“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort. . . . But if you notice, both his lawyer — a highly respected man — and a very highly respected judge, the judge said there was no collusion with Russia. It’s had nothing to do with collusion. There was no collusion. It’s a collusion hoax. It’s a collusion witch-hoax. I don’t collude with Russia. So, I just want to tell you that his lawyer went out of his way, actually, to make a statement last night: no collusion with Russia. There was absolutely none. The judge, I mean, for whatever reason — I was very honored by it — also made the statement that this had nothing to do with collusion with Russia.”
— President Trump, in remarks to reporters at the White House, March 8, 2019
Michael Cohen “said no collusion. And I said, it’s funny, he lied about so many things, and yet he could have said — he might as well lie about that one, too. But he said no collusion. And everybody said no collusion. Richard Burr, Senator Burr, said no collusion. Senate Intelligence. The House has come up, as you know, the committee, Devin Nunes and all, they said no collusion.”
— Trump, in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Feb. 28, 2019
Don’t take it from me, Trump says. Look at all these other people saying there was no collusion with Russia.
“Collusion,” in this case, isn’t a legal term pointing to a specific crime. Depending on the evidence, experts say, cooperating with another country to influence a U.S. election might be an offense such as conspiracy or taking illegal campaign contributions from foreign nationals.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” but he hasn’t announced any conclusions. Reporters, meanwhile, have pieced together contacts between Russian individuals and Trump family members or campaign advisers. Mueller has revealed through numerous court filings “an elaborate Russian operation that injected chaos into a U.S. presidential election and tried to help Trump win the White House,” as the Associated Press reported.
Trump has attacked the FBI’s investigation of such links from the start, even before Mueller was appointed. But it’s a more recent development to see Trump defending himself by quoting Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russian interference. Trump also points to congressional testimony given in February by his former personal attorney Michael Cohen.
On Friday, the president referenced comments from Kevin Downing, attorney for onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and from U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, who presided over one of Manafort’s trials and sentenced him to prison. Trump for months has been citing Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and a report by the House Intelligence Committee, which Nunes formerly led.
Except for Nunes, Trump is stretching what all of these people said.
Russia hacked and strategically released Democrats’ emails in 2016 and spread propaganda to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, according to the U.S. intelligence community, the Justice Department, and the House and Senate intelligence committees. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal was to help Trump win, according to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment from January 2017.
Let’s look at the way Trump characterizes comments from Burr, Cohen, Downing, Ellis and Nunes, and what each of them actually said. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“Richard Burr, Senator Burr, said no collusion.” (Feb. 28 interview)
“Not only did Senator Burr’s Committee find No Collusion by the Trump Campaign and Russia, it’s important because they interviewed 200 witnesses and 300,000 pages of documents, & the Committee has direct access to intelligence information that’s Classified.” (Feb. 8 tweet)
CBS interviewed Burr and reported Feb. 7 that he said, “If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.”
On Feb. 12, Burr told reporters: “I’m not sure how to put it any clearer than I said it before. We have no factual evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.” Then, asked whether his committee’s investigation exonerated Trump, Burr said: “Just saying what factually we’ve found to date. We haven’t finished our investigation.” A representative for Burr said the committee has not yet issued a final report.
These are strong statements from Burr, although he hedges by noting that the investigation is not complete. (Trump does not hedge.)
The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), has disputed Burr’s characterization of the evidence. Warner says that there’s circumstantial evidence of collusion and that some key players have not been interviewed by the committee.
“Just in the public domain, there are literally reams and reams of evidence of Russian outreach to Trump officials and clear interest from Trump officials, including the president’s own son, welcoming the opportunity to get dirt on Hillary,” Warner said March 3 on CNN’s “State of the Union.” On NBC News’s “Meet the Press” the same day, Warner mentioned “the ongoing negotiations about Trump Tower [Moscow], well into the campaign,” “the dump of the WikiLeaks material,” “the president’s campaign manager sharing information, polling information, with the Russians,” and a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Manafort and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in New York.
“We still not have seen many of the major figures, candidly, because they have all been involved with the Mueller investigation, and it’s important that the criminal process proceeds first,” Warner said. Burr told CBS News, “We know we’re getting to the bottom of the barrel because they’re not new questions that we’re searching for answers to.”
