“In all of this, in any of this, there’s been no evidence that there’s been any collusion between the Trump campaign and President Trump and Russia,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday at his weekly press conference. “Let’s just make that really clear. There’s no evidence of collusion. This is about Russia and what they did and making sure they don’t do it again.”
From Ryan’s perspective, it would be convenient if it were true that Robert Mueller’s investigation had turned up no evidence of collusion, but it simply isn’t.
Republicans from Donald Trump on down have made “no collusion” a mantra. The term itself is ill-defined in this context; you won’t find it in the US code. But roughly speaking, the question is whether the campaign got involved with Russian agents who committed computer crimes to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election.
The verdict on this is unclear. But there is certainly plenty of evidence pointing toward collusion; what you would call “probable cause” in a legal context, or what a journalist might simply consider reason to continue investigating the story. And the investigating thus far, both by special counsel Mueller and by journalists working on the story, has been fruitful. The efforts have continued to turn up contacts between Trumpworld and Putinland, cover-ups, and dishonesty.
Even as recently as Friday afternoon, we got new indictments charging Trump’s former campaign chair and his former GRU operative business partner with witness tampering and obstruction of justice.
It’s important, obviously, not to prejudge a case. It turns out that Saddam Hussein was acting like a man who was covering up a secret nuclear weapons arsenal because he didn’t want the world to know how weak his defenses really were.
By the same token, it’s certainly possible that the various Trump-Russia contacts never amounted to anything and that they’ve been consistently covered up for some reason other than an effort to hide collusion. But both the contacts that have been revealed so far and the deception used to deny their existence are certainly evidence of collusion — evidence that should be (and is being) pursued by the special counsel’s office and that should not be dismissed by the press or by elected officials.
The circumstantial case for collusion
It’s worth backing up to recall what we all saw on camera before anyone knew anything about an FBI investigation, before FBI Director James Comey was fired in an effort to halt the investigation, and before Mueller and his team revealed anything:
- Two separate hacks of Democratic Party emails — one purloining a trove of internal Democratic National Committee emails and one that stole a ton of correspondence from John Podesta’s personal Gmail account — were perpetrated over the course of 2016, by what are now believed to have been agents operating on behalf of the Russian government.
- These emails were not immediately released, and they were not released by the hackers who obtained them. Instead, the emails were disseminated to the public by using Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as an intermediary. Their releases also seemed strategically timed — the DNC emails disrupted efforts to create a show of unity between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the beginning of the Democratic National Convention, while the Podesta emails were released right after the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
- Trump and his campaign, at the time, believed these emails were a big deal and cited them frequently. Trump built substantial portions of his campaign messaging around narratives — typically half-true at best — contained in the emails, and made no bones about welcoming the hacking.
- “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” he said on several occasions on the campaign trail, and he also explicitly called on the Russian government to hack and release Hillary Clinton’s emails.
- Trump also spent the 2016 campaign running an overtly pro-Russian campaign message, praising Vladimir Putin’s leadership, defending him from allegations of murdering his political opponents, and calling for a realignment of US strategy in Syria and Ukraine.
I would not necessarily call any of this “evidence” of collusion, but it’s certainly grounds for suspicion. It gave the impression that Trump was on some level coordinating his campaign messaging with the Russian hackers, and that either he was taking a pro-Putin line in exchange for Russian help or he sincerely believed in the pro-Putin line and therefore saw nothing wrong with accepting Russian assistance.
That said, Trump was asked about this possibility explicitly during the campaign. And during the campaign and the transition, both he and his team issued at least 20 denials of any contact between his camp and the Russians. And where evidence really enters the picture is that they were lying.
There was extensive outreach between Trump and Russia
In reality, as exhaustively documented by the Moscow Project, there were extensive communications between people in Trump’s orbit and Russian government figures or others who had, or purported to have, close ties to the Putin regime.
Some of this communication — including Michael Cohen’s January 2016 email to Dmitry Peskov and Ivanka Trump’s October 2015 exchange with Dmitry Klokov — was ostensibly about efforts to construct a Trump-branded building in Moscow. Some of it, including the various escapades of George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, involved relatively peripheral players in Trumpworld, who didn’t have strong pre-campaign ties to Trump or play a post-campaign role in the administration.
