Why the collusion matters: Here's what almost everyone misses about the origins of Robert Mueller's investigation
Special Counsel Robert Mueller may soon be wrapping up his Russia investigation, according to multiple reports. Or, he may not be. No one really knows, and conflicting reports all appear to be coming from sources outside of Mueller's tight-lipped team, giving independent commentators little hope of discerning their accuracy.
But as many have begun to expect the end of the investigation, observers have are starting to reflect on what we have learned so far. And opinions vary wildly.
Some are convinced Mueller has already come up empty. Some believe he may be on the cusp of something big, but he may struggle to prove it. Others are sure that new, devastating revelations are just around the corner. Some think that the special counsel had shown serious problems around the Trump campaign but nothing that could possibly warrant impeachment of the president. Many of Trump's conservative defenders think Mueller has gotten desperate and is only charging people with "process crimes" because he couldn't find anything more serious. And yet another group says that while worse may be coming, what we already know amounts to a damning imputation of Trump and his allies.
You can put me in this last camp.
Mueller has already laid out a damning case of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. If it were taken as seriously as it should be by Congress, the president would already have been impeached and removed from office.
First, to make clear what this means, I must address the word "collusion." There's been a lot of handwringing about the use of this word since every legal expert has repeated ad nauseam that there's no legal definition of "collusion" outside anti-trust law. Many critics of the president have argued that, by talking about collusion, we play into the president's "no collusion" narrative, where he gets to define the terms. It's much better, they say, to talk about "conspiracy," an actual crime Trump and his allies could potentially be charged with.
But this argument gets things entirely backward. We know now that Trump and his allies colluded with Russia on multiple occasions. We don't know if Mueller or anyone else will ever have enough evidence to charge anyone with conspiracy, which must meet a strict legal threshold.
And "collusion" isn't some meaningless term that can be redefined at whim; it means quite simply, wrongful or deceitful cooperation to promote a common interest.
And when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote the memo that appointed Robert Mueller to become the special counsel, he was clear that a core mission of the investigation was to pursue "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump":
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Another word for "links and/or coordination" that must be investigated by a prosecutor and relate to Russia's incursion into the American democratic process is "collusion."
Rosenstein continued: "If the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters."
This is important because this memo outlines how the Mueller investigation should be assessed. It also contradicts what many, including Glenn Greenwald, have claimed, which is that Mueller is to "charge, indict and prosecute any Americans who criminally conspired with Russia over the election."
"Conspiracy" is, indeed, one way a prosecutor could charge someone who had deceitfully cooperated with the Russians. But collusion, as it were, could be bad and of national interest even if it doesn't involve breaking the law — and there might be other laws that people could break while carrying it out.
As many have noted, the FBI investigation of the election began critically as a counterintelligence operation. Investigators saw Russia's interference in 2016 as a threat to national security. This threat included its work for the benefit of and its overtures toward the Trump campaign.
When Mueller was appointed, no one seemed to question this aspect of his assignment. No one said, "links and/or cooperation are not a crime!" Mueller was widely hailed, even by Republicans, as a superb choice to become the special counsel. The Republican Party widely accepted that Russia's interventions demanded serious investigations — which included efforts by the Congress in addition to the special counsel's work. This is because it is a centrally important national interest to understand the details of risks and threats to the democratic process.
And as Mueller's investigation has proceeded, we've learned ample evidence about how Trump, his family, and his campaign secretly worked with Russia as it carried out criminal operations to affect the 2016 election in his favor.
The first piece of evidence concerns the negotiations to build Trump Tower Moscow. The details of these negotiations aren't fully clear, but they were made official in October 2015, and we know they were kept secret from the American people. Had they been made public, the revelation could have thwarted Trump's presidential ambitions. The secrecy served both the interests of the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, both of whom wanted to see Trump elected. It's also possible that financing the deal would have run afoul of sanctions on a Russian bank.
This is, then, a form of collusion. It's an agreed-upon lie for mutual benefit, even if this agreement was never explicit.
Crucially, Michael Cohen, Trump's lawyer, lied to Congress about these negotiations in an attempt to minimize them, showing how a crime arose directly from the collusion. This was done in line with Trump's lies about having no business relationship with Russia.
The case of George Papadopoulos also remains somewhat hazy, but the outcome was clear: The Trump aide told a criminal lie to investigators to cover up the extent of Russia's overtures to the Trump campaign. During the campaign itself, he shared the fact of the outreach from Russia with others in the campaign, even though the campaign would consistently deny any ties to Russia.
Perhaps the most egregious version of this form of collusion that has not yet resulted in any charges came from Donald Trump Jr. He set up a meeting for the campaign with a woman he was told was a Russian government lawyer in order to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton. He was explicitly told it was part of an effort from Russia to help his father's campaign. At the meeting, the group discussed "Russian adoptions" — a fig leaf for a conversation that is really about sanctions.
Later, when Russia was accused of leading the effort to spread stolen emails to hurt the Democrats, Don Jr. lied and dismissed the notion that Kremlin had any interest in helping his father win:
Again, it's important to be absolutely clear about what's happening here: In line with his father's rhetoric, Don Jr. is deceitfully helping the Kremlin engage in a cover-up of its criminal election interference.
We also now know that Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign manager, has been caught lying to Mueller and his team about his interactions during the 2016 campaign with Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI believes is tied to Russian intelligence. At one of the meetings that a judge has ruled he lied about, Manafort passed Kilimnik detailed polling data. While Manafort has not been charged with these criminal lies, Judge Amy Berman Jackson has ruled that they constituted intentional deception on his part and thus nullified his cooperation deal with Mueller.
And Roger Stone, a longtime ally of Trump who worked on the campaign, has, like Cohen, been charged with lying to Congress about the investigation. Stone's alleged lies regard both his ties to WikiLeaks, which appeared to act on Russia's behalf during the 2016 election and his communications with the Trump campaign. If he did lie, as Mueller claimed, he was covering up yet another vector of influence between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Finally, Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, lied to the FBI about his discussions with the Russian ambassador about sanctions during the transition period. This, again, appears to be more evidence that the Trump team's interests and Russia's interests were aligned in secrecy, even after the extent of the Kremlin's threat to national security was clear.
So what has this all shown?
Put simply: Trump's campaign colluded with Russia as it intervened in the 2016 election, intervention that was widely regarded as an attack on national security. While a counterintelligence investigation delved into these events, Trump's allies, following the lead of Trump himself, told lies, including some criminal lies, to cover up aspects of this national security threat. (And the case presented here doesn't even touch on the allegations that Trump himself engaged in criminal obstruction of justice.)
These aren't mere "process" crimes. Mueller isn't on a witch hunt. He didn't trick anyone into a perjury trap. These lies were constant and intentional. They were coordinated to the same ends. And they were in line with the interests of a country that poses a threat to the United States.
It's a relatively simple story, and even without any other charges, it should be absolutely politically damning for any sitting president. The fact that this is even controversial shows how deeply distorted American politics has become.