Hillary Clinton has made little secret that she blames lots and lots of things not named Hillary Clinton for her 2016 loss. And amid a publicity tour for her just-released book — in which she re-litigates many of them — she just made her most serious claim to date.
USA Today's Susan Page, in an interview published late Monday night, asked Clinton whether she thought Trump associates colluded with Russia. And Clinton broke with many in her party by offering a pretty unvarnished answer in the affirmative.
“There certainly was communication, and there certainly was an understanding of some sort,” Clinton says at first, choosing her words carefully.
Page writes that she pressed further, asking directly about whether Trump associates colluded with Russia.
“I'm convinced of it,” Clinton said.
As is often the case with Clinton, she seemed to want to not-quite-say what she was actually saying. She talked about Trump's ties to Russian money and the fact that Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to win. She talked about how those close to Trump “worked really hard to hide their connections with Russians.” She even punctuated all of this by saying, “I happen to believe in the rule of law and believe in evidence, so I'm not going to go off and make all kinds of outrageous claims.”
But that is a significant claim, and a bolder one than most Democrats have made thus far about collusion.
I asked Page for the full question-and-answer from her Clinton interview to get a sense for all of the context. Here's what she provided:
PAGE: Is there any doubt in your mind there was collusion with the Russians by Trump associates?
CLINTON: I think the evidence is very compelling that somebody had to help direct and coordinate the actions by the Russians. And that's what members of Congress and the special counsel are trying to get to the bottom of it. I'm convinced of it. But, you know, I happen to believe in the rule of law and believe in evidence, so I'm not going to go off and make all kinds of outrageous claims. But if you look at what we've learned since [the election], it's pretty troubling.”
Clinton gave herself some plausible deniability with the rest of her answer, but all of it points clearly in one direction: Collusion. “There certainly was an understanding of some sort” and “I'm convinced of it” are pretty strong statements. Clinton could argue that her “I'm convinced of it” comment referred back to the idea that “somebody had to help direct and coordinate the actions by the Russians,” but what is that if not collusion?
The question was about “associates,” specifically, and not Trump himself or even his campaign aides, it's worth noting. But it's still further than most Democrats have been willing to go.
The idea that Trump may have colluded with Russia is certainly on the tip of many Democrats' tongues, but most have been more circumspect than Clinton. The lead Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), for example, has said there is “circumstantial” evidence of collusion, but has added: “I'm not prepared to say that there's proof you could take to a jury.” Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the lead Democrat in the Senate's Russia investigation, has said there is “clear evidence” that Trump officials tried to get information from Russians but that there is a lot of smoke but no smoking gun. When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) suggested Donald Trump Jr. may have committed treason or perjury, his office was quick to emphasize that Kaine had also said nothing was proved yet.
The trouble for Democrats is in getting over their skis. If they push too hard and argue that there was definitely collusion, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finds none, it risks strengthening Trump and making Democrats look like conspiracy theorists.
Clinton, of course, has considerably fewer qualms about saying what she thinks these days. And her words in this case are pretty clear.