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Debunking Trump’s Biggest Russia Lie

It is very hard to read the list of questions Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to ask President Trump (questions which Trump’s lawyers memorialized, and which ultimately leaked to the New York Times) and see how the Russia investigation ends without several Trump associates indicted for crimes stemming from acts of collusion.

Though most of the questions seem designed to probe Trump’s state of mind as he tried to alter the course of the Russia investigation, a bit less than half seek Trump’s account of incidents that fit a pattern of quid pro quo between his inner circle and Russian agents. The most natural interpretation of a few of the questions is that his some of his most senior aides—including Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort—committed crimes in the course of this corrupt partnership with Russia, and will be indicted.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed the Russia scandal as a series of discrete revelations, rather than through the filter of public discourse about the scandal. Those revelations demonstrate quite conclusively that the Trump campaign cooperated with Russians trying to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, leaving open the question of how extensive the cooperation was—how much we don’t yet know—and of whether any aspect of it was illegal.

Yet in the face of this long-standing evidence that Trump officials “colluded” with Russia, and of this new, strong indication that Mueller has substantiated the collusion, the Trump administration has decided to simply lie about it. Trump himself has claimed falsely that none of Mueller’s proposed questions touch upon collusion. His spokesman Raj Shah said, “the overwhelming majority of those questions don’t focus on the underlying premise of this special counsel,” which is true in the same sense that it’s true Trump won an “overwhelming” victory in the election.

The purpose of the lie is twofold: first, to continue misleading the public—as Trump does every time he tweets or screams “No collusion!”—about the credibility of the investigation, and, second, to create a pretext for refusing to cooperate with Mueller, or even for shutting down his investigation. After all, if Mueller isn’t even investigating collusion, then he’s exhausted his remit and should return to private life.

This line of spin is dishonest enough that it might finally force reporters to grapple with the collusion question in a more thoroughgoing way. Collusion is a vague term, but the claim that none of Mueller’s questions broach the topic is mathematically false. But the fact that Trump thinks it might fly is a testament to how successfully he and his aides have gamed reporters into treating collusion as a more contested matter than the facts support. And this has left Mueller’s investigation exposed to subterfuge.

The durability of Trump’s line on the collusion question serves in a way as a test case for those of us who criticized the White House correspondents who rode to press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ rescue this past weekend, when the comedian Michelle Wolf skewered her for being such a promiscuous liar.

On a near-weekly basis, Sanders, like Trump, insists both that there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, and that “no evidence” has emerged to suggest otherwise. The first contention is at best highly contestable. It is possible to define collusion narrowly and then stipulate that the evidence that has emerged so far, while suggestive, doesn’t prove the collusion case. The second contention is disinformation. It is well established that from the earliest days of the Trump campaign through the closing days of the election, Trump’s closest advisers were aware the Russian government was intervening to help Trump win, abetted those efforts, sought to cooperate with them directly, and lied about it. This may not prove that Trump himself colluded in some conveneintly defined way, but it is certainly evidence—even proof—of a scandalous and possibly criminal level of collusion. Neither Sanders nor Trump has ever tried to offer an alternative narrative to make sense of these revelations in a benign way. They have resorted only to gaslighting.

Nevertheless, the fact Sanders’ and Trump’s claims have gone uncontested has allowed an easily falsifiable premise to seep into the coverage of and debate over Trump’s exposure in the Russia investigation.

Reporters are understandably reluctant to assert that Trump and Sanders are lying when they say “no collusion,” because at this point a quid pro quo relationship can only be inferred from the evidence. I would call what we know collusion, others might draw the line a little farther down the spectrum. But the two of them are able to endlessly repeat the “no evidence” refrain because the press has been deferential to them about it—because it’s uncomfortable to say the claim is false.

That deference leaves an opening for Trump to discredit and undermine Mueller’s investigation on a false basis. There is evidence of collusion and Mueller wants to ask Trump about it. When Sanders claims the opposite is true, as she undoubtedly will, it’ll test whether the press corps has been successfully bullied by bad-faith critics out of pursuing its mission to hold the administration accountable for its lies.