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Trump’s “No Collusion” Defense Is Falling Apart

The latest developments in Robert Mueller's Russia probe suggest that the president is running out of excuses.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

For nearly a year now, “no collusion” has been a kind of mantra for President Donald Trump and his administration. Trump and other White House officials have tried to muddy the waters of the Russia investigation by arguing that it is a partisan witch hunt and that Hillary Clinton was the real colluder—but “no collusion” has always been the get-out-of-jail-free card. It set a high bar for special counsel Robert Mueller to clear: If he couldn’t prove direct coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, then the president would be vindicated. It was a savvy move—the safe bet was that Mueller would find all kinds of shady dealings in Trumpland, but not collusion.

When former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his protégé Rick Gates were indicted on Monday morning, Trump returned to his familiar claim:

Then news broke that George Papadopoulos, who served as one of five foreign policy advisers to the Trump campaign, had pled guilty to lying to the FBI about interactions he had with Russians. He had seemingly been a cooperating witness in Mueller’s investigation since being arrested over the summer. As my colleague Jeet Heer pointed out, this was a very big deal indeed. It was proof that Mueller had zeroed in on actual contact—and possible collusion—between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Mueller has not uncovered a “smoking gun,” one that proves Trump knew about the numerous contacts between his campaign and Russia. But it’s clear that the Mueller investigation is not winding down, as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has optimistically claimed. Far from it. The special counsel has not only found evidence of possible collusion, but is in the midst of undercutting every major argument Trump and his allies have made in defense of the Trump campaign’s actions for the past year. It all suggests that the president, and many of the people close to him, are in deep trouble.

The most significant development on Monday—the unsealing of the indictment against Papadopoulos—came as a total surprise. While the indictments against Manafort and Gates largely pertained to a series of suspicious financial dealings tied to Russia and Ukraine, the indictment against Papadopoulos spells out a series of interactions with Russian agents, with the encouragement of Trump campaign officials.

We learned that Papadopoulos acted as a go-between between the Trump campaign and a Russian professor he understood to have “substantial connections to Russian government officials” and who initiated contact with him in March of 2016, a few days after Papadopoulos joined the Trump campaign. This professor reportedly told Papadopoulos about a massive trove of Hillary Clinton’s emails that was in Russian hands. (It’s unclear if he was referring to a searchable archive of thousands of Clinton’s emails that WikiLeaks released days later, the hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, or something else.)

Papadopoulos was praised by at least two Trump campaign officials—Manafort and radio host Sam Clovis—for attempting to set up a meeting between the campaign and Russian officials, including a person he thought was Vladimir Putin’s niece. In May, Papadopolous informed the campaign that the Russians were “open for cooperation.” And in the summer of 2016, Papadopoulos pursued an “off the record” meeting between the campaign and the Russian government, apparently with encouragement from members of the campaign; Papadopoulos was even encouraged to travel to Russia, although no trip was ever made. In January of 2017, Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about these interactions, leading to his indictment.

As Papadopoulos talked with the Russians, a number of meaningful events transpired in the campaign. Emails from John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee were released. On June 9, Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. attended a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian operative who promised them “dirt” on Clinton. A month later, Donald Trump publicly asked Russia for its help in locating the 33,000 emails that were missing from Clinton’s private email server. At the first presidential debate Trump denied that he thought Russia was behind all of the hacked emails, speculating that a “400 pound hacker” could have done it.

By releasing the Papadopoulos indictment on the day that Manafort was indicted, Robert Mueller is setting up two paths for Trump campaign officials: They can take the Papadopoulos path or the Manafort path. As Barton Gellman wrote on Twitter on Monday, Mueller has signaled that he is sitting on more information, though he hasn’t spelled out how he learned this information, which should be making members of Trumpland sweat. These are crucial building blocks in a larger case investigating cooperation between a presidential campaign and a foreign government in undermining an American election, in what could be the biggest political scandal in American history.

But what is striking for the time being is the way these developments have destroyed the Trump administration’s only real defense. “No collusion” is simply no longer credible. Administration officials are downplaying the role that Papadopoulos played in the campaign, but he clearly had access to very senior people—he was photographed at the end of March, after his meeting with the Russian professor, at a meeting with Trump and Jeff Sessions, who would go on to become attorney general. (In the photo below, Papadopolous is seated second to Sessions’s left.) Papadopoulos was also clearly encouraged by some of those very senior people, including the former campaign chairman, to open a channel with Russian operatives.

Meeting with my national security team in #WashingtonDC. #Trump2016

A post shared by President Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

According to the indictment, members of the campaign saw Papadopoulos’s junior status as an asset, since he would avoid the scrutiny that a higher-ranking campaign official would draw. (“We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips,” one email reads. “It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”) So at the very least, people at the highest levels of the Trump campaign were aware that Russian agents were working to damage the credibility of their opponent, and it appears that these people did everything in their power to encourage this.

Between these indictments and prior reporting, it’s clear now that several Trump campaign officials—Manafort, Papadopoulos, Kushner, Trump Jr.—were aware that Russia was offering “dirt” on Clinton and acted on that knowledge. It also seems increasingly likely, if not absolutely certain, that Trump’s team, which repeatedly denied Russian involvement in the 2016 election, was aware of Russian involvement long before the public at large. If Trump were to claim that he had no knowledge of these efforts—in other words, had no knowledge of what his most senior advisers were doing—that would be a massive scandal in and of itself.

That leaves one defense left, which is that the Mueller investigation is a compromised, politically motivated attempt at bringing down the president. “There’s clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation and smear the president to influence the election,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Monday’s briefing. This defense is the most ridiculous of them all, but it’s all Trump has got.