In theory, the message offered by President Trump on Twitter Thursday evening was something of an olive branch.
“After two years of hard work and each party trying their best to make the other party look as bad as possible, it’s time to get back to business,” Trump wrote, later adding that “now Republicans and Democrats must come together for the good of the American people.”
Between those two sentences, though, came this one.
"The Mueller Report strongly stated that there was No Collusion with Russia (of course) and, in fact, they were rebuffed at every turn in attempts to gain access."
To some extent, Trump is correct that the conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election makes it a thing of the past. But it’s impossible for it to remain there when the president continues to misrepresent what that investigation determined.
That sentence encapsulates a very specific rhetorical tactic that Trump deploys regularly. As soon as he’s established a beachhead with an argument, he pushes it further. Here, he takes his assertion that Mueller found no collusion and uses that to make a broader claim: Russia’s efforts to work with his campaign were “rebuffed at every turn.”
We'll note first that the claim about Mueller “strongly” stating that there was no collusion is itself false. While Mueller did state that there was not sufficient evidence to establish that Trump or his campaign had coordinated directly with the Russian government's primary interference efforts — a social media push and the hacking of Democratic networks and accounts — Mueller directly and specifically noted that his probe didn't assess “collusion."
"[C]ollusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law,” he wrote. “For those reasons, the Office's focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law."
This is important because the colloquial understanding of “collusion” is generally something different from “entered into a provable criminal conspiracy with elements of the Russian government in its efforts to hack material, distribute that material and sow dissent over social media.” Trump folds the Mueller determination into “collusion” broadly because he wants to argue that anything anyone wants to describe as collusion was washed away by the special counsel’s cleansing words.
Hence the new extension of that claim, that Mueller found that Russia was rebuffed at every turn.
This is immediately, obviously and somewhat amusingly untrue. For those who hold a looser standard of collusion than does Mueller, a central example of a questionable Trump campaign interaction with Russian interests is in the meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016. You know that meeting. It’s the one where a music promoter working for the family of a powerful Russian developer emailed Donald Trump Jr. to say that the Russian government wanted to aid Trump’s campaign, and Trump Jr. “rebuffed” them by saying “if it’s what you say, I love it.”
May we all be similarly rebuffed by those we love.
The Mueller report is in fact replete with examples of Trump campaign members and allies doing the opposite of rebuffing overtures from Russia. Trump Jr. took a meeting predicated on the offer he had received. Campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was told by a Russia-connected professor in April 2016 that the country had emails incriminating Hillary Clinton, and one of his responses was to tell an Australian diplomat about that cache of documents over drinks. Another campaign adviser, Carter Page, rebuffed Russia by traveling to Russia for a conference, later reporting to the campaign that a deputy prime minister with whom he’d spoken “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together toward devising better solutions in response to a vast range of current international problems.”
Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen rebuffed Russia by working to get a development project approved in Moscow, at one point having a lengthy conversation with an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, a senior adviser to the campaign, rebuffed Russia by meeting repeatedly with the Russian ambassador. Various members of the campaign rebuffed Russia by meeting with Dimitri Simes, the head of a think tank linked to the Russian government. Members of Trump’s team embraced WikiLeaks’ release of information stolen by Russia from the Democratic Party and a senior Clinton campaign official.
Oh, and Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, rebuffed Russia by:
- Offering to give campaign briefings to Putin-linked Russian oligarchs,
- Communicating regularly with a former colleague believed to be linked to Russian intelligence, and
- Sharing internal campaign polling data with that former colleague.
Our condolences to Russia and Russian leaders! Doors slammed in their faces at every turn.
It's very fair to differentiate between Russian individuals and people acting on behalf of Russia. The problem is that the line can be blurry. Were all of the above interactions sanctioned directly by the Kremlin? Probably not.
But did any of the interactions above constitute a clear effort by Trump and his team to turn Russia away? By no means.
There were times when outreach was rebuffed. A Russian politician named Alexander Torshin twice contacted the campaign through intermediaries in May 2016, seeking a meeting. Both times, it seems, that that outreach was directly stymied. (Torshin nonetheless ended up sitting near Trump Jr. at a dinner that month where the two met.) Papadopoulos’s efforts to set up a meeting with Trump and Putin included Manafort kiboshing a high-level trip to the country. Cohen similarly spiked proposed travel to Russia for an economic conference.
In the broad sweep of Mueller's report, though, those incidents are the minority. (The Torshin exchange isn't even mentioned in the unredacted portion of the document.)
In fact, Mueller addressed the interplay of Russia and the campaign directly.
“The Russian contacts consisted of business connections, offers of assistance to the Campaign, invitations for candidate Trump and Putin to meet in person, invitations for Campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government to meet, and policy positions seeking improved U.S.-Russian relations,” it reads. It walks through those contacts, most of which are detailed above, and then notes that its ability to answer every question was limited in a variety of ways.
“Accordingly, while this report embodies factual and legal determinations that the Office believes to be accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible, given these identified gaps,” the report states, “the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”
Rebuffed at every turn.