A common theme among pundits is that Republicans know how to play politics, whereas the Democrats are bumblers. The affair of the dueling classified memos is definitely not playing out that way. In fact, the GOP has let itself get caught in a zugzwang, which in chess is a situation in which every move a player makes weakens his/her position. The player is better off not moving, but is of course forced to move. You can’t pass in chess, as you could in Scrabble or poker. “Zug” means “move” in German, “zwang” means “forced”: thus “zugzwang—a forced move. Being caught in a zugzwang is usually fatal.
What is happening is not just a zugzwang, but a double zugzwang. And the Republicans—perhaps at the bratty insistence of Trumpty Dumpty—could have avoided the entire mess.
In terms of chess theory here’s what happened. For about two weeks, Republicans have threatened to release a memo that would supposedly show that the Mueller investigation of the Trump campaign and administration is a witch hunt. But as the great chess theorist and player Aron Nimzovich pointed out about a century ago, a threat to do something is more powerful than actually doing it. In the case of the weak-ass Nunes memo, that was certainly the case. Nimzovich, by the way, was the author of the most famous zugzwang in chess history, a deft maneuver in the middle of a 1923 game against Friedrich Sämisch that left his hapless victim with many moves—all of them very quickly leading to his demise.
Then it was the Democrat’s move, and what they did could be expected: They developed their own confidential memo.
Now came an enormous blunder by the Republicans. They released the Nunes memo. Their memo was all smoke-and-mirrors and they knew it. As long as it remained unreleased it tantalized with what it could say and it also flustered both the Democrats and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), precisely because it was nonsense. But once released, everyone outside the Trumposphere—or should I say Foxosphere since creating an alternative reality is not new to the current administration—quickly saw it was questionable.
The threat was much more powerful than the execution could ever have been since the memo was so flimsy of fact and so riddled with logical flaws. It reminds me of a story about Nimzovich, who would only play if his opponent was not allowed to smoke. In the middle of a game, the opponent pulled out a big fat cigar and put it down on the table, then started fingering it. Nimzovich called the judge over to complain. Both judge and opponent reminded Nimzovich that no one had lit up, to which the great theorist replied, “Yes, but you must know that the threat is stronger than the execution.” That certainly was the case with the Nunes memo.
In short, the Republicans put themselves into a double zugzwang. The first zugzwang involved the Republican Congressional representatives in the House Intelligence Committee: Okay the release of the Dem’s memo and be shown to be cheap propagandists OR disapprove and be condemned as being unfair and anti-democratic. They wisely chose the first route, which put the current administration into the second zugzwang: object to the release or not. Object and you seem undemocratic. Let it be released and be made stupid everywhere but inside the minds of the true believers.
What Trump decides to do is anyone’s guess. On the one hand, he doesn’t mind—and would actually enjoy—being autocratic and suppressing the Dem’s memo. But on the other hand, the information will surely leak out anyhow, plus Trump can always use the new document as another prop, condemning the Dems for their fabrication and suggesting that the rot in the FBI runs far deeper than we ever imagined. Trumpistas and FOX News will lap up this latest accusation of conspiracy, even as the mainstream media both condemns it and gives it credence by covering it. He will in short disgrace himself either way, but he won’t even know it. Unfortunately, nor will the 25-37% of the population still chugging the Trumpian KoolAid, perhaps because it comes in so many flavors of white.
The good news is that for a change, the American people are benefiting from a cheap political stunt. The controversy over the Nunes memo has brought to light the many hoops through which our security apparatus must jump to get a secret warrant against an American citizen or foreign spies in the Foreign Intelligence Service (FISA) court. The applications run 60-70 pages and must receive sign-offs at many levels in several government departments. The FBI or National Security Agency must reapply on a regular basis to keep the wire taps and surveillance going. Frankly, I’m against indiscriminant surveillance, which like stop-and-frisk can lead to abuses that typically have a racial bias. It relieved me and lot of other liberals to learn that getting a FISA warrant is no walk on the beach, but a convoluted process with a high standard of proof.
The second good news—only potential at this point—is that Congressional Republicans may have finally evolved a backbone, as the intelligence committee voted unanimously to release the memo and throw the hot zugzwang potato to the Donald and a number of Congressional leaders, including Trey Gowdy—Hillary Clinton’s own Inspector Javert—said that the Nunes memo has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation, which must be allowed to continue.
Could the Congressional GOP have finally drawn a line in the sand? Are they ready to take independent action, sometimes in concert with the Democrats, to run the government in the face of executive dysfunction? One sign of such a hopeful development would be if Congress passed the clean DAC bill proposed by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons. Dare Trump to veto it. Another sign of GOP independence from the cesspool that is Donald Trump would be a joint resolution demanding the current administration implement the sanctions against Russia for messing with our 2016 election.
The jury is out on a Congressional Republican vertebrae, but the Republican error of releasing an obviously bogus memo does give us cause for a small-beer celebration. Perhaps our system does work. Sometimes. A little.