The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fight over ‘collusion’ is still more complicated than it might seem

Special sounsel Robert S. Mueller III walks to his car after attending services at St. John's Episcopal Church, across from the White House, in Washington on March 24. Mueller closed his long and contentious Russia investigation with no new charges, ending the probe that has cast a shadow over Donald Trump's presidency. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Of the 300-plus-pages that make up the final summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible collusion between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, we have seen 38 words from Mueller’s report itself that deal with that central question.

Those 38 words are those in bold below, as quoted in Attorney General William P. Barr’s letter summarizing Mueller’s conclusions. First, Barr describes Mueller’s findings.

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

The sentence then refers to a footnote.

In assessing potential conspiracy charges, the Special Counsel also considered whether members of the Trump campaign “coordinated” with Russian election interference activities. The Special Counsel defined “coordination” as an “agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.

That interference, as alleged in indictments obtained by Mueller’s team and as outlined in Barr’s letter, included both stealing material from Trump’s political opponents that was later published by WikiLeaks and a broad effort to sow discontent and boost Trump on social media. Reporting has indicated that it was carried out at the behest of the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin.

Trump has seized on Barr’s letter, understandably, as an exoneration of himself and his campaign on the long-standing question of whether there was an effort to aid the Russian effort to interfere with the election results. “There was no collusion,” he’s said on countless occasions and, after Barr’s letter came out, offered that Mueller himself agreed.

None of the 38 words above, though, is “collusion.”

To some extent, this doesn’t matter. In the letter appointing Mueller in May 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein gave him a mandate to conduct an investigation looking at “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” The investigation, as Mueller’s own words suggest, “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Collusion isn’t defined, but “coordination” is — and the bar wasn’t met.

To another extent, the fact that “collusion” wasn’t included in Barr’s letter matters a lot.

From the outset of the Mueller probe (and really, well before it), we’ve used this poorly defined term to describe what Trump and his allies were alleged to have done. Collusion, as endless cable-news experts reminded us, isn’t itself a crime, which means that it doesn’t have a hard-and-fast definition in the way that “conspiracy” does. So Americans were sort of left to fend for themselves to determine what it actually meant.

We asked readers about this in an informal survey earlier this month. What, to them, would constitute “collusion” between Trump’s team and Russia? The most common response was that Trump knowing about Russia’s interference efforts but not doing anything about them would count. That’s not the standard that Mueller was applying to the question he was asked to answer, certainly, but it demonstrates that for the public, the bar wasn’t necessarily one of criminal culpability.

It’s worth noting, too, how open to interpretation that quote from Mueller actually is. Writing at Lawfare, former ODNI general counsel Robert Litt points at the language that Mueller used.

“As quoted by Barr, Mueller used the words ‘conspired’ and ‘coordinated.’ Unlike the colloquial term ‘colluded,’ these terms have legal significance,” Litt writes. “ 'Coordination’ with a foreign government would be a basis for a finding of criminal liability under the election laws, and ‘conspiracy’ would be a criminal agreement to violate those laws. This language suggests that Mueller’s report viewed the conduct through the lens of a criminal investigative process — that is, whether the evidence met the Department of Justice standards for prosecution, including the ability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was intent to violate the law.”

Which is to say that Mueller may have found evidence of possible coordination but couldn’t establish that to such an extent that an indictment could be obtained. As we noted Sunday, the Mueller quote also leaves open the question of whether Trump or his campaign coordinated with people connected to the government. Such as WikiLeaks, for example.

There was one public mention made of collusion by the Justice Department. That came in a document from Rosenstein offering more details on Mueller’s mandate. Mueller was authorized to investigate allegations that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law.” In this phrasing, collusion could amount to a criminal act — but what counts as “collusion” is not defined.

In the wake of the release of Barr’s letter, Trump and his supporters embraced or promoted a definition of “collusion” that mapped onto what Mueller is reported to have concluded: No indictment means no collusion. In an interview Wednesday with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Trump reiterated this point.

“They dropped to a level that nobody could believe because now that they see the Mueller report, where you look at their finding — I mean, the finding was very, very strong,” Trump said. “No collusion, no obstruction, no Russia, no nothing.”

In our informal survey, there was a similar divide. Strong Trump supporters had a much narrower definition of “collusion” than did Trump opponents.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) has come under fire from Republicans who’ve pointed to his repeated insistence that there was collusion — including a claim made after Barr’s letter came out. On CBS’s “Face the Nation” this month (before Mueller’s investigation ended) Schiff specifically delineated a difference between collusion and criminality.

“While there is abundant evidence of collusion,” he said, “the issue from a criminal point of view is whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a criminal conspiracy.” He cited the meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 as evidence of collusion.

If that’s your definition of collusion, then that’s collusion. That’s not Trump’s definition of collusion. It’s probably not Barr’s definition of collusion. The 38 words we’ve seen from Mueller make no claim about what “collusion” means.

And that’s where the tension lies. Legality and political propriety and partisan politics are all blended together in the public’s assessment of what happened during the campaign. For which “collusion” is a perfect word: Legal-sounding but not legal, defined loosely enough that it could mean anything.

Mueller’s investigation resulted in no criminal indictments of Trump allies directly related to the main Russian interference effort. We don’t yet know how much evidence there might have been that coordination might have taken place, if any. We do know that, for Mueller, any such evidence wasn’t enough to establish a conspiracy.

And we continue to know that “collusion” is in the eye of the beholder.