What Is the Crisis? The Possibility of Collusion

June 15, 2017

What would “collusion” look like? That’s the question that’s on my mind today.

In a previous post, I outlined four possibilities about how we might understand the crisis currently facing the United States. The first of those possibilities was this:

“that the person who is serving as President of the United States has, allegedly, done some things that disqualify him from further service. Among the allegations are that he colluded with the Russians to have them help him win the election.

That same post sketched three other understandings of the crisis, and I said I was more drawn to two of these others. But for the moment, let’s focus on this first alternative: Arguably, Donald Trump has done either or both of two disqualifying things: colluded with agents of a foreign power to affect the outcome of the presidential election, and/or committed obstruction of justice in trying halt any investigation of such possible collusion.

It is the obstruction of justice charge that has received the lion’s share of attention since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9. On May 17, Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as Special Prosecutor to continue the investigation that the FBI had started earlier about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Since Mueller’s appointment there has been a good deal of public discussion of the obstruction possibility, but very little public discussion of the collusion/interference matter. Some day we will hear from James Mueller about his investigation, but almost certainly no time soon.

So, again, what would collusion have looked like? What collusion might have happened between operatives of the Russian government and those acting on behalf of the Trump/Pence campaign?

Some things we do know.

  • We know that there have been many connections between Trump, his family members, business associates and political operatives, on the one hand, and Russian government, mob and business figures on the other.
  • We know that Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, which might corroborate deep Trump family business connections with Russians, perhaps even Putin-linked Russians.
  • We know that Michael Flynn (Trump’s first national Security Adviser), Jeff Sessions (his Attorney General), and Jared Kushner (his son-in-law and adviser extraordinaire) all lied about contacts with Russians during the campaign and in the period before the inauguration.
  • Finally, we know agents of the Russian government interfered with 2016 election. As James Comey put it in recent testimony, “There’s no fuzz on that.”

So what don’t we know? We don’t know if there was any explicit collusion between Trump or his campaign officials with Russian government or quasi-government agents.

Or is that right? Back in July 2016, we heard Donald Trump, at a press conference call on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. And he called on them to be publicly released if Russia did find those missing emails. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” he added.

Isn’t that collusion? Was that so out front and blatant that it doesn’t really count? Or do we take that as not really a serious request by Trump, so outrageous as to be theater not real collusion?

What would collusion have to look like for it to be considered serious – serious enough for the election of Donald Trump to be viewed as illegitimate, serious enough for him to be impeached and removed? That’s the question I’ve been wondering.

Here’s what etymology.com has to say about collusion:

collusion (n.)

late 14c., from Old French collusion, from Latin collusionem (nominative collusio) “act of colluding,” from colludere, from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see com-) + ludere “to play” (see ludicrous). “The notion of fraud or underhandedness is essential to collusion” [Fowler].

Playing together, but with an element of “fraud” or “underhandedness.”

I can think of two different forms that collusion might have taken: encouragement or coordination. Trump may, on the one hand, have encouraged the Russians to meddle in the American election by hacking into e-mails and releasing the embarrassing ones, or by messing around with voting software (we know the Russians did that too) or putting out and promoting false stories (ditto). Or, on the other hand, Trump or his political operatives, may have worked out a coordinated scheme of activities that included all three of these kinds of activities.

If it’s merely a question of encouragement, then the July 27 press conference remarks has to count as confirming. On the other hand, if it’s coordination that we need to see, then that’s probably some of what Robert Mueller is currently investigating.

But why would we need to see evidence of such coordination? Some kinds of collusion required considerable advance planning among those involved. To cheat at bridge you’d need to work out a system of signals between partners. On the other hand, not much coordination – if any really – would have been necessary for Trump to benefit illicitly from Russian meddling. Think of an alley-oop pass in basketball. It takes little more than eye contact for such a play to be put in motion. Trump and the Russians had already established a degree of recognized mutual interest in their earlier business dealings. Both sides would have realized, without any discussