Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, “no collusion” has become a mantra, rivaling only “Make America Great Again” as a motto and, at times, an organizing principle. The president and his defenders have uttered the phrase hundreds of times. For Trump, “no collusion” is a shield—proof the Russia inquiry that has dogged his presidency is a sham concocted by his perceived enemies: the Democrats, the media, and the deep state. The president’s public statements in the wake of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report and the release of the redacted version of the report itself have all centered on the inability to prove criminal conspiracy, equating that with an absence of any criminality or misbehavior.
The president and, particularly, his attorneys have gone to great lengths to narrow the definition of “collusion,” which is itself not a legal term. In their hands, only a proven conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian officials—a stated and agreed upon quid pro quo in advance of any illegal conduct—could qualify as collusion. Mueller’s team’s inability to find proof of that conspiracy, in Team Trump’s opinion, is all they need to show that the president has been completely exonerated. For the “Russia thing,” as Trump has called it, to be real, the special counsel would have had to prove this level of criminal coordination.
The text of the Mueller report, however, offers a very different picture. While an improbable smoking gun showing an agreed upon deal between the Trump campaign and Russian officials has not been produced, the report—even with all its redactions—is full of instances in which Trump and a number of his aides, advisers, and family members are talking with figures linked in various ways to Russia. These conversations broadly fall into two disquieting categories: what the hacked information being disseminated by WikiLeaks might contain; and what Russia, its officials, operatives, or cutouts could do for the campaign. Even without clear evidence of criminal conspiracy, there’s plenty of evidence of collusion in what amounts to a consistently damning portrait of a campaign welcoming—and egging on—election interference.
The Mueller report represents a clear narrative on interference in the 2016 election. Russia chose to intervene in the election in an effort to promote Trump and damage Hillary Clinton. The Trump campaign welcomed their help and encouraged it, both publicly and privately. Trump’s “Russia, if you’re listening” comment from July 2016 is presented as evidence in the report, as are more than one hundred interactions between campaign officials and figures with ties to Russia.
The Trump team “expected it would benefit” from the release of hacked emails. As soon as they became aware that WikiLeaks had in its possession stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee, Trump and his associates began “planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks” to press their advantage. In so doing, the Trump Campaign turned an influence effort from a foreign power into a key strategy for a United States presidential election. Over the course of 2016, moreover, Trumpworld figures repeatedly reached out to people with ties to Russia to inquire about future hacks.
The now infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 9, 2016 between Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya is case in point. That meeting was arranged after Trump Jr. had been told that the Russian government had “‘offered to provide the Trump Campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia’ as ‘part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.’” There’s no evidence that any information was passed between Veselnitskaya and the Trump officials at that meeting, but its existence points to the Trump campaign’s efforts to gain what it perceived as valuable information from figures with ties to Russia.
Mueller considered bringing charges based on this meeting, specifically “whether this evidence would establish a conspiracy to violate the foreign contributions ban,” given the offer to provide “official documents and information.” But Mueller concluded that he “could not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted ‘willfully,’ i.e. with general knowledge of their conduct.” In other words, Mueller couldn’t prove that Donald Trump Jr. was smart enough to know that what he was doing was illegal. As any lawyer will tell you, however, ignorance of the law is not a defense.
As detailed in today’s released report, these contacts provide a portrait of what we have all agreed to call “collusion,” even if they don’t meet the evidentiary standard of a criminal conspiracy. “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the report concludes. Attorney General Barr, in his summary of the report, latched onto the end of that sentence, creating the misleading perception that the Mueller report totally exonerated the Trump campaign on the question of collusion. But, like that sentence, the report, when viewed in its entirety, outlines a long and well-established pattern of contact and cooperation.
It could be argued that a conspiracy was unnecessary, given that all of this was more or less happening out in the open. These emails, clearly meant to benefit Trump, were being pushed out into the world while Trump cheered them on, encouraged their release, and asked for more. In turn, Russia, it appears, was happy to work against Clinton’s candidacy, even without explicit promises from the Trump campaign.
Trump, Barr, and all the president’s defenders—in politics and the media—have repeatedly claimed that this encyclopedia of misconduct doesn’t represent an airtight legal case, and presented that as a kind of proof that the president and his campaign have been vindicated. But after the release of the Mueller report, even with redactions, it’s clear nothing could be further from the truth.