“Both the Judge and the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia.” (March 8 tweet)
“The judge said there was no collusion with Russia. . . . So, I just want to tell you that his lawyer went out of his way, actually, to make a statement last night: No collusion with Russia.” (March 8 remarks)
This is not quite what Downing and Ellis said.
Ellis, who presided over one of Manafort’s trials and sentenced him last week, was describing the facts of that case. The judge said Manafort “is not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government to influence this election,” CNN reported. Ellis later restated this: Manafort “is not before the court for any allegation that he or anybody at his direction colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election.”
That’s a simple acknowledgment that Manafort was not tried on charges having to do with collusion in the 2016 election. Ellis was not stating “loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia,” as Trump claimed. This Manafort case centered on financial fraud — “hiding millions he made lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian politicians in overseas bank accounts, then falsifying his finances to get loans when his patrons lost power,” as The Post’s John Wagner reported.
Downing told reporters outside the courthouse on Thursday that “there is absolutely no evidence Paul Manafort worked in collusion with any government official from Russia.” Again, this is a statement about Manafort in particular, not the Trump campaign in general, as the president’s comments suggest.
“He [Michael Cohen] said no collusion.” (Feb. 28 interview)
“The hostile Cohen testimony, given by a liar to reduce his prison time, proved no Collusion!” (March 3 tweet)
Cohen spent hours accusing Trump of wrongdoing during a hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Feb. 27. But when the subject turned to Russia, Trump’s former fixer was circumspect.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘colluding,’” Cohen said. “Was there something odd about the back-and-forth praise with President Putin? Yes, but I’m not really sure that I can answer that question in terms of collusion. I was not part of the campaign. I don’t know the other conversations that Mr. Trump had with other individuals. There is just so many dots that all seem to lead to the same direction.”
As the Associated Press noted, Cohen also said: “The questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not, and I want to be clear. But I have my suspicions.”
It’s not accurate to say these comments “proved no Collusion,” as Trump tweeted. Cohen said he had “suspicions” and noted that he wasn’t part of the campaign and wouldn’t know of some conversations Trump had with others. Cohen said the “back-and-forth praise” between Trump and Putin seemed odd and suggestively threw in that there were “just so many dots that all seem to lead to the same direction.”
“Devin Nunes and all, they said no collusion.” (Feb. 28 interview)
“The Witch Hunt Hoax continues as you now add these statements to House & Senate Intelligence & Senator Burr.” (March 8 tweet)
Nunes is a Trump supporter who has been saying “no collusion” since the summer of 2017, during the early days of various investigations. Trump is relaying Nunes’s remarks accurately.
But the president also cites a March 2018 report by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that was released while Nunes was chairman. Democrats on the committee called the report’s conclusions “misleading and unsupported by the facts and the investigative record.” The GOP report says:
“While the Committee found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, coordinated, or conspired with the Russian government, the investigation did find poor judgment and ill-considered actions by the Trump and Clinton campaigns. For example, the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between members of the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer who falsely purported to have damaging information on the Clinton campaign demonstrated poor judgement. The Committee also found the Trump campaign’s periodic praise for and communications with Wikileaks-a hostile foreign organization-to be highly objectionable and inconsistent with U.S. national security interests.” (The U.S. intelligence community’s 2017 assessment says Russia released Democrats’ hacked emails through WikiLeaks.)
The Republican report also says: “We acknowledge that Investigations by other committees, the Special Counsel, the media, or interest groups will continue and may find facts that were not readily accessible to the Committee or outside the scope of our investigation.”
The Pinocchio Test
“Collusion” is a vague term, legally speaking. Setting legal questions aside, though, it’s impossible to ignore all the documented contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russians in 2016.
Mueller’s investigation is still underway. He may have more information than Congress and the public, and he may reach conclusions as to whether the Trump campaign and the Russian government cooperated to influence the election.
Our ruling is not about any legal questions, collusion or cooperation. It’s about the way Trump stretches comments from Burr, Cohen, Downing and Ellis to defend himself. Burr has said that he has not seen evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but Trump leaves out that Burr hedged by noting that the Senate Intelligence Committee has not finished its work.
Cohen said that he didn’t witness any collusion but added that he would not necessarily have known about it and that he had “suspicions.” Downing said his client did not collude with Russians, but these comments are strictly about Manafort and do not extend to the entire Trump campaign. Ellis was not absolving Trump; he was describing Manafort’s case.
These significant omissions and exaggerations by Trump merit Two Pinocchios.
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