Black smoke was detected at a key Russian conclave this morning, signaling that the decision process about the next U.S. President is still under way.

Experts had long considered Vice President Mike Pence as favored to be the next selection by the Russians. In Pence’s favor was the fact that according to U.S. law, he would be slated to ascend to the presidency once the current occupant had outlived his usefulness. Such a succession process would allow observers to cling to a tattered remnant of belief that U.S processes and laws were still in effect.

“Pence is really about the fig leaf,” a leading Kremlin watcher commented. “You know, the civics lecture, the pundits all agreeing that it’s accordance with the law and all that.”

But Pence has powerful negatives. Despite decades of attempts, Russian operatives have still failed to get the classic stripper picture of him. “Forget golden showers,” one agent grumbled, “This Pence guy is only turned on when he’s thinking about who’ll be punished during the Rapture.”

One camp of leading advisers to Putin is still advocating for Pence. “We’ve filled his entire administration with people who have had years of corrupt dealings with us, and we have all the receipts.  Pence will see things our way.”

But it is now believed that Putin himself has become skeptical about Pence. “Vlad’s just loving the feeling of having the U.S. President by the short and curlies,” another observer offered. “For Vlad, it doesn’t get any hotter than that. Once you’ve had that experience, it’s tough to give up.  I think he’s going to try to keep the current guy on for as long as possible.”

Possible avenues for retaining the servitude of the current occupant include staging red-herring confrontations, such as play-acting embassy closings or even escalating several steps beyond that. This may have the effect of rallying citizens behind him, and the show of apparent animosity could help dispel the notion that the current U.S. President is totally owned by the Russian Mob and the Russian President.

We just won’t know until the smoke turns white.