How Collusion Confusion Helps Trump
More than any American President, Donald Trump strains credulity. Of the ten-thousand-plus false or misleading statements he has made during his Presidency that fact-checkers have documented so far, one of the baldest claims came on March 24th. That was when the Attorney General, William Barr, stepped into the vacuum left by the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and announced that he had cleared Trump of any obstruction-of-justice charges.
Trump then crowed on Twitter, writing, “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. . . .” That statement was false on all three counts. Mueller’s report explicitly did not exonerate Trump, and it cited at least ten possible instances of Trump’s obstruction of justice, while noting that Justice Department policy prevented the filing of criminal charges against a sitting President. Mueller made no judgment on collusion, meanwhile, because that isn’t a crime.
In the political and popular vernacular, collusion has been incorrectly conflated with its legal equivalent: criminal conspiracy. Mueller said that he found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government—a finding that Trump keeps insisting means there was “no collusion.”
But the special counsel noted in his report that there were “numerous links (i.e., contacts) between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign.” The report also found that affiliates of the Trump campaign repeatedly promoted the work of Russia’s innocuously named Internet Research Agency (I.R.A.), which carried out Moscow’s election-interference operations through a social-media campaign and used various means to communicate directly with the campaign.
The report notes that “on multiple occasions, members and surrogates of the Trump Campaign promoted—typically by linking, retweeting, or similar methods of reposting—pro-Trump or anti-Clinton content published by the IRA through IRA-controlled social media accounts.” Both sides then lied about the meetings and other contacts, which were designed to help Trump win the election.
Collusion is defined by Merriam-Webster’s as a “secret agreement or cooperation, especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose,” such as “acting in collusion with the enemy.” Under that definition, the contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, an avowed enemy of the United States, at least amounted to coöperation with a deceitful purpose.
The political significance of collusion depends not on whether the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia reached the level of a criminal conspiracy but, instead, on whether it can be proved that the campaign worked hand-in-glove with the Russians to help Trump get elected—or, to choose two less ambiguous words than collusion, whether it collaborated or consorted with the Russians.
Most Americans would doubtless consider it unacceptable for a Presidential candidate to collaborate with a foreign enemy to win an election. But Trump, by endlessly repeating his “no collusion” mantra, has been strikingly successful in inoculating himself—especially with his fervent base—against the politically explosive charge that he was in cahoots with the Russians.
“I’m not a political analyst and I don’t know what it would take to shake confidence with the base, but I have been surprised at how resilient Trump has been on this,” Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, who has written extensively about the Russia investigation, said. “Part of the problem may be the information they get. But it also may be that they don’t give a shit. I mean, people know Trump is crude and uncouth . . . but they voted for him anyway. So maybe the problem is not that they don’t understand. Maybe it’s that they don’t care.”
Indeed, so far, the Mueller report hasn’t dramatically shifted public opinion about Trump. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken after the release of the report found that fully eight in ten Americans had followed coverage of the report, but virtually none changed their minds about the President after its release. But, surprisingly, Democrats and many members of the media also seem to have accepted the conflation of conspiracy with collusion, and have failed to make much of an issue of the latter.
The New York Times documented at least a hundred and forty contacts by Trump and eighteen of his associates with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries, during the 2016 campaign. But that story, which appeared in April, after the release of Mueller’s report, failed to get traction, as did the four-hundred-and-forty-eight-page report itself, which only a tiny fraction of the country seems to have read, thereby helping the White House, and Barr, to frame it as a vindication of Trump.
But the report—from its sweeping confirmation of the depth of Russian interference in the election (a conclusion that Trump still refuses to fully accept), to its ten examples of possible obstruction of justice, to its documentation of the extensive contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign—actually amounts to a searing indictment of the President.
The examples of collusion it cites are extensive. While still running for President, Trump secretly tried to set up a lucrative business deal to build a skyscraper in Moscow and then lied about it, thereby exposing himself to Russian blackmail. He publicly called on the Kremlin to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails—and Russian trolls connected to the government responded immediately with an attempt.
Other examples involved Trump’s associates. His former personal lawyer Michael Cohen met repeatedly with Russians about the Trump Moscow skyscraper project. Cohen later admitted that he lied to Congress about how late in the campaign those discussions were taking place. George Papadopoulos, a campaign adviser, had several contacts with Russian agents who wanted to arrange meetings between Trump and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and he reported back to the campaign about those discussions.
An unidentified Trump campaign associate exchanged private messages with Guccifer 2.0, the pseudonym used by Russian military-intelligence officials who hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and gave them to WikiLeaks, which later released them. That associate is reportedly Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime confidante, who is now awaiting trial on seven counts of lying to Congress about Russia’s attempt to influence the election and other charges. In his indictment of Stone, Mueller disclosed evidence showing that an unnamed top Trump campaign official asked Stone to get information from WikiLeaks about the hacked D.N.C. e-mails.
Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, supplied internal polling data to a business associate with ties to Russian intelligence and told the associate that he stood ready to provide briefings on the campaign to a Russian oligarch. And, of course, there was the famed Trump Tower meeting, in June of 2016, between Trump’s son Donald, Jr.; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Manafort; and a Russian agent who promised dirt on Clinton. In October, 2016, WikiLeaks contacted Don, Jr., and asked him to have his father send out links to their Clinton content on Twitter. The elder Trump did so.
In November, following the election, Kushner met with the Russian Ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak, and discussed setting up a secret back channel between the Kremlin and Trump’s transition team. The Times reported that Kushner also met with a Russian banker who had close ties to Putin in an attempt to establish a direct line of communication to the Russian President. During the transition, Trump’s choice to be his national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had several conversations with Kislyak about eliminating the sanctions against Russia that had been imposed by the Obama Administration and about blocking an impending United Nations vote critical of Israeli settlements.
There were numerous other contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign which, in addition to meetings, took the form of e-mails, text messages, phone calls, and private messages on social media. Now, in the wake of the report’s release, there are indications that the collusion issue is being seen in a different light.
Joshua Geltzer, a visiting professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and the executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, has written that the Mueller report, by detailing the significant intermingling of Russia’s election-interference actions with the Trump campaign’s activities, materially advances the public understanding of the Russia affair.
“Among the Mueller Report’s significant contributions to our understanding of the 2016 Russian disinformation campaign is its thorough documentation of how intertwined that campaign became with the online messaging of the Trump team itself,” Geltzer wrote recently in Just Security, an online forum hosted by New York University’s Reiss Center on Law and Security. “This is a finding of importance regardless of the level of direct coordination between the Trump team and Russian actors.”
Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told me that the report lays out a “wealth of evidence” of collusion—Trump’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding. “By any reasonable interpretation, for example, accepting an offer of help from Russia for dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of what was described as the Russian government’s effort to help Trump, setting up a secret meeting to obtain it, and lying about it, would constitute collusion,” Schiff wrote in an e-mail. “Mueller sets out a wealth of evidence of collusion even if it was not sufficient to prove every element of the crime of conspiracy. Even on the crime itself, Mueller makes clear that the failure to establish a crime like conspiracy does not mean the absence of evidence. The standard which he had to meet under Justice Department policy was whether he could ultimately prove to a jury each element of the crime of conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Schiff said that Trump’s behavior was unacceptable. “By conflating Mueller’s actual finding—that he could not establish each element of criminal conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt—with the false claim that this means there was no evidence of the broader corrupt conduct we know as collusion, the President has attempted to deflect attention from the wealth of deeply unethical, immoral, and unpatriotic behavior that he and his campaign were engaged in.”
Wittes, of Lawfare, argues that the confusion about collusion comes, in part, from the various interpretations of the term’s meaning. “One of the things about a word like collusion is you can define it any way you want, so that’s the fundamental divide,” he said. “One group of people looks at the fact pattern and sees Mueller found no prosecutable crime, and therefore there’s no critical judgment to draw. The other group, which includes me, looks at the same set of facts and sees something very untoward and unpatriotic.”
By documenting the extensive contact between Trump’s campaign and the Russians, the Mueller report at the very least establishes that the campaign “cheerfully and knowingly benefited from the efforts of a hostile intelligence service,” Wittes said. “They knew when they were lying about Trump Tower Moscow that they were trying to solicit favors from the Russian government. To me the relevant thing is to just describe what they did. People can call it a pink elephant if they want.”
Wittes also argues that the relationship between the collusion and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation should be revisited. “Specifically, I now believe they are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood,” he wrote at Lawfare, before the partially redacted version of the Mueller report was released—words that he said he stands by today. “Obstruction was not a problem distinct from collusion, as has been generally imagined. Rather . . . obstruction was the collusion, or at least part of it . . . specifically, the risk of a person on the U.S. side coordinating with or supporting Russian activity by shutting down the investigation.”
In the end, it’s impossible to quantify how much Moscow’s extensive election interference helped Trump win in 2016. But in a race that was decided by a total of just 77,744 votes in the three critical swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the Russian effort certainly had to have had some impact—perhaps at least enough to sway seventy-seven-thousand-odd votes.
That is the verdict of history that Trump plainly fears most when he makes his constant cries of “no collusion.” But with the record now replete with evidence of scores of contacts between his campaign and Russia, it appears more and more likely that history will conclude the President did collude, collaborate, or consort with the enemy, and that his election was, in fact, tainted.