ZugzwangFormer FBI Director James Comey essentially employed a chess move called a zugzwang in his effort to force Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian intelligence officials to tilt the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor. In chess, zugzwang refers to a situation where a player is forced to make a move that will in all likelihood create a disadvantage for him or her in the future.

Comey set up the situation masterfully with a number of preparatory moves while anticipating the moves of his opponent:

  1. He wrote detailed contemporaneous memos documenting his conversations and interactions with Trump.
  2. Comey deliberately chose not to classify the memos so that, if necessary, they could be shared outside the F.B.I.
  3. After he was fired, Comey shared the memos with a friend and law professor Daniel Richman with the intent that they be shared with the media.
  4. President Trump responded loudly and angrily on social media and to the press about Comey’s assertions and, in several cases, called the data points in the memos out as lies.
  5. The memos, and Trump’s response to them, created significant pressure on Rosenstein and led, as Comey hoped, to Rosenstein appointing a special counsel to investigate not only Russian interference in the election but also possible obstruction of justice charges against the president.

Rosenstein clearly felt compelled to make the decision to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel even as he knew it would create serious headaches for his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Subsequent media reports indicate that Attorney General Sessions, after Trump repeatedly expressed his anger over his decision to reuse himself, offered to resign.

While Donald Trump is clearly angry about the investigation – angry enough to consider firing the special counsel – Comey has taken a page out of the Trump playbook by applying pressure on his opponent to achieve his goals. In fact, he seems to have outplayed the president by counting on him to hit back hard which led to the appointment of the special counsel.