It must be hella tough being Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping right now. You’re three and a half years into the grossest pig out at the All You Can Eat Buffet of Donald Trump’s presidency and the clock is ticking on whether you re-up for another four years of gorging yourself on the orange golem’s attack on the western alliance, and the onrushing collapse of western civilisation. Or do you do a literal gut check, groaning with painful delight as you lightly drum your greasy fingertips on massively distended bellies and contemplate whether it might not be such a great idea to indulge yourself any further.
Is this feast of winning over when you’re full? When you hate yourself for not stopping? Or when you tried to push more one wafer thin mint of Trumpelicious betrayal and treachery past your moist and slackened lips only to have everything explode in the style of Monsieur Creosote.
If the Hobbesian cage fight of international politics is a zero sum game, in which every player’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants, there must come a point where America’s strategic rivals have to factor in a zero fucks outcome, where Cheeto Benito’s final act of self harm is so explosively destructive that when it detonates it takes out the entire planet with him.
The pay-off matrix is different for Xi and Putin, of course. Putin is the mob boss of a failed state that turned into a nuclear-armed motorcycle gang. Xi is more of an existential challenge disguised as Winnie the Pooh with a blue water navy, and a geostrategic mission statement that translates roughly as “All your honey pots are belong to us now.”
But both Xi and Putin have an exciting choice to make in the next few months. Do they turn the intelligence machinery of their respective states towards backing the re-election of Donald Trump, and further weakening the US. Or do they take their gains and cash out now, calculating that they if they back him and he wins (unlikely at this stage, but always terrifyingly possible) he exports his pathological talent for disruption into a free-for-all fuckpocalypse of planetary mass destruction.
Putin arguably has the tougher choice. Xi has another decade or so before China’s rapidly ageing and shrinking population kicks the legs out from under its economy, but Russia’s economy is already legless. It is less a super-power than the violent drunken simpleton camping out in the ruins of the haunted mansion where a genuine superpower used to throw some really bitching pool parties.
What Putin does have is strategic willpower.
(And possibly a videotape of two hookers pissing on a bed for Tangerine Hitler in the presidential suite of the Moscow Hilton when he was just a tax dodging rapist with his own reality television show).
That will-to-power was revealed in the bounties paid by Russian military intelligence to Afghan warlords for dead Americans.
The pay off was an American president who not only refused to push back, but who denied there was anything to retaliate against – at least until furious leakers in the intelligence world started pissing inconvenient facts and corroborating details into the public realm; a performative water dance which Trump found to be much less fun than the Moscow Hilton. In response all he had was the Bart Simpson defence.
But, turns out they could. The next line of defence, that the bounty-hunter story couldn’t have been included in the President's Daily Brief because it wasn’t verified, was shot to pieces by David Priess, a former analyst for the CIA who delivered the daily brief to George Bush Jr’s Oval Office before going on to write the definitive history of Presidential Daily Briefings. His take on that excuse was, er, brief.
“That is absolute garbage.”
But of course he did elaborate.
“The criterion for getting things into the President's Daily Brief is: Does the President need to see this… If it's absolutely known and it's absolutely verified – which is a word we never use in intelligence circles – then it's probably not in the PDB. Because then it's not an issue of intelligence. It's an issue of fact. Intelligence deals with uncertainty. Intelligence deals with the unknown, and the small windows we get into it. And the assessments try to figure out what's going on with the proper caveats on confidence and things like that.”
Priess added his own caveat on The Bulwark podcast that he didn’t know how the intelligence community currently structures Trump’s daily brief, but he would not be surprised if they made it as simple as possible with lots of bullet points and big pictures and absolutely no analytic confusion or nuance because Trump doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to deal with a toddler’s sippy cup.
His daily briefing’s are probably composed mostly of GIFs and memes in which a shirtless Hulk analogue of President Bonespurs rides an American cyborg eagle into battle against an evil axis of ISIS finger puppets and coronavirus memojis.
But even so, it wouldn’t have been hard to include some relevant Putin content warning of the dangers inherent in treating with the former KGB spymaster.
It’s all a bit late though, isn’t it?
The only Presidential Daily Brief that counts now is the one on Vladimir Putin’s desk explaining the downside risks of letting their rogue agent of influence run wild in the field for another four years.
And that would be a PDB worth reading.