Two of the most common tropes in elite discourse today hold that none of the evidence unearthed so far “proves” the Trump campaign colluded with Russian intelligence to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, and that the very term “collusion” is too vague and void of legal meaning to merit so much public fascination.
“Flames are still not visible,” the USA Today editorial board cautioned on Monday. “But the smoke billowing out of allegations that Russians colluded with the Trump campaign is thicker and darker than ever.”
When Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic published Twitter direct message correspondence between Donald Trump, Jr. and Wikileaks dated to last year—which shows Wikileaks offering Don Jr. assistance and advice, and provides strong circumstantial evidence that Don Jr. accepted both—Politico explained that the messages had been turned over to “lawmakers [who] continue to probe allegations of collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.”
In a column, which ran in the New York Times earlier this month, NYU law professor Ryan Goodman attributed the difficulty we have in reckoning with whether we have “proof” of “collusion” stems from the imprecision of the word itself.
“Meeting the standard of ‘proof of collusion’ isn’t a matter of meeting a technical definition or threshold—it is a matter of persuading enough people that what we’re seeing is collusion,” he wrote. “It is, in other words, a political judgment and, as with all things political, is extraordinarily subjective and vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations. The fuzziness of the current discourse may not matter much to the F.B.I., whose investigation will surely adhere to the letter of the law—but it might matter a great deal for how its findings play in the court of public opinion.”
Both of these tropes are misguided. As we await legal determinations about which Trump campaign officials and allies committed what crimes, we need simple and consistent language for discussing the political offense of conspiring or conniving or cooperating with a hostile foreign intelligence service to subvert an election, irrespective of its criminality. One of those other “C” words may seem less politically charged than “collusion,” but “collusion” is basically fine, and, more importantly, we are well-past the point at which it’s safe to say the Trump campaign did indeed collude with the Russians. We just don’t yet know the full extent of it.
The reluctance to state plainly that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government now verges on misinformation. Most news outlets will go no further than stating that the Trump campaign exhibited willingness to collude with Russia, but that smoking gun evidence of collusion remains elusive. To illustrate just how skewed an interpretation this is, it’s helpful to look back at episodes in recent history when stolen materials became matters of controversy in campaign politics.
In 1980, someone (later revealed to be an embittered operative of Ted Kennedy’s presidential primary campaign) stole debate prep papers from Jimmy Carter and sent them to the Reagan campaign, which used the purloined goods to its advantage. There’s a reason Ronald Reagan’s timelessly dismissive “there you go again” routine was so well-staged—he knew what Carter was going to say.
When the theft, and the Reagan campaign’s decision to exploit the theft, came to light years later, it became a scandal big enough to merit the -gate suffix. Congress and the Justice Department launched investigations. It cast a pall over Reagan’s presidency, even though it seemed wildly unlikely that this ethical breach had been the difference-maker in an election Reagan won handily.
Twenty years later, something similar happened, when the Gore campaign received debate-prep materials, including videotape, which had been stolen from George W. Bush. Memories were longer then, though, so instead of cheating, the person who received the package had his lawyer send it to the FBI.
These two episodes are occasionally held up against one another, because of the contrast between how Reagan and Gore conducted themselves after they received the stolen goods. The stories would have played out, and been covered, much differently had the respective thieves approached the Reagan and Gore campaigns in advance, and asked whether stolen materials would be useful. Debategate would be a much larger story about Reagan conniving with thieves to sabotage Carter.
But this is precisely what the Trump campaign did on multiple occasions, except instead of conniving with inside-job burglars, they connived with Russian spies. The spies asked ‘would information stolen from your opponents be helpful to you?’ and the Trump campaign said yes. Or to quote Don, Jr., “I love it!” Russian spies offered George Papadopoulos dirt on Clinton, including “thousands of emails,” days after he joined the campaign. The next day Papadopoulos conveyed to Stephen Miller that he’d received an “interesting message” from Russia. Shortly following these communications, stolen Democratic Party emails began appearing online, including on Wikileaks, which ultimately appealed back to the Trump campaign for help distributing the stolen content.
When Don, Jr. scurried into the safe space between Sean Hannity’s arms and ample bosom, he explained that he eagerly met with Russians offering him dirt on Clinton, rather than contact the FBI, because the solicitation occurred before “Russia fever,” and thus didn’t set off alarm bells. That was June 2016—three months after Papadopoulos first enticed the campaign to team up with Russia. The reason the idea of taking a meeting with Russians to collect stolen dirt on Hillary didn’t set off alarm bells was that throughout the Trump campaign it was taken for granted that Russia was a team player. The campaign discussed Russian operatives in almost the same casual, perfunctory way a normal campaign would discuss domestic ones.
Lawyers and Sherlock Holmes fans will recognize this nonchalance as another case of a dog that didn’t bark. Even absent the Don Jr. and Papadopoulos disclosures, it would be dispositive evidence that the Trump world’s ever-shrinking collusion denials are false.
The collusion could be more extensive and run deeper than we know. It could expose Trump, his family, and his aides to further legal consequences for crimes enumerated in the criminal code. But as an act of political malfeasance, “collusion” is well documented at this point. So far as we know, the stolen information was weaponized only by publishing it online (rather than by husbanding it strategically the way Reagan did) but that doesn’t negate the fact that it was stolen to sabotage Clinton, and at Trump’s behest. It’s easy to imagine other, more involved forms of collusion, but that doesn’t make what we know less definitive.
If there’s a problem with adopting “collusion” as a standard for political corruption, it’s that it sets the bar too high—Trump’s weaponization of stolen emails would be scandalous even if his campaign and Russia were completely firewalled from one another. But Trump cleared the bar. The fact that “collusion” is a layman’s standard is neither here nor there, so long as we maintain the courage of our conviction to hold him to that standard.