As the venerable aphorism so pithily puts it, the difference between Hell and Washington DC in the summer is that Hell has dry heat. With the thermometer flirting with one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and the air so sodden with water vapor that stepping outside of an air conditioned building feels like crawling into a Siksika sweat lodge erected in the middle of a Turkish steam bath, it’s sufficiently discouraging to keep even the most workaholic political hacks, ramrod-backed Pentagon chicken colonels and policy-obsessed think tank wonks from booking consultations with me on a weekend. So, thanks to that, I had the day off on the twenty-second of July and dare say I had enough common sense to stay inside my frostily air conditioned Great Falls, Virginia home with my girlfriend and my cat. The three of us were having a fine and cozy time watching foreign cinema on my 75 inch 8K UHDTV, when the phones started ringing. That’s phones, plural – first my personal land line, then my personal cell phone, then my home office land line, then my work cell phone, then my satellite phone, then my personal land line again, then my personal cell phone, then my office land line and so on. After a while, being sufficiently impressed with the caller’s determination to reach me, I reluctantly decided to answer instead of letting the calls roll over to voice mail, by which time I estimated I must have had about sixteen messages from this person, whoever they were. Therefore, while the phones continued ringing in sequence, I picked up my personal cell phone, which was closest to hand, and listened to one of the messages, which said, “Rinat Akhmetshin, calling for Tom Collins. I hear first time, you give free consultation. Need one immediately. Cannot believe you cannot be reached at any of these telephone numbers, please pick up.” So, heaving a sigh of resignation, I did.
Tom: Hello, this is Tom Collins.
Rinat: Is Rinat Akhmetshin speaking here.
Rinat: Akhmetshin! Rinat Akhmetshin!
Tom: What’s that?
Rinat: Akhmetshin! Akhmetshin!
Rinat: Damn it, am not sneezing! Is my name – Akhmetshin.
Tom: I know – I just couldn’t resist. May I ask why you are so frantically calling me?
Rinat: Is urgent matter, that is why.
Tom: And how did you manage to get all five of my phone numbers?
Rinat: Eight – also have all three telephone numbers at your office in downtown DC. Also have personal cell number of receptionist, Gretchen – she has no land line.
Tom: No, she’s too young to appreciate a land line. She’s always just had a cell phone.
Rinat: Also I have both telephone numbers belonging to your girlfriend Cerise. She has land line. Also I have telephone numbers of your brother Rob Roy, sister-in-law Katje, their son Jason, your sister Rose and her brother-in-law Arthur, and numbers of parent’s phones in New York City, where your father is retired bartender who worked at Stuyvesant New Amsterdam Hotel on Fifth Avenue.
Tom: Yeah; one of the ten classic grand hotels of the Big Apple. It’s closed now, unfortunately.
Rinat: Before that he was engineer at General Dynamics. Also know your last name is Martini and Collins only middle name, because father changed name from Martin to Martini. Moved to penthouse on Mulberry Street in Little Italy neighborhood on Manhattan island. Became bartender, invented many martini cocktails. Named his three children after favorite ones.
Tom: Where did you get all this?
Rinat: Little bird told me.
Tom: What species of little bird?
Rinat: Russian bird.
Tom: I see. Would it be the creeping Moscow sapsucker, by any chance?
Tom: Or is it the yellow-bellied Kremlin peckerwood?
Rinat: Can’t say. Am not big bird watcher, like you. Also know your brother-in-law Henry is hiding in West Virginia after running away with his sister-in-law Shannon, waiting for end of world. They have one cell phone. Also I have number of that. Also know your nephew, the one called Hank Junior, is making career out of attending art school at Brown University; has two cell phones – I have both numbers.
Tom: Whew! Mighty impressive, I must say. Anything else?
Rinat: I know your cat can talk.
Tom: Holy smokes, you certainly have done your homework, haven’t you? Congratulations. And now, you’d like some free advice, I take it?
Rinat: Correct. You know who I am?
Tom: I would say yes, but actually, does anyone know for certain who Rinat Akhmetshin really is? And for that matter, how do I know the person with whom I am currently speaking is, in fact, the real Rinat Akhmetshin and not merely a clever imposter with the ability to fake a convincing Russian accent?
Rinat: Can you say why would somebody call you and pretend to be Rinat Akhmetshin?
Tom: Really? I’ve got a question for you, then. Can you say why the real Rinat Akhmetshin would refer to himself in the third person?
Rinat: Okay, then, why would somebody call you and pretend to be me?
Tom: Oh, I don’t know – maybe they’re trying to collect some material for a blog or something.
Rinat: So what can I tell you to convince that I am real Rinat Akhmetshin?
