal from the temporary new president, Michael Richard Pence. Careful Mike, are you in the game?
Anyone who obtains a pardon faces unusual liability under the law. Pardons do not protect recidivists for their future crimes. Take the case of Flynn. It is true that Flynn was being paid $500K as a lobbyist for the government of Turkey, and this was a conflict of interest, with questions of legality.
Thanks to Trump, all previous crimes, including failing to register as a foreign agent, and lying to the FBI about Russia (both federal crimes) are wiped out. The Russia appears to be more important than the Turkey story, although Flynn might have information about a plot to seize a Turkish opposition leader in Pennsylvania–and could be forced to talk. Others could be implicated in a criminal enterprise involving the alleged kidnapping plot.
More broadly, Flynn still could be called in to testify on any subject before a Grand Jury about his interactions with the soon-to-be former president and soon-to-be former vice president. That is where Pence might be as concerned as Trump.
With new game pieces in a restored Justice Department, U.S. attorneys maybe very well be making moves of their own. One key player, Andrew Weissman, former senior prosecutor under Special Counsel Robert Mueller, argues that Trump and cronies must be pursued.
Writes Weissman in the New York Times:
“Mr. Trump can’t point to what the special counsel investigation did not find (e.g., “collusion”) when he obstructed that very investigation…”
“In short, being president should mean you are more accountable, not less, to the rule of law.”
Were Flynn’s contacts during the 2016 Christmas holidays with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of his own device? Who knew he was doing this? Did the president know? Did the vice president know?
Journalistic boilerplate tells us that after Flynn lied about his talks with Kislyak when interviewed by FBI agents, he repeated in turn the same fib to Mike Pence. Pence, the story goes, then spoke untruthfully about Flynn’s contacts — because Flynn deceived him.
Pence has always said that he knew nothing about Flynn’s talks with Kislyak until Flynn told him about it in 2017. When the story broke, Pence said he had spoken to Flynn about the Russian contact, and that the subject was benign.
“He had sent a text to the Russian ambassador to express not only Christmas wishes but sympathy for the loss of life in the airplane crash that took place,” Pence said on CBS Face the Nation. “It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation. They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
Pence said he only later realized that Flynn had lied. Is that true? Michael D’Antonio and I wrote about Pence’s role during this period in our book, The Shadow President–The Truth About Mike Pence.
At the time, Pence was overseeing the Trump transition to the White House. Conveniently, as often has been the case, Pence was not on station when controversy was unfolding.
Despite what should have been the pressure of the transition, Pence was out of Washington back home celebrating Christmas in Indiana. Concurrently, Flynn was talking with figures in the Trump transition about Obama’s sanctions against Russia in December 2016.
There were email communications with other transition members, but there was no sign that Pence was cc’d or in the loop. We are left to believe that Pence did not know about the Flynn communications with the Pence’s transition team. If that is all true, Pence should rest easy and settle for an easy game of parcheesi as he slips into private life after January 20.
However, after Flynn’s pardon, and after admitting his own lies, Flynn could be forced to testify if called before a federal Grand Jury. He no longer has 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination on the crimes he was prosecuted and pardoned for. If he refuses to testify, he could be charged with contempt. What if prosecutors delve into Flynn’s conversations with transition figures before he spoke to Russian ambassador Kislyak? What if prosecutors ask: did Donald Trump and/or Mike Pence know about your contact with the Russian?
If Flynn were to lie, a new perjury charge could be filed. Dealing with pardons, the past can be prologue, especially if there are more lies left to be told.
So, if there is a careful review in 2021 of the Trump presidency and all his men, there are a number of possible moves on the board – the would-be King’s gambit to save himself from checkmate would be very much in doubt.