As the pace of the Russia investigation accelerates and the vise appears to tighten on figures in the investigation, commentators have been searching for a framework to impose structure on a cascade of seemingly unprecedented events. I propose chess, western civilization’s longest running board game, as a convenient tool for fitting the players together. Below is a preliminary cut matching people with pieces, followed by a brief explanation. Enjoy!
King – Trump
Queen – Vladimir Putin
Bishops – Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner
Knights – Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Stephen Miller
Rooks – John Kelly and H.R. McMaster
Pawns – Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, Melania Trump, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence, Chris Christie
King – Rod Rosenstein
Queen – Robert Mueller
Bishops – Richard Burr and Mark Warner
Knights – Charles Grassley and Diane Feinstein
Rooks – Federal District Courts and Federal Grand Juries
Pawns – Adam Schiff, Michael Dreeben, and any six of Mueller’s prosecutors
The fundamentals of the game dictate that each side try to checkmate the other’s king. The white players must render Trump unable to move and the black players must seek to disable Rod Rosenstein. The investigation team is white, since white moves first and the investigators initiate the action.
Kings – The king is not the most powerful piece on the board, but he must be captured (or his capture must be inevitable) for the game to end. The king can move only one step at a time, but he can move in any direction. That makes Trump an obvious king. His ignorance, self-absorption, impulsiveness, and mysterious obeisance to Russia strip him of the power to make big things happen, but he has demonstrated a willingness to move in any direction at any moment. And obviously, his “capture,” would end the game.
The mild-mannered Rod Rosenstein, who inherited oversight of the Russia investigation through no action of his own, is an unlikely king. But, he has the final say on matters related to the Justice Department’s investigation. For Trump to prevail, Rosenstein must fall.
Queens – The queens are the most powerful pieces on the board, able to move in any direction at any time. Unfortunately, there are no gender appropriate candidates in this testosterone heavy showdown. Ivanka Trump comes closest, but does not have nearly the heft necessary for a true queen, even putting aside how awkward it would be for her to be married to her father. Once the gender barrier falls, the obvious choice for black queen is Vladimir Putin. His bromance with Trump makes for a comfortable match and he appears to have the power to pull Trump’s strings and shape administration policy. He has been fearless in attacking our democratic foundation.
The white queen could only be Mueller. He drives the action. He has the power to marshal law enforcement resources to haul people and their documents before investigators and grand jurors, to invade their homes before dawn, and ultimately to prosecute underlings and give congress the evidence it needs to remove Trump from the presidency.
The bishops sit closest to the King and Queen, but must balance their duty to the king with their need to serve their churches. Steve Bannon is an obvious black bishop. He has a fervent devotion to the cause of alt. right nationalism, which he must temper and channel in service of the king. Jared Kushner is, perhaps, a less obvious choice, but he serves out of the commitment that he and Ivanka share to their image and the wanna-be-billionaire class.
The white bishops are the chair and ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Their institutional commitment is to the Senate, but they cooperate with and serve Mueller’s ultimate goal of learning the truth about Trump and his campaign’ s contacts with Russia. The surprise is that Chairman Burr, the conservative Trump-supporting Republican from North Carolina, has allowed the committee’s investigation to proceed with surprising vigor, while making clear that the committee’s investigation focuses on Russian efforts to influence the election and will not stray into allegations of obstruction of justice. According to Burr, the committee has interviewed over 100 witnesses and hopes to conclude its investigation by the end of the year. The committee Vice Chair, Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia, has been a steady presence, who appears to have a cooperative relationship with Burr. Presumably, he has been effective in keeping Burr moving and on track. The committee has been open about its cooperation with Mueller, consulting him before public testimony and witness interviews.
The committee’s investigation has been important, but Trump’s fate lies more directly in the hands of Mueller. Mueller has more powerful investigative tools, including grand juries, search warrants, and the ability to flip lower level players to produce testimony against Trump. And while Trump’s fate likely will rest with Congress and the possibility of impeachment (Mueller almost certainly will not defy Justice Department policy to indict a sitting president), the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation will steer clear of the most obviously impeachable offense – obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, however, Burr and Warner serve as valuable bishops.