But some of it was quite high-level and explicitly about the campaign. Donald Trump Jr., for example, took a meeting with the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank while attending the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Kentucky in May 2016. The meeting was arranged by a US conservative activist named Paul Erickson, who got in touch with senior Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn to set it up, explicitly as a step toward creating back-channel communications between Russia and the campaign.
And, of course, Trump Jr., along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting whose purpose was explicitly described as “part of Russia and its support for Mr Trump” and was said to involve incriminating information about Hillary Clinton.
That Trumpworld was clearly open to both political collusion and financial dealmaking with the Russian government doesn’t demonstrate that either actually occurred. But it’s unquestionably evidence in favor of the possibility. The fact that all of this was lied about and swept under the rug is further evidence (though, again, not proof) that there was Russia-related wrongdoing that is being covered up. And it’s striking that we continue to learn new things about contacts between Trump and Russia — the Ivanka story is new this week — rather than there having been a moment at which everyone got religion and decided to come clean.
And then there’s Paul Manafort.
The Manafort-Deripaska nexus is very suspicious
Paul Manafort had worked for years in Republican Party politics in the 1970s and ’80s, but by the second decade of the 21st century, he was primarily working in Ukraine. Then in March 2016, Donald Trump hired him to run his presidential campaign and smooth over badly frayed relations with the GOP establishment.
Two weeks after he boarded the Trump train, Manafort emailed Konstantin Kilimnik, who’d been his key lieutenant in Kiev for years:
“I assume you have shown our friends my media coverage, right?” Manafort wrote.
“Absolutely,” Kilimnik responded a few hours later from Kiev. “Every article.”
“How do we use to get whole,” Manafort asks. “Has OVD operation seen?”
OVD, in this context, is Oleg Deripaska, a wealthy Russian oligarch to whom Manafort was deeply in debt. Critically, despite the debts, Manafort agreed to go work for Trump for free. But he wanted to know how he could use his unpaid work for Trump to “get whole” with Deripaska.
Manafort, in other words, clearly saw his work for Trump as directly linked to his work for pro-Russian forces. Manafort is also currently preparing to stand trial for a broad array of financial crimes related to this work. It’s conventional for both the Trump camp and Manafort’s legal team to say that the charges are unrelated to the 2016 campaign, but that is merely assuming the conclusion. If Manafort did in fact use his US activities to “get whole” with his former client, then the two issues are clearly quite linked.
The truth in this matter is, as with much of the rest of the story, unclear. But, again, there is clearly evidence here.
The collusion in plain sight
Last but by no means least, it’s worth recalling that there’s something fundamentally odd about the entire framing of the collusion question.
A political candidate’s relationship to a hostile foreign power would normally be framed differently. The discovery of covert collusion would be used as evidence that the candidate harbored a secret desire to repay the foreign power. But in Trump’s case, there was absolutely no secret! Trump quite openly ran on a pro-Russia platform, adopting Russian views on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, defending Putin’s character, and vowing to break up the NATO alliance.
It’s of course not illegal for a candidate for office to espouse pro-Russian foreign policy views. But to an extent, there was plenty of “collusion” in plain view throughout 2016 — crimes were committed and Trump openly praised them; he offered pro-Russia policy in exchange for Russian assistance, received the assistance that he sought, and has labored ever since to avoid investigating or punishing Russia’s crimes.
Here, ultimately, is where Paul Ryan’s argument completely falls apart. The speaker says “there’s no evidence of collusion” but also isn’t willing to go full Trump, denounce the investigation as a fraud, and call for its end. Instead, he says, “this is about Russia and what they did and making sure they don’t do it again.” But Trump has always been clear that he doesn’t think Russia did anything wrong, doesn’t want the full details to become known, doesn’t want anyone punished, and has no particular interest in making sure they don’t do it again. And that, itself, is perhaps the most powerful evidence of collusion.