Tom: To be completely honest about it, probably nothing. But just for grins and giggles, why don’t you tell me what your code name was when you worked for Soviet KGB counterintelligence?
Rinat: You are misinformed. Was counterintelligence agent with Red Army in Afghanistan only. Have never worked for Soviet KGB counterintelligence or anything else KGB.
Tom: Oh, yes you have – before the Soviet Union collapsed; before you emigrated to the United States and became an American citizen. Granted, I know that the real Rinat Akhmetshin would deny working for the KGB, of course he would. But you have to convince me, so fess up.
Rinat: Oh, all right – code name was Suka O’khuel Mu’dak.
Tom: Now I believe you! Of what assistance may I be, Gospodin Polkovnik Akhmetshin?
Rinat: Glavnyy Akhmetshin, Mr. Collins. Glavnyy only, please. As you probably know, my business is to represent client’s interests.
Tom: And so you do. Your clients include many major Russian oligarchs and other interests close to Putin.
Rinat: But nothing illegal.
Tom: Nothing I’ve heard of, anyway, and I do hear an awful lot of things. There is that lawsuit though — the one in which International Mineral Resources of Kazakhstan alleges that Andrey Melnichenko hired you to hack their software, email and databases as an act of corporate espionage.
Rinat: Lawsuit is without merit, as lawyers say.
Tom: So you deny that you are, as the complaint contends, someone who, quote, “developed a special expertise in running negative public relations campaigns” aimed at destroying Melnichenko’s good name and reputation?
Rinat: Such allegation, Mr. Collins, assumes Melnichenko had good name and reputation to destroy in first place. To say that in Russia would get many laughs, I assure you. Besides, I am far from computer expert, even further from being dangerous hacker. About all I know is email very stupid way to communicate secrets — you can hire child to download hacking tools, get untraceable IP address and steal emails, files, you name it, from somebody like Melnichenko, especially from unlicensed Microsoft email and database application like you find all over Russia. So why would I bother doing it? I say, never put anything in email you would not want to read on front page of Pravda next morning.
Tom: Truer words were never spoken, Major Akhmetshin. Only a complete idiot would rely on unencrypted email security to keep his secrets.
Rinat: And that is problem, Mr. Collins. Last summer, in June 2016, I attended meeting with a complete idiot.
Tom: You’re talking about Donald Trump Jr. I presume?
Rinat: I am not only one who thinks so — New York Post called him idiot, too.
Tom: So it did. And now the contents of his emails have all been revealed in newspapers, TV and the Internet, everywhere on the planet.
Rinat: And here is poor Rinat Akhmetshin trying to make honest buck inside Beltway, going to meeting — I think, anyway — to lobby against sanctions on Russia of Moldova Jackson–Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012…
Tom: The Magnitsky Act.
Rinat: Yes, that one. Very unpopular in Russia. Consequently, reason for ending of many adoptions of Russian children by loving American foster parents. Heartbreaking situation, no? So I went to meeting hoping to make deal with Trump government to fix, if he wins election. Makes sense, yes? So maybe some patriotic Russian teenager decides to do some hacking in US on his own without me or anybody else paying him, of course, and gets information Trump campaign can use for opposition research on Hillary Clinton, I don’t know, gives it to somebody who gives it to somebody else who gives it to somebody in United States. Not my business — maybe Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, she has such information, not me. But Donald Trump Jr. says in email “I love it,” and other such stupid things, and I come to meeting prepared to make case against Magnitsky Act and what happens? Other things get discussed – what can I do about that? Then, when meeting finally comes to subject I expect, as soon as Russian orphans are mentioned, Trump Jr. and Manafort and Kushner get up and leave! I am, like American GIs say, totally Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as they walk out of room, I can tell you! And now, a year later, [expletive] has hit fan and is flying everywhere. Is like Watergate all over again, but worse because President Trump himself is making stupid blabs every day with Twitter, getting in deeper and deeper while FBI investigates and people all around him make deals with federal prosecutors!
Tom: And you’re concerned that some of that flying feces is going to hit you?
Rinat: Yes, me, who never did anything but attend meeting to represent legitimate cause of poor unfortunate Russian orphans! But then, yesterday, I hear that president is asking his lawyers about pardons – can he pardon his son, can he pardon Kushner, he even asks, can he pardon himself? What crazy thing is this? Can American president pardon himself?
