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The Mueller report’s collusion section is much worse than you think

The contacts with Russians documented in the report amount to a devastating indictment of Trump’s approach to politics.

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President Donald Trump
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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Donald Trump and Russia establishes a damning series of facts about the Trump campaign’s connections to the Kremlin.

We learned that two Trump campaign officials, campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates, were regularly providing polling information to a Russian national whom Gates believed to be a “spy.”

We learned that, after Trump publicly called on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s emails, he privately ordered future National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to find them. Flynn reached out to a man named Peter Smith who (apparently falsely) told a number of people that he was in contact with Russian agents.

We learned that Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos attempted to arrange meetings between Trump and Putin, and that Trump personally approved Papadopoulos’s work on this front.

The report is very clear that Mueller’s investigation did not establish that the Trump campaign criminally conspired on illegal Russian election interference, or that it coordinated with Russia through either an active or tacit agreement.

But the report, combined with other publicly known facts — that Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with the express purpose of obtaining Russian “dirt” on Clinton, and that Papadopoulos was offered similar dirt from a Russian agent, among others — paints a damning picture of the campaign. It was both actively seeking to cultivate a relationship with the Russian government and willing to work with it to acquire damaging information about its political opponents. That willingness included explicitly sharing information with or soliciting information from Russian operatives.

As the report takes pains to point out, “collusion” has no legal definition and is not a federal crime. So while the report did not establish conspiracy or coordination, it does not make a determination on “collusion” — and in fact, it strongly suggests that there was at least an attempt to collude by Trump’s campaign and agents of the Russian government.

The fact that it did not rise to the level of criminal activity does not mean it was not a serious breach of trust and a damning indictment of the president’s commitment to the health of the American legal and political system. The section of the report focusing on Russian interference in the election is not an exoneration of Trump’s innocence. It’s a devastating portrayal of his approach to politics.

The strong evidence of (something like) collusion

Although Attorney General William Barr said that there was “no collusion” in his press conference before the report’s release, Mueller is actually quite explicit that he did not address the question of “collusion.” This is because, to his mind, the term is not precise enough, nor does it fall within the ambit of what was essentially a criminal investigation.

“Collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law,” Mueller writes. “For those reasons, the Office’s focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law.”

So when Mueller concludes that he “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” he is not saying that there is no evidence of “collusion” at all, in any sense. What he is saying is that there is insufficient evidence to prove that the Trump administration was directly involved in Russian crimes like stealing Clinton’s emails.

But did the Trump campaign actively work with the Russian government to improve its electoral chances? If that’s the standard, then the report provides plenty of evidence to suggest the answer is yes.

First, Russia repeatedly reached out to the Trump campaign to establish a connection to the Kremlin. “The Russian contacts consisted of business connections, offers of assistance to the Campaign, invitations for candidate Trump and Putin to meet in person, invitations for Campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government to meet, and policy positions seeking improved U.S.-Russian relations,” Mueller writes.

Second, the Trump campaign was receptive — sometimes going beyond what was on offer from the Kremlin. Some of the examples of this are egregious.

Take Manafort’s meetings with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political consultant with a history of connections to the GRU intelligence agency. The FBI believed had links to the Kremlin, a view shared by Manafort’s right-hand man Gates. “Gates suspected that Kilimnik was a ‘spy,’ a view that he shared with Manafort,” Mueller writes.

Yet despite Gates’s suspicions, Manafort repeatedly met with Kilimnik, worked with him to develop a pro-Russian Ukraine policy that Trump could implement if elected, and regularly shared polling data with him:

On August 2, 2016, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort met in New York City with his long-time business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI assesses to have ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik requested the meeting to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel’s Office was a “backdoor” way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine; both men believed the plan would require candidate Trump’s assent to succeed (were he to be elected President).

They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states. Months before that meeting, Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time after their August meeting.

It’s possible Paul Manafort was acting without the candidate’s knowledge, and you could argue that this shouldn’t really reflect on Trump. But it’s clear from the report that the president openly encouraged his campaign to reach out to Russians and work with them.

During a late March meeting of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Papadopoulos told Trump about his attempts to set up a meeting with Putin. This, per Mueller, went over quite well.

“Papadopoulos and Campaign advisor J.D. Gordon — who told investigators in an interview that he had a ‘crystal clear’ recollection of the meeting — have stated that Trump was interested in and receptive to the idea of a meeting with Putin,” per the report. Papadopoulos worked diligently afterwards to try to set up such a meeting, but was foiled largely by scheduling issues.

At times, Trump was clear about his interest in Russian electoral involvement. This passage about email hacking, for example, in which Trump calls on Russia to get Clinton’s emails, then tells his campaign to acquire them.

After candidate Trump stated on July 27, 2016, that he hoped Russia would ‘find the 30,000 emails that are missing,’ Trump asked individuals affiliated with his Campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails. Michael Flynn — who would later serve as National Security Advisor in the Trump Administration — recalled that Trump made this request repeatedly, and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails.

Russia had, in fact, already stolen the text of many Clinton campaign private emails by then — so Trump couldn’t be involved in that particular criminal conspiracy. But the fact that Trump signaled that he was open to working with the Russians is nonetheless telling.

What “no collusion” gets wrong

The report is littered with evidence Trump and his staff were open to Russian interference in the election. Mueller explicitly concludes that “the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian effort.”

And there may very well be more evidence in the sections that are redacted.

For example, Gates told Mueller about a conversation with Trump during a late summer 2016 car ride to LaGuardia in which “candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming” from WikiLeaks.

Was Trump speculating? Or did he know that for sure, because of some kind of coordination with WikiLeaks (who was working with Russian agents to disseminate hacked Clinton material)? The section is heavily redacted, making it difficult to assess what’s actually going on.

I want to be clear: I am not disputing Mueller’s conclusions on whether a crime was committed. Criminal conspiracy has a very particular legal definition, and Mueller is persuasive on why none of the activities detailed in the report constituted illegal “coordination” in a way that would run afoul of the statute.

FBI Director Robert Muller Holds News Conference
Robert Mueller.
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“We understood coordination to require an agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests,” Mueller writes. “We applied the term coordination in that sense when stating in the report that the investigation did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

What the report finds is not clear-cut evidence of a quid-pro-quo. Instead, what we see is a series of bungled and abortive attempts to create ties between the two sides, a situation in which the Trump team and Russia worked to reach out to each other (and vice versa) without ever developing a formal arrangement to coordinate.

Does that rise to the level of “collusion?” It’s a slippery term. But if “collusion” refers to a willingness to cooperate with Russian interference in the 2016 US election and actively taking steps to abet it, it seems to me that the Mueller report does in fact establish that it took place.

But even if you find that definition too loose, the report’s message is not that there was nothing to worry about on the Trump-Russia front in 2016. Instead, it confirms that there were multiple shady connections between Trump and Russia, and that the president’s “no collusion” line is quite misleading. And at worst, the way it’s been presented suggests that the president and his attorney general are still actively trying to deceive the American people about what happened in 2016.

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