President Trump and his allies (from both the campaign and the right-wing media) repeat two arguments in their efforts to undercut and sidetrack the Russia investigation. One is both disprovable and illogical; the other is unproven and, likely, not provable.
The first argument takes the position that the Trump campaign was so chaotic and mismanaged that it could not have colluded with Russia. Let’s begin with the obvious: We already know the campaign colluded — interacted with, synchronized with, worked in tandem with — the Russians. As we have said many times, “collusion” is neither a legal term nor a very specific one. If the general idea, however, is that the Trump people had to be really, really clever to get a foreign power to help them win, that’s simply wrong as a factual matter. Donald Trump Jr. was eager (“love it!”) to take a meeting with a Russian lawyer and others at Trump Tower to “get dirt” on Hillary Clinton. George Papadopoulos made multiple inquiries to Russia in an effort to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian officials, and to get information on Hillary Clinton. Trump egged on Russia to find more of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and spent the final days of the campaign hyping the material WikiLeaks put out.
In fact, smart and competent campaign operatives would never meet with Russians promising opposition research, nor would they allow a foreign-policy operative (Carter Page) to travel to Russia to make a pro-Russia speech. A competent campaign would have vetted foreign-policy operatives and set up a chain of command for outside contacts. Only in a decentralized, chaotic campaign could freelancing and self-promoting operatives (e.g., Paul Manafort, Page, Papadopoulos) insinuate themselves into a campaign and make moves (e.g., reversing the Republican platform on Ukraine) designed to help Russian “friends.”
Moreover, while special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is still hard at work, we know that an unusual number of people on the campaign — including the president — have disguised (or “forgotten”) contacts with the Russians. Trump himself drafted a misleading memo to explain the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower. I suppose they could have done this because they were entirely innocent, but that strains credulity. We should know from the indictments that what we see in public is a fraction of what Mueller is uncovering, but even what we know suggests the links between the campaign and Russia were far more extensive than the Trump team has let on.
Regarding the June 9 meeting, the Center for American Progress Action Fund wrote:
The meeting took place six days later with Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was described to Donald Trump Jr. as “the Russian government attorney;” Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist who was formerly a Soviet intelligence officer; and Irakly Kaveladze, an executive in the company owned by the Kremlin-linked oligarch who helped arrange the meeting.
This is collusion. The purpose of this meeting was to obtain information from the Russian government that was damaging to their opponent, explicitly as part of Russia’s broader government “support for Mr. Trump.” Top Trump campaign officials knew the purpose and participated. This latest revelation, with all the other information now known, confirms that the Trump campaign knew about the Russian effort to intervene in the election and encouraged and participated in the effort both in private and in public.
In any event, Mueller’s methodical and swift investigation will, I have confidence, uncover whatever evidence there is of conscious cooperation between Trump (or any of his family members) and Russian operatives. Trump’s premature trumpeting that no collusion has been found is both inaccurate (depending on how one defines collusion) and premature.
The other argument Trump likes to make is that the Russian plot didn’t change the outcome. Let’s be clear: When the investigation is done, we will never know the answer because it is unknowable. How many Clinton voters were compelled to stay home when Trump reminded them daily of the hacked emails? How many Trump voters either directly or indirectly saw Russian bot messages — some of which were retweeted by Trump and Trump Jr., among others?
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight observed that: “If it’s hard to prove anything about Russian interference, it’s equally hard to disprove anything: The interference campaign could easily have had chronic, insidious effects that could be mistaken for background noise but which in the aggregate were enough to swing the election by 0.8 percentage points toward Trump — not a high hurdle to clear because 0.8 points isn’t much at all.”
By the way, Silver noted: “You know what probably did cost Clinton the election? The letter that former FBI Director James Comey sent to Congress on Oct. 28, 2016, and the subsequent media firestorm over it. The impact is relatively easy to measure because it was the biggest news event in the final two weeks of the campaign, and we can compare polls conducted just before the Comey letter to the ones conducted.” This is why, among other facts, the notion that the FBI tried to tip the election to Clinton is bizarrely wrong.
Of course, we should all reserve final judgment until Mueller has completed his work. By the same token, however, we should not ignore what we already know — including unseemly and unprecedented interaction between the Trump and Russia For Trump campaigns. The distressing reality for Trump, Clinton and the country is that we will never know whether it made a difference. And that, in and of itself, was an “accomplishment” for Russian counterintelligence.
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