Tom: There’s nothing in the Constitution that prohibits it. Some might argue, however, that the president would have to be in office to issue a pardon to anyone, and that pardons are granted after convictions. So it’s difficult to figure how the president could be convicted of a crime and remain in office so he could pardon himself. I guess it might be possible – maybe he could bring a presidential pardon to court with him and be ready to take it out of his pocket if the jury finds him guilty. But I think the question President Trump is contemplating is whether he can issue blanket pardons to his son and son-in-law, and perhaps others, such as Manafort, and even himself – before the fact, thus rendering any potential prosecution moot. Of course, the Constitution does actually prohibit using pardons to avoid impeachment, but all an impeachment can accomplish is to throw the miscreant out of office; there’s no jail time or fines involved. So yeah, maybe President Trump could pardon people, including himself, before the fact and thereby allow their escape from indictment and / or prosecution for various felony crimes such as espionage, treason, perjury, violation of securities laws, wire fraud or obstruction of justice. The issue would almost certainly have to be decided by the Supreme Court, but given its present membership, it definitely requires no great stretch of the imagination to envision them ruling in the president’s favor.
Rinat: So President Trump could pardon me if he wanted to – and do it before I get arrested and have to spend [expletive] [expletive]-load of money on lawyers!
Tom: Probably, yes.
Rinat: Okay then! Life is good! Tell me how I can get president to pardon me in advance, like you said!
Tom: Well, in that case, you need to realize that President Trump is very much like Putin, or a Mafia don or the leader of a drug cartel or any typical third-world dictator – he values loyalty over everything else. Trump is also unusually insecure, even for someone like that. But as a former member of the Soviet bureaucracy, I suppose you’ve had plenty of experience in sycophancy?
Rinat: You mean flattery, fawning, and [expletive]-kissing and such things?
Tom: Yes. Go public – on talk radio, on television, in the papers, wherever you can, and tell the world how much you love Donald J. Trump. Declare how greatly you admire him, and how everybody else should, too. Make sure to proclaim his many virtues, aptitudes, talents and endowments. Extol his physical and mental prowess, erudition, intuition and surpassing wisdom. Make sure to use as many superlatives as possible – there can never be enough of them where Donald J. Trump is concerned. Declare your undying devotion to Donald J. Trump and his shining genius that stands as a beacon of inspiration, illuminating the path to truth, justice, peace, prosperity and the American Way. Tell them…
Rinat: Stop, please, you are making my breakfast come back up. You are serious? In order to get pardon, I must say these things?
Tom: Not only must you say them, sir, you must say them in a serious, sincere and credible manner so that Donald J. Trump himself will believe them when he sees them on television, hears them on radio or has one of his flunkies read them to him from a posting somewhere on the Internet. Then, when the president begins issuing preemptive pardons to the people who were at that meeting in June 2016, you must turn up the heat on your sycophancy to a degree that would embarrass Stalin, indeed, increase it to a point where Idi Amin would blush – and you could see him do so. Make people swear that it sounds to them that as far as Rinat Akhmetshin is concerned, Jesus Christ Almighty has got nothing on Donald J. Trump.
Rinat: I am going to need many anti-nausea pills for this one, Mr. Collins, but if it must be done, then, well — makes stomach turn upside down to interrogate prisoner’s man parts with car battery, but is necessary to get confession, so you do it. Is same idea, no?
Tom: Seems to me that praising Donald J. Trump is more like having a car battery connected to one’s own man parts, but, yes, I suppose there are certain parallels to other situations, such as you describe.
Rinat: Okay — anything else in your advice?
Tom: Well, yes, there’s more, unfortunately. In addition to announcing your deep and abiding love and admiration for Donald J. Trump, swearing your eternal loyalty to him, and praising him to high Heaven in every conceivable aspect, you will also need to make it absolutely clear that you trust him implicitly and are confident in the correctness of every decision he makes.
Rinat: One moment please… I… There. Almost lost breakfast once more, but am managing. Is that all?
Tom: No, one more thing — you will have to defend everything and anything Donald J. Trump says as the absolute truth. Hello? Major Akhmetshin, are you still there?
Rinat: Yes, I am still on telephone, but must go soon. Am in friend’s apartment while making this call and now need to clean floor immediately before he returns from shopping at supermarket with American wife.
Tom: Understood. Remember to eat light, easily digestible meals while working on your unconditional preemptive presidential pardon. No blinis and caviar until this is over with, okay?
Tom: And no greasy food, either.
Rinat: Got it, Mr. Collins. Borscht with no sour cream or shav.
Tom: That’s it, Rinat – when the going gets tough, the tough learn to keep their lunch down.
Rinat: Okay, yes, thank you, Mr. Collins. Maybe when oligarchs make me rich, I will call you again and pay outrageous hourly rates for advice.
Tom: You’re welcome, Major Akhmetshin. Udachi!
Rinat: Da, spasibo. Proshchay!