Republicans' defense of Trump looks increasingly suspicious as they deny obvious evidence of collusion
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) has earned himself a fan in President Donald Trump with his comments about the ongoing Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which he chairs.
"Senator Richard Burr, The Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, just announced that after almost two years, more than two hundred interviews, and thousands of documents, they have found NO COLLUSION BETWEEN TRUMP AND RUSSIA!" Trump tweeted Sunday. "Is anybody really surprised by this?”
He was referring to a comment Burr made last week, when he told CBS News: "If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don't have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia."
He echoed the comments to NBC News on Tuesday: "There is no factual evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia."
In a report, NBC News seemed to bolster Burr's assertion. It said that both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed that they have uncovered "no direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia."
But Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member on the committee, distanced himself from Burr's claims.
"Respectfully, I disagree," he said on Tuesday, as CNN reported. "I'm not going to get into any conclusions I've reached because my basis of this has been that I'm not going to reach any conclusion until we finish the investigation. And we still have a number of the key witnesses to come back."
And many legal experts pointed out that Burr's comments and the NBC report bizarrely twisted the standards of evidence. "Direct evidence" is a particular qualifier, and it wouldn't preclude the committee of having discovered reams of damning circumstantial evidence, which is used in criminal cases all the time.
More to the point, though, the NBC News report's equivocation between "conspiracy" and "collusion" is unhelpful. Many have argued that "conspiracy" is the most likely crime Trump or his associates might be charged with if criminal activity is discovered in its interactions with Russian agents during the campaign, though many other crimes may also be in play. But it's Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is directly responsible for uncovering and charging crimes regarding Russian interference, not the Senate.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's job is much broader; because it doesn't have the resources or authority to prosecute crimes, its aim is to uncover important matters relevant to the public interest. Whether Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russians — that is, cooperated in a secret or underhanded way to gain an advantage — is of central importance to the country, even nothing illegal was done by the Trump team.
And given this understanding of the committee's task, it's clear that there is decisive public evidence that Trump's team colluded with the Russians on multiple occasions. For example:
- A Russian lawyer met with Trump's family members and campaign staff to discussion provision of "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in June 2016. As a part of the meeting the team discussed potential sanctions relief, a major Kremlin priority. The email that led to the meeting specified that the Russian government was actively working to help Trump's campaign. This meeting was later kept a secret by all parties until it was uncovered by reporters.
- Donald Trump Jr., who set up the meeting, publicly denied that Russia was helping his father even after setting up the meeting. This lie was mutually beneficial to the Trump campaign and to Russian efforts to interfere in the campaign.
- Roger Stone is publicly accused by Mueller of lying to Congress about his attempts to coordinate with both the Trump campaign and with WikiLeaks, believed to be a conduit for Russian information warfare, regarding hacked campaign emails. Mueller's indictment contains compelling evidence that Stone lied.
- Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about the extent and duration of negotiations on Trump's behalf to build a Trump Tower Moscow during the 2016 campaign. Again, this included multiple, ongoing lies from both Trump's team and the Kremlin — a cohesive set of lies that served both sets of interest.
- Trump publicly called on Russia to find Clinton's emails — and, according to Mueller, Russian hackers tried to hack her emails that same day.
- Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his talks with the Russian ambassador about sanctions during the transition.
- Paul Manafort, Trump's ex-campaign manager, gave polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political consultant believed to have ties to Russian intelligence, during the campaign, as Mueller's investigation has revealed.
- Manafort has also pleaded guilty to conspiring with Kilimnik in 2018 to tamper with witnesses to protect themselves from the Russia investigation. Manafort also admitted to conspiring with Kilimnik to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act and to launder money from Ukraine.
All of these incidents should uncontroversially be seen as, at the very least, evidence of collusion, if not outright collusion itself. Some of it is even literally the criminal act of conspiracy.
Given this fact, it's very difficult to see why Burr — who has generally been regarded as above the partisan fray much more than, say, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee — is going along with Trump's obviously false "no collusion line."
Reporter Marcy Wheeler noted on her blog that, in the case of Manafort's actions, in particular, the reasonable GOP response would be anger at Manafort:
Ultimately, Burr’s retreat to that word “collusion” is a tell. Because, given the public facts in this case, Republicans should be outraged that Trump’s campaign manager was so disloyal he shared highly sensitive data with potentially malign actors. Republicans should be outraged that Trump’s campaign manager was putting his own financial imperatives ahead of sound campaign practice.
But they’re not. For some reason, Republicans are not squawking about the explanation for this data hand-off that would suggest the campaign didn’t expect to benefit.
One obvious reason that Republicans aren't mad is that Trump isn't mad, and they take their cues from him. Trump has praised Manafort, even though one would normally expect that a politician whose campaign manager engaged in the devious and criminal behavior Manafort has admitted to would be furious — at least if the politician wasn't aware of the behavior.
In the same way that the GOP has let Trump get away with not releasing his tax returns after he promised to do so, they continue to provide cover for his "no collusion" lie, even when many forms of collusion have been decisively demonstrated. It's possible Republicans know what Trump is covering up and have decided to help him. But more likely, they have no idea what they're helping to conceal from the American people; they've inferred from Trump's behavior that there's something deeply damning looming over him — and the party is doing its best to keep it under wraps.