An image of President Trump appears on a television screen in the press briefing room at the White House. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

President Trump’s most consistent, concise defense against the slowly metastasizing revelations about his 2016 campaign’s interactions with Russians is that there was “no collusion.” It’s an assertion he’s made without amendment since early in his presidency, providing a simple framework for his supporters to view the investigation into what happened. Trump’s son solicited negative information from someone linked to the Kremlin in a meeting at Trump Tower? Well, there was no collusion between the campaign and Russia, one line of thinking goes, so that must simply have been political business as usual.

The claim that there was no collusion — tacit or explicit efforts from the campaign to encourage Russian interference — is either obviously and immediately false, given what we now know about what happened, or the definition of “collusion” as applied to Trump must be subject to so much narrowing that it's hard to see where that slide would end.

At times, Trump fosters this latter process by semi-seriously encouraging the idea that anything might be described as collusion and, therefore, that the specific things he and his campaign engaged in are being unfairly swept up in similarly broad thinking about how the term is used. At other times, he levels the charge that something is the “real collusion” seemingly without irony, again muddying the waters about how the term should be used when applied to him.

On Thursday, we saw an example of the former.

When Trump visited the border with Mexico, Fox News host Sean Hannity tagged along, palling around with Trump and his team instead of with the press pool. That, in itself, was almost refreshing; Hannity has long been an unabashed Trump advocate and supporter. At one point, he pulled Trump to the side and, standing in front of various federal officials, carried on a brief conversation in the style of a news interview.

“I have tapes of maybe 20 Democrats — they all use the same phrase: ‘Manufactured crisis,’” Hannity told the president at one point. “Interestingly, their best friends in the media, they’re all using the same words, ‘manufactured crisis.’ … What do you say to that talking point the media and the Democrats are using, this as manufactured?”

"Well, you know, I watched last night — I saw on your show last night, actually — where you had anchor after anchors using the exact same word, it's manufactured. Manufactured,” Trump said.

"Sounds like they're in collusion,” Hannity replied.

“A little collusion. That’s the real collusion, okay?” Trump said. “That’s the real collusion, you take a look, because they all use the exact same term.”

"I mean literally the exact same two words. But they had: manufactured. I said, where did they come up with that? It’s a manufactured crisis. No, it’s a manufactured sound bite because it was just a sound bite, but every, virtually every — you know, I call it the fake news. I’m sure you haven’t heard because you’re not fake news, actually, you’re real news.”

Hannity feigned mopping his brow in relief.

This sentence will quickly note that Hannity separated himself from the media physically on Thursday but also did so figuratively in his initial question — while Trump did the same by declaring Hannity, hilariously, to be “real news.” But back to the point.

Trump is clearly joking in this conversation. But the intent of his comment — well, of Hannity's comment, since he helpfully made the joke first — was to wave away the idea of collusion being serious. Maybe the real collusion involves ... I guess, like ... a conference call in which television anchors agree on two-word descriptors? Everything is collusion and therefore nothing Trump does is collusion.

At other times, Trump has also called the following things “the real collusion":

  • The dossier of reports alleging interactions between Trump’s campaign and Russia compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of a firm working for a law firm that was working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party.
  • Facebook, Google and Twitter all being “in favor of the Democrats.” 
  • Former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile’s having sent a question for a town hall event to the Clinton campaign.

He’s also decried various things as the “real Russia story,” like a long-debunked story about a sale of uranium during the Obama administration.

There are two sides to this coin. Either you agree with Trump that interactions like those above are extremely serious violations of the law or threats to the integrity of an election — which helps minimize concerns about what Trump's campaign did — or you dismiss all of these (and the allegations against Trump) as meaningless or unimportant.

As an inoculation, this strategy seems pretty effective. It’s compounded by “collusion” itself having no defined legal meaning, allowing Trump to easily wave away the idea that he broke the law by “colluding.”

So what happens if, as seems more than possible, it’s revealed that Trump knew about that meeting at Trump Tower? If we learn that he lied when he said he didn’t? If we discover that, when he said publicly that he would give a speech to unveil information critical of Clinton, he was talking about the information he expected to learn from that Kremlin-linked attorney?

Well, some Trump supporters will likely argue, that’s nothing compared to the Steele dossier/the uranium deal/the FBI/[whatever]. Well, others will likely argue, this fails to meet a standard of collusion because of [whatever]. Since Trump has established “collusion” as the benchmark, the final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will be measured by much of his base against that standard, not the standards of legality that Mueller and others delineate.

Waving away the idea of untoward coordination by comparing it to two people on two networks using the same term helps reinforce the idea that collusion itself is a joke — or so rampant as to be a useless standard. And since that’s the metric Trump insists upon, it’s hard to see how his most loyal followers might be disagree.