You know how if you repeat a word over and over, eventually it starts to sound strange to your ear, like merely a random collection of sounds? That is apparently what President Trump is doing with the word “collusion.” Say it often enough, and perhaps it will lose all meaning.
That’s just one of the things that comes through in this bizarre and disturbing interview Trump conducted at the Trump International Golf Club with Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, apparently on the spur of the moment and with no aides there to protect him. As we’ve almost come to expect by now, when Trump speaks at length without a script, he skitters back and forth along the line that divides the comical from the terrifying, telling one obvious lie after another, making endless digressions that devolve into incomprehensible word salad, and generally sounding like someone with only the most tenuous grip on his faculties.
But there’s one thing he’s very clear about wanting everyone to know: He and his campaign did not collude with Russia during 2016. In fact, without being prompted he returned again and again to the topic, repeating the word “collusion” no fewer than 23 times:
“Frankly there is absolutely no collusion…Virtually every Democrat has said there is no collusion. There is no collusion…I think it’s been proven that there is no collusion…I can only tell you that there is absolutely no collusion…There’s been no collusion…There was no collusion. None whatsoever…everybody knows that there was no collusion. I saw Dianne Feinstein the other day on television saying there is no collusion [note: not true]…The Republicans, in terms of the House committees, they come out, they’re so angry because there is no collusion…there was collusion on behalf of the Democrats. There was collusion with the Russians and the Democrats. A lot of collusion…There was tremendous collusion on behalf of the Russians and the Democrats. There was no collusion with respect to my campaign…But there is tremendous collusion with the Russians and with the Democratic Party…I watched Alan Dershowitz the other day, he said, No. 1, there is no collusion, No. 2, collusion is not a crime, but even if it was a crime, there was no collusion. And he said that very strongly. He said there was no collusion…There is no collusion, and even if there was, it’s not a crime. But there’s no collusion…when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems [Democrats] had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion.“
It should go without saying that no Democrats have said there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Some have said that we don’t yet have definitive proof that there was a conspiracy at work, but none have proclaimed Trump exonerated in the way he’s claiming. And Trump’s claim that Democrats were the ones colluding with Russia is simply nonsensical, likely plucked from an attempt Republicans and the conservative media made a couple of months ago to execute an “I know you are but what am I” strategy on this scandal that was so ludicrous it isn’t worth revisiting in any detail (you can read about it here if you care).
This is one of those moments when you are reminded that the president has the majestic resources of the U.S. government at his disposal, yet prefers to learn the truth of what’s going on in the world from the trio manning the couch on “Fox & Friends.” So perhaps it’s unsurprising that he thinks he can convince America of his innocence by merely repeating the words “There was no collusion” again and again. What is blindingly obvious is that Trump is very, very concerned that people might be thinking he and his campaign colluded with the Russians.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they did and he’s desperate to cover it up; it could also mean that he regards such collusion as a terrible betrayal of the country he loves and wants to make sure no one falsely concludes he would countenance such a thing. But we already know that officials on his campaign (and in his own family) had repeated contacts with representatives of the Russian government and others connected with the Russian government. That’s not in question. We also know that the topic of many of those conversations was whether Russia would provide the Trump campaign with damaging information on Hillary Clinton (see here, here and here). The most generous interpretation of those contacts is that people on both sides were interested in colluding but the operation never got off the ground.
There are a hundred questions that need to be answered before this is all over (to take just one: If Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were routine and appropriate, why did he feel the need to lie to the FBI about them?). What we don’t know is where Trump himself fits into this picture. So far, the only point at which we know of his involvement is that the president personally dictated the ham-handedly misleading statement Donald Trump Jr. released after the news broke of that fateful meeting that he, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort had with a group of Russians.
Did every other contact the campaign had with Russia happen without Trump’s knowledge? It might have. He may be so insistent that “There was no collusion” because he himself is utterly innocent. It’s also possible that he sees the collusion question as his area of greatest political and legal danger, which it may or may not be; at the moment there’s more evidence that he committed obstruction of justice, which is a separate question.
But there’s something important to keep in mind when we’re interpreting Trump’s words and actions: For someone who fancies himself a genius, he is almost completely lacking in any real guile. He doesn’t play eight-dimensional chess. His lies are obvious and straightforward, clearly false at the moment they leave his lips. His strategies require no deconstruction or disentanglement to understand. He’s almost always doing exactly what he appears to be doing.
So if he sounds like a pathetic perp on “Law & Order,” crying “I don’t know the guy! I wasn’t there! I didn’t do it!,” and it looks as though he thinks if he just says he’s innocent over and over then you’ll believe him, that’s probably what’s happening. But sooner or later, we’re going to find out the truth.