When Attorney General William P. Barr first offered the country an assessment of the conclusions reached by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, he excluded one word that America had been hearing a lot: collusion.
There was no mention of “collusion” in the four-page letter that Barr released last month immediately after Mueller’s team completed its work looking at possible coordination between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election. What Mueller determined, according to Barr, was instead that the probe “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities” — as Mueller himself wrote.
In short order, Trump seized on that result to trumpet his favorite mantra: No collusion!
“After a long investigation, after so many people have been so badly hurt, after not looking at the other side where a lot of bad things happened, a lot of horrible things happened, a lot of very bad things happened for our country — it was just announced there was no collusion with Russia,” Trump said shortly after Barr’s initial letter was released. “The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
It didn’t take much time for observers to note that “collusion” doesn’t really have a legal meaning. They also noted that Mueller’s “exoneration” (in Trump’s consistent phrasing since) focused on a specific denial of conspiracy or coordination that appeared to be contingent on legally provable cases. How could one say there was “no collusion” when Barr never addressed “collusion” — and when there isn’t agreement broadly about what it means or what might qualify?
On Thursday, in his news conference setting the table for the release of the redacted version of Mueller’s complete findings, Barr was much more direct. On multiple occasions, Barr specifically addressed “collusion” as a concept.
- “The Special Counsel found no ‘collusion’ by any Americans in the IRA’s illegal activity” — a reference to the efforts by the Internet Research Agency in Russia to spread dissent on social media and encourage disruptive events.
- “There was no evidence of Trump campaign ‘collusion’ with the Russian government’s hacking” — hacking that targeted the Democratic Party and members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
- “The Special Counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those schemes.”
Note that the excerpts above, which come from Barr’s remarks as published at the Department of Justice’s website, puts “collusion” in quotes. He is using the word, it seems, in a colloquial sense.
Why? In part to bolster the rationale by which he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein decided that Trump had not engaged in obstruction of justice.
“In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context,” Barr said. “President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.”
This is by itself disingenuous, given the breadth of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia that raised the question of appropriateness in the first place. Generously interpreting Trump’s opposition to the investigation as frustration from knowing he was innocent of “collusion” begs the question of what constitutes collusion: specifically those things that Barr highlighted on which Mueller cleared Trump.
So of what “collusion” was Trump actually exonerated? Two specific possibilities emerge in Barr’s framing.
“The Special Counsel’s report did not find any evidence that members of the Trump campaign or anyone associated with the campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its hacking operations,” Barr said. In other words, the hacking that occurred in the spring of 2016 was conducted without the aid of anyone affiliated with the campaign — a charge that no one has made.
What isn’t included there is the effort to release the hacked material. In fact, Barr lowers the bar in that regard, noting that Mueller “did not find that any person associated with the Trump campaign illegally participated in the dissemination of the materials.” We know they helped disseminate the material by sharing links to WikiLeaks’ dumps of the stolen material (which WikiLeaks got from Russia in July, according to Mueller). But that phrasing is vague enough that it might include other dissemination efforts.
The other place collusion didn’t happen, according to Barr, was with the Internet Research Agency’s work.
He quoted Mueller: “The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.” We know that some Americans did aid that effort, notably people hired by the Russians to make signs or dress up like Hillary Clinton at campaign events, acts that they believed they were carrying out on behalf of other Trump-supporting Americans.
This is important, though, in establishing that the campaign doesn’t appear to have coordinated any information with the Russians that was used by the IRA to target voters with specific messages — an effort for which there was never any real evidence.
That’s the extent of Barr’s collusion exoneration. It excludes things like other outreach by Russian actors to the campaign, including efforts that seemed to suggest a direct desire by Russia to aid Trump, such as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and Carter Page’s interactions with a Russian deputy prime minister the month after. Collusion, according to Barr, is only those things that overlap specifically with the two central interference efforts — hacking and the IRA — and the lack of any such collusion offers some justification for Trump lashing out at that investigation.
Whether Americans will be more convinced by Barr’s more fleshed-out denial of collusion than they have been by Trump’s curt rejections remains to be seen.