If White House officials had gotten their way, their early lies about the Trump campaign’s relationship with the Russians who subverted the 2016 election would have worked, and most people would have no idea how extensive the contacts between the two were.
After Donald Trump won the presidency, and the scope of the Russian influence operation started becoming clear, he insisted that neither he, nor anyone else associated with his business or campaign, had been in contact with Russians about the election.
The scale of this lie appears enormous in hindsight, and may in fact be larger than it seems today. As we’ve learned more about the number of Trump officials who sought the assistance of Russian intelligence operatives during the election, Trump’s line has shifted from “no contacts” to “no collusion” and “no obstruction.” But his usage of the words “collusion” and “obstruction” turns out to be as disconnected from their literal meaning as his earlier usage of the word “contacts.”
Trump’s shifting goalposts track our understanding of the Russia scandal itself, which has matured from informed suspicions and dot-connecting into an established pattern of Trump associates misleading the public and federal officials about a collaboration between the campaign and the Russian government—a collaboration that may or may not have entailed criminal activity on the American side. The big test that awaits us—and awaits Republicans in particular—may be one in which the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, uncovers a conspiracy to obstruct an investigation of a major breach of national trust that for technical reasons happens not to have been illegal in and of itself.
When Maggie Haberman of the New York Times asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday to flesh out the president’s definition of collusion, Sanders reset the benchmark for collusion so far beyond the horizon that it now encompasses a mind-blowing amount of scandalous behavior.
“I think the accusation against the President is that he had help winning the election, and that’s simply untrue,” she said. “The President won because he was the better candidate.” Russia may have illegallyhacked his political opponents and leaked the contents of their emails at strategically pivotal moments, but “that doesn’t mean that he participated in it,” Sanders added, and when he says there’s no collusion, “he’s stating for himself and to anything that he would be a part of, or know about, or have sanctioned.”
Trump, in an impromptu Q&A with reporters at the White House this week, characterized the obstructive episodes that news media and congressional investigators have uncovered as “fighting back,” suggesting his “no obstruction” claim could encompass the kind of criminal behavior that is about to land his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, his former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, and possibly others, in federal prison. We learned Thursday evening that it also encompasses an aborted presidential order, in June of last year, to fire Robert Mueller.
It’s not collusion, in other words, so long as it didn’t swing the election, and Trump himself has any level of plausible deniability with respect to the conduct of his subordinates. Likewise, it’s not obstruction if Trump was just trying to protect himself.
Even on these expansive terms, Trump’s self-exonerating criteria fail. Russian hackers might not have manipulated the vote in any direct way, but the narrowness of Trump’s victory suggests very strongly that the theft and leaking of Democratic emails, and a parallel pro-Trump propaganda campaign were in fact determinative of the outcome. If these kinds of sabotage tactics didn’t affect people’s voting decisions, nobody would care about them. Since they do affect people’s voting decisions, they could easily have swayed one of the closest presidential elections in American history.
But even if we stipulate that Sanders only meant to argue that it’s not collusion if no one tampered with the vote, the scope of potential wrongdoing by Trump campaign officials remains vast.
As promiscuously as members of the Trump team have lied about their conduct, and about what they knew when, it’s almost inconceivable that Mueller won’t catch more people misleading his team, or perjuring themselves—if only because they’ll have a hard time keeping up with what lies they told whom straight in their own minds. It also strains credulity to assume that the full extent of the relationship between the campaign and Russia has already been detailed in the press. For these reasons, perhaps, Trump’s conservative media allies, and his informal adviser Roger Stone, have urged him to avoid speaking to Mueller, because they are convinced he would perjure himself.
But it’s very likely that Trump will meet with Mueller, and conservatives have thus primed the right-wing base to treat any procedural charges (like obstruction or perjury) that don’t accompany charges related to an underlying criminal conspiracy as somehow invalid.
“We’re charging the president with a criminal coverup. No, we don’t have enough evidence to say a crime was committed.”
The country is going to go bananas.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) January 24, 2018
Yes, the potential underlying crime in the Russia affair is more serious, but if you don’t have proof of that crime the politics of an obstruction-based impeachment are never going to work.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) January 24, 2018
These assessments—of the right-wing firestorm that may await us, and of the Republican Congress’ indifference to Trump’s criminality—are probably correct, but they elide the fact that conservatives are making a conscious choice to frame the affair this way. This is decidedly not how Steve Bannon characterized it to Michael Wolff, when he described the Trump campaign’s early willingness to work with Russian intelligence to sabotage Hillary Clinton as “treasonous.”
The word “treason” has a specific criminal meaning that makes it inapplicable to the matters Mueller is investigating, but the word “treasonous” has a meaning-in-spirit that perfectly captures the profound national betrayal Trump and his deputies perpetrated during the 2016 election.
It’s conceivable that the Trump campaign violated no criminal laws in the course of that betrayal, if only because the thought of a presidential candidate collaborating with a foreign intelligence service to win an election was inconceivable to Congress before Trump came along. But even if Trump’s lies and obstruction have served to cover up political and moral crimes rather than legal ones, the question of whether we use that distinction to weight the importance of potential obstruction charges is fully a matter of discretion. Many conservatives have prepared themselves to argue that Trump’s coverup is irrelevant because the crime was merely treasonous.