PRESIDENT TRUMP tweets it repeatedly: Yes, there was collusion with Russia — except the real colluders were Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. The president was back at it again Thursday, quoting a conservative cable host’s assertion that “Hillary Clinton & the Democrats colluded with the Russians to fix the 2016 election.” This inflammatory argument may play well with the president’s supporters and others inclined to believe the worst about Ms. Clinton. But the claim that Ms. Clinton’s 2016 opposition- research activities were on the same moral or legal plane with the Trump team’s direct interactions with Russians represents a preposterous effort to confuse and distract.
Here is what the Trump team did: Senior campaign officials, including then-chairman Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, met in June 2016 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer. They were told the lawyer could give them “very high level and sensitive information” on Ms. Clinton, as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Here is what the Clinton campaign did: It employed a U.S. law firm that hired a U.S. research outfit that brought in Christopher Steele, a British ex-spy, to gather information on Mr. Trump from his network of sources. That network included Russians.
For all of Mr. Trump’s efforts to muddy the waters, the two cases are decidedly different. There is no evidence of any direct meetings or even tenuous connections between Ms. Clinton’s senior staff and Russian operatives. When the information he was gathering on Mr. Trump seemed alarming, Mr. Steele informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation about his concerns. When the Russian government offered dirt on Mr. Trump’s opponent, his campaign didn’t alert authorities about this sketchy behavior. It eagerly took the meeting.
Mr. Trump’s whataboutism obscures the fundamental difference between engaging in opposition research that includes contacting foreign sources and lapping up information peddled by a foreign government. Mr. Steele, a well-regarded ex-spy, was acting as a compensated researcher with a specialty in Russia, not as a Kremlin cutout. He worked his network to deliver information to his client.
By contrast, Mr. Trump’s team opened itself to legal exposure when it took the unsolicited meeting with Ms. Veselnitskaya. It is illegal for foreign governments to contribute — in a broad sense of the word — to U.S. political campaigns. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics,” Mr. Trump tweeted the other day. The efforts the president and others made to cover up the purpose of the meeting suggest otherwise. And the fact that the damaging information was not forthcoming, at least at that meeting, does not excuse the sordid fact of the meeting in the first instance.
One of Mr. Trump’s go-to defenses is insisting that others have done the things he is accused of, only worse. No matter how many times he tweets about Ms. Clinton’s supposed collusion, that doesn’t make it true, nor does it diminish legitimate concerns about his own campaign’s behavior. And that is even assuming there is nothing more to learn.