During his interview with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo that aired on Sunday, President Trump returned to an assertion he’s reiterated repeatedly as president.
“[W]e were talking earlier about — about the Russia thing,” Bartiromo said. “Let me just ask you, you — there’s a report that you are — your legal team is saying yes, do an interview with Robert S. Mueller III. Is that what you’re going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Trump replied. “I mean I — nobody’s asked me to do that. There has — there is no collusion I can tell you that. Everybody’s seen that.”
He didn’t leave it there. “You know you have Senate meetings, you have Senate hearings, and nobody has asked us to do interviews anywhere. They have found no collusion,” he said. “They come out of these hearings, whether it’s Senate or whether it’s the House, and they say — is there collusion? Everyone looks like there’s no collusion,” he said. “There’s zero collusion, and everybody knows it, and everybody admits it. So that’s the way it is,” he said, before suggesting that “the uranium situation with Russia getting uranium” was “looking like a very serious situation.”
Before Election Day, Trump talked about collusion with some regularity. The colluding, though, wasn’t between his campaign and Russian actors — it was between his Republican primary opponents or between various inhabitants of the Swamp or between Hillary Clinton and fill-in-the-blank.
In early October, Trump claimed that the Department of Justice had “fed information” to the Clinton campaign about the investigation into Clinton’s email server, which was “collusion and corruption of the highest order.” It was “one more reason” why he would ask his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton.
What was the evidence for Justice feeding information to Clinton? Emails released by WikiLeaks which U.S. intelligence officials believe to have been stolen by Russian actors and which are now certainly part of special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III’s look at possible Russian collusion. The emails Trump was mentioning didn’t actually say anything about the email investigation, but he still praised the leaks. “You see so much from the WikiLeaks,” he said. “There is so much.”
After his inauguration, the first time Trump mentioned collusion on Twitter was May 8.
“Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to former national intelligence director James R. Clapper Jr., “there is ‘no evidence’ of collusion w/ Russia and Trump.”
“The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax,” he added, “when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
At the moment Trump tweeted about how there wasn’t any collusion — the first and second times of 14 tweets in total — the investigations into collusion were limited to an FBI counterintelligence investigation and House and Senate committees digging into the matter. The next day, though, Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, triggering the chain of events that led to the appointment of Mueller and his investigation.
When Trump was interviewed by NBC’s Lester Holt shortly after the Comey firing, he was adamant.
“I think that looking into me and, the campaign … look, I have nothing to do [with it],” he said. “This was set up by the Democrats. There is no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other thing is the Russians did not affect the vote.” He also told Holt that “when I decided to just [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”
He kept on the no-collusion theme for the next month.
- May 12: “When James R. Clapper Jr. himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?”
- May 13: “Everybody is convinced, they say there is no collusion. You know the expression? They’re all saying, there is no collusion. There is no collusion.”
- May 18: “The entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself — and the Russians, zero.”
- June 9: “Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction. We are doing really well. That was an excuse by the Democrats who lost an election that some people think they shouldn’t have lost, because it’s almost impossible for the Democrats to lose the electoral college, as you know.”
- June 16: “After 7 months of investigations & committee hearings about my ‘collusion with the Russians,’ nobody has been able to show any proof. Sad!”
- June 23: “Look, there has been no obstruction. There has been no collusion. There has been leaking by Comey. But there’s been no collusion, no obstruction and virtually everybody agrees to that.”
This was inadvertently revealing. The point of the investigation was to see whether evidence existed. Trump’s repeated insistence that there was no evidence of collusion was a bit like a criminal suspect insisting that he was innocent because the police hadn’t found evidence of his crime 14 seconds after arriving at the crime scene. There may well have been no collusion or there may be insufficient evidence to know for certain — but Trump’s repeatedly made the case that there was simply nothing, even as the investigation geared up.
In early July, things got complicated. The New York Times published scoops detailing an invitation sent to Donald Trump Jr. to meet with a Russian lawyer who could offer negative information about Clinton. The first email trying to connect Trump Jr. to the lawyer stated flatly that there were “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” and that the sharing of those documents “is part of Russia and it’s government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting — and arranged for both Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort to join as well.
This, one expert told The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips, was “as close as you can get to a smoking gun” of wrongdoing. Collusion, Phillips noted, isn’t an actual legal term, describing a relationship instead of a criminal act. But conspiracy to work with a foreign adversary to influence an election could be a crime.
The elder Trump wasn’t dissuaded.
“That’s a total witch hunt, the whole Russia story,” he told the Wall Street Journal later in July. “It’s a hoax. It’s a hoax. We had no collusion with Russia. We never dealt with Russia.”
In August, same deal.
“Everybody said there’s no collusion,” he said at a news conference. “If you look at the counsels that come in, we have a Senate hearing, we have Judiciary, we have Intelligence, and we have a House hearing. And everybody walks out, even the enemies, and they said, ‘No, well, there is no collusion, there’s no collusion.’ So they’re investigating something that never happened. There was no collusion between us and Russia. In fact: The opposite. Russia spent a lot of money on fighting me.” How this is the case isn’t clear.
And so on, through to the interview with Bartiromo.
It’s quite possible that the Trump Jr. meeting was the closest that the Trump campaign got to colluding or conspiring with Russia and that it never went any further. It’s also possible that there will not be enough evidence uncovered to prove — or fully exonerate — members of the Trump campaign. Regardless of what’s found, we can probably expect a consistent response from Trump: It never happened.