Often Trump will claim that “everybody” agrees there was no collusion between his campaign and Russian interests seeking to throw the 2016 election to him. However, everybody does not agree with this, unless by collusion you mean, say, that there is videotape of Trump handing cash to Vladimir Putin while wearing a hat that reads, “This guy got me elected.”
But that’s the question, right? What does Trump think collusion is in this context? It’s not a legally defined term with clear constraints. Since Trump first denied having colluded with the Russians, we’ve learned about a lot of things that certainly seem like they might indicate a willingness from members of the campaign to leverage Russian help to Trump’s benefit:
- The promise of “dirt” in that meeting at Trump Tower.
- George Papadopoulos being told about a cache of emails related to Hillary Clinton that were in Russia’s possession.
- Meetings with and outreach from Russian officials.
None of those is a smoking gun, but all of them are smoky in the smoke-but-is-there-a-fire? sense.
On Wednesday, the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman decided to ask the White House what exactly Trump meant when he was talking about collusion. During the briefing with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Haberman broached the subject.
“The president has said repeatedly there was no collusion between the campaign and Russia. Can you define what he means when he says ‘collusion’?” she asked. “Is he talking about meetings between officials? Is he talking about information-exchanging hands? What does that mean?”
“Look,” Sanders replied, “I think the accusation against the president is that he had help winning the election, and that’s simply untrue.”
We’ll interrupt here to note that this is actually completely true. Trump had help at varying levels of effectiveness from a slew of outside actors, including groups like the National Rifle Association, endorsers and, yes, agents of the Russian government. Whether Russian trolls’ attacks on Clinton (including apparently hacking her campaign chairman’s email account) and boosting of Trump’s campaign themes did much at all to swing votes to Trump — much less hand him the election — is very much debatable. But there’s little question that Russia actively helped Trump to some extent.
This question of the extent to which Russia made a difference ends up being the bulk of Sanders’s response.
“The president won because he was the better candidate, because he worked harder, because he had a message that America actually cared about and believed in, and came out in a historic fashion and supported and voted for him,” she continued. “That’s why he won. It wasn’t because of some made-up hoax that has been created to delegitimize this president. It’s because he was the best candidate, at the right time, that America wanted to see, and that’s why he’s in the Oval Office today.”
This is a succinct articulation of why Trump has disparaged the idea that Russia was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign: He sees the allegations that Russia interfered as casting doubt on his victory — and therefore casting doubt on how truly exceptional his win was and how truly exceptional he is.
But it didn’t actually answer Haberman’s question, so she followed up.
“Does he think that the reporting from the intelligence community saying that there was hacking that went on, done by Russia — he rejects that or does he accept it?” Haberman asked.
“No, he’s addressed that,” Sanders replied, “but that doesn’t mean that he participated in it. I think those are very different things. Stating the existence of something happening is very different than having helped make it happen, and you can’t conflate the two. And I think oftentimes that’s what individuals are trying to do.”
First of all: Yes, Trump has addressed the issue of Russian hacking and has consistently argued that Russia likely wasn’t involved in the hacking.
That said, Sanders isn’t wrong. Trump’s detractors often do overlap Russian efforts on Trump’s behalf with the theory that Trump was involved. New revelations about the scale of Russia’s involvement in social media trolling, for example, are not revelations about anything the Trump campaign may have been involved, but it can be presented as expanding outward the “Russia story” writ large which can be read as a (figurative) indictment of the president.
However! She still didn’t explain what “collusion” Trump is denying. So:
“Right. Does he mean that about himself or about campaign officials?” Haberman asked. “When he says collusion between the campaign, does he mean himself, or does he mean that no one on his campaign could have known anything?”
This is the key question! Is Trump denying that he colluded (in some form) or that there was no collusion from anyone (whatever that collusion looked like).
Sanders answer? Both.
“Look, I think he’s stating for himself and to anything that he would be a part of, or know about, or have sanctioned,” she replied. “But that would be something that, again, I think he’s very clearly laid out he and his campaign had nothing to do with.”
So what sort of activity is Trump denying? It’s not clear. Who is he denying was involved in it? Himself and also everybody else — apparently regardless of what’s already been reported.
Here is a theory: Trump’s denials of collusion are not anchored to any specific denial and have always been mostly a talking point meant to deflect questions about what he or his campaign may have done. This theory is bolstered by the fact that Trump’s denial of collusion has predated a slew of revelations about what he and his campaign did in 2016: Nothing seems to have caused his confidence in his innocence to waver. In fact, he’s increasingly offered a broader denial, insisting that others join his assessment.
Nothing more damning may emerge. Trump and his campaign may have done nothing more direct to interact with Russian agents than what’s already known. If more does emerge, though, the White House will need to have a more specific explanation of what, exactly, the president is denying.
Haberman’s time asking questions concluded. Sanders called on the next reporter.