There’s an emergent genre of ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling that’s in vogue on the American left: President Trump aided the Russian interference effort, and here’s what it looked like.
The lengthiest entry of its kind came from the Democratic National Committee itself in a lawsuit filed in April. The party filed a complaint against Russia, Russian intelligence, WikiLeaks, the Trump campaign, various campaign staffers and a number of unidentified individuals, accusing them of having engaged in a sweeping scheme to steal the election from Hillary Clinton in violation of various laws.
We noted at the time the complaint was filed that the evidence presented was sketchy, more Alex Jones than “Serial.” But the lawsuit served a key purpose — summarizing the case against Trump in a way that would probably appeal to the party’s base.
At Mother Jones, David Corn took a different tack, presenting last month an important counterpoint to Trump’s simple refrain of “no collusion.” Corn, like the DNC, stitches together what’s known in an effort to reinforce what many already believe. But his is a framing document, meant to counteract Trump’s narrative, not a Grand Theory of Collusion.
In fact, Corn specifically wants to turn attention away from the question of “collusion,” instead setting a lower bar that Trump has already passed — by denying the interference effort even while members of his team had murky, unreported contacts with Russian actors. Corn describes this as Trump “aiding and abetting” the interference effort, summarizing his case by noting that an “overseas enemy struck at the core of the republic — and it succeeded. Trump and his minions helped and encouraged this attack by engaging in secret contacts with Moscow and publicly insisting no such assault was happening.”
We know that at least six people in Trump’s orbit had contact with Russians offering aid or information. Trump and his allies insist none of those contacts amounts to “collusion.”
In part, that’s because Trump seems to set a high bar for what counts as unacceptable collusion: “Unless evidence emerges that he personally met with Russian hackers, told them which Democratic Party emails to steal,” as Corn describes it, “and then provided guidance on how to release the material, then nothing wrong occurred.”
That’s probably true. Trump’s first claim that there was “no collusion” came before much of what we now know, including that campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was told about emails stolen by Russia and that Donald Trump Jr. embraced an offer of dirt on Clinton from a government-linked Russian lawyer. None of what we now know has prompted Trump to moderate his position, because his position is that the bar for improper behavior is something much higher than what his critics believe — something so high, it’s probable, that it can never be met.
In part, though, Trump’s team is insisting that no collusion occurred precisely because the links and actors above are murky or insignificant. Papadopoulos was not particularly important to the campaign — did what he learned actually matter that much? Trump Jr. was important — but he doesn’t at this point seem to have learned much about what Russia was up to. Longtime Trump ally Roger Stone was offered info from a random Russian guy, not the government. Paul Manafort had links to oligarchs and probably the government, but we don’t know how or whether he leveraged them.
There’s no definition of “collusion” in this context, so we’re left arguing mostly about what is and isn’t acceptable. The slow release and evolution of news about what actually happened allows Trump and his allies to slowly wrap their frame of acceptability around what’s learned, which is precisely what Corn is trying to rebut.
Then there’s Jonathan Chait at New York magazine.
Chait’s smart enough not to present his exhaustive “theory of mind-boggling collusion” as proof of collusion. Instead, he adds that qualifying “theory,” the way reporters add “alleged” before descriptions of guys arrested holding big sacks of money while walking out of bank vaults. But in this case it’s more like adding “allegedly” in front of a description of a guy arrested for bank robbery on the strength of his having Googled “bank” and “vault” within 24 hours of each other.
There are a lot of people on the political left who believe not only that political malfeasance has been proved but that, in fact, collusion and illegality have as well. If the DNC lawsuit was the legalese presentation of that case, Chait is offering the Oliver Stone “JFK” version, a narrative that willingly loops in even obscure and debunked points in an effort to make the strongest viable case for Trump having done the worst possible thing.
“A case like this presents an easy temptation for conspiracy theorists,” he writes, “but we can responsibly speculate as to what lies at the end of this scandal without falling prey to their fallacies.”
Except that’s not entirely what follows.
Take the dossier of reports compiled by British former intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Like so many of the allegations about Trump and his relationship with Russian actors, Steele’s reports include unverified analysis and intelligence painting a broad picture of how Trump and his campaign might have worked with the Russian government. Chait, like many of those eager to demonstrate malfeasance, isolates some components of the dossier as having been validated or correct enough to warrant embrace.
For example, the dossier describes “the role of Carter Page, a member of Trump’s foreign-policy team whom Russia had been trying to cultivate as a spy since at least 2013,” Chait writes. Well sure — but Page traveled to Russia in July 2016 to give a speech, something that was widely known at the time and that would certainly warrant inclusion in a report from a guy researching links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Chait also points to the dossier’s mention of a trip by Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen to Prague, a journey for which special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had reportedly found evidence. That would indeed be a big deal if the reporting were verified — but it hasn’t yet been confirmed by Mueller or his team.
Chait spends five long paragraphs on one particular theory — that a quiet Internet connection between a Russian bank and a server at Trump Tower might have been used to share demographic information about the campaign, helping the Russians target their social media efforts to influence Americans.
That story broke at Slate shortly before the election, and it’s not what Chait presents. At the time I spoke with an expert on the sorts of commercial networks at issue in the back-and-forth. The conversation was long and detailed, but the short version is this: It was probably a function of marketing emails sent by the Trump Organization — emails sent from a server that wasn’t hosted at Trump Tower and that resulted in a specific type of response from the bank. If you were looking to share information with a foreign actor, there are thousands of ways to do it without leaving tracks that involve a Russian bank and a domain including the word “Trump.”
“The biggest mystery of [Franklin Foer’s Slate] story — why did Trump and Russia need a computer server to communicate? — now has a coherent answer,” Chait writes. “… We know that [Russia’s] social-media activity employed precise demographic and geographic targeting — far more precise than a foreign country would be expected to have and notably concentrated on ‘key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal,’ CNN reported.”
This simply isn’t true. CNN found that the Russians targeted Michigan and Wisconsin — but other data revealed that Maryland was targeted by five times as many ads as Wisconsin. Most of the Wisconsin ads ran during the primary. More ads targeted D.C. than Pennsylvania. What’s more, the targeting was generally very broad, not focused on targeting, say, Hispanics in the Zip code 44444 who are registered to vote but, instead, national racial groups or people who liked certain Facebook pages. There’s nothing public that indicates that the Russian targeting was based on anything other than a casual understanding of American politics, something that the Russians were focused on beginning in 2014, according to Mueller’s indictment documents. Perhaps CNN’s sources didn’t know what qualified as exceptionally specific political ad marketing, but the Russian effort doesn’t appear to be it.
There are other asterisks worth noting in Chait’s piece, such as the suggestion that Trump might have been compromised as far back as 1987 or the uncertainty surrounding a number of other alleged links that Chait breezily includes in the essay.
He’s right on a big point, though: It’s absolutely the case that more could and probably will emerge about how Trump and his team might have interacted with Russian actors over the course of the 2016 campaign. It’s true, too, as Corn notes, that the bar for “collusion” is undefined — as is what should or shouldn’t be considered acceptable behavior from Trump’s team and his allies. The answer to that question differs widely by partisan identity.
It’s also true that there is a big appetite for proof that Trump violated the law or colluded with Russia, an appetite that has turned various social media personalities into mini-celebrities and will probably spur a lot of interest in any story presenting a walk-through of the evidence for that malfeasance.
The DNC almost certainly didn’t file its lawsuit because it thought that Trump’s allies would wind up in jail. Sometimes a case is made because people want to hear the case be made, not because the case is strong.