Knights ride around on horses waving their swords in defense of their king and they are often sacrificed early in the game. Having bid adieu to Sir Sean Spicer, Trump’s principal remaining knights are Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Stephen Miller. Sanders has demonstrated her willingness to ride into any battle on Trump’s behalf armed only with lies, deflections, and endless unfulfilled promises to get back to reporters on specific issues. Miller, on the other hand, appears to have ascended from the darkest corner of Steve Bannon’s basement full of scary things. He, too, lies and deflects, but he never backs down, whether he is asserting that Trump’s travel ban will not be questioned by courts or that cutting legal immigration by half would be beneficial and consistent with our history. Sanders and Miller are true cavaliers, unquestioningly serving Trump.
The white knights are an unlikely couple – Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Minority Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.). Neither has a law degree, but Grassley oversees the Senate’s investigation into potential criminal conduct by the administration, including obstruction of justice. And Feinstein heads an engaged group of Democrats on the committee. Grassley and Feinstein earn their status as knights primarily because of their efforts to protect Mueller and his investigation from Trump’s obstruction. They have made clear that the Senate will respond if Trump fires Mueller. If legislation moves to impede Trump’s firing of Mueller, it will come from this committee.
The rooks are built like castles. They anchor the wings of the king’s domain and are powerful movers. Trump’s White House generals, Chief of Staff Kelly and National Security Advisor McMaster, perform this function. They are regarded as the most stable players in Trump’s fragile White House. Without them, the king will not last.
The white rooks are the federal grand juries and federal courts that fuel much of Mueller’s offense. They provide the means for Mueller to gather documents and testimony bearing on Trump’s connections to Russia, as well as Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation.
Pawns are the foot soldiers who are liberally sacrificed in protecting the king. Some of the black pawns are easy to identify as individuals who already have been sacrificed by the Trump inner circle and now face the greatest pressure from Mueller to cooperate in the investigation. Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn face obvious legal jeopardy. Reince Priebus, who was jettisoned more recently, is now at the top of Mueller’s interview list. The hapless Chris Christie will, no doubt, also spend time with Mueller’s team.
Several Trump family members also make the list of pawns. Donald Trump, Jr. has already confessed by email his eagerness to cooperate with the Russian government during the campaign. Trump’s reaction to his son’s growing legal jeopardy will be a defining theme of the investigation. Eric Trump also rates inclusion as a pawn simply because he has been an insider since the beginning. Melania seems unlikely to figure prominently in the investigation. Indeed, it is often difficult to tell if Trump even knows who she is in public, but because of her proximity to the king she merits mention as a pawn.
Finally, Mike Pence appears as a pawn. He has been remarkably successful in distancing himself from the Russia investigation, but he will be an insider in Trump’s fight to hold onto the presidency. Moreover, Pence stands to gain from the rule that a pawn who marches successfully to the opposite end of the board can become any player who previously has been removed from the board, other than the king. That limitation may have to bend in the face of impeachment.
The white pawns are composed of a lineup of prosecutors and one member of congress – Adam Schiff (D-Cal.). Schiff has been a steady and reasoned presence pushing the public perception of the investigation forward. Because he serves on the House Intelligence Committee, which was badly embarrassed and defanged early in the investigation by its chairman, Devin Nunes, it is not clear what role he will play in the end. One member of Mueller’s team – Michael Dreeben – merits special mention. He is a Deputy Solicitor General with extensive experience in criminal law, who will likely guide the team on big legal questions. Unlike the black pawns, the white pawns are primarily offensive and are unlikely to face the same kind of jeopardy. They have faced unwarranted attacks on their impartiality and as the investigation intensifies, Trump doubtless will lash out in desperation with more personal attacks.
The pieces are lining up. The pace of the game is accelerating rapidly.
Bill Yeomans is the Senior Justice Fellow at Alliance for Justice. He currently serves as Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and previously taught constitutional law, civil rights, and legislation at American University Washington College of Law. He also served for 26 years in the Department of Justice, where he litigated cases involving voting rights and discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and prosecuted police officers and racially motivated violent offenders before assuming a series of management positions, including acting Assistant Attorney General. For three years, Bill served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has also held positions at AFJ and the American Constitution Society. The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Alliance for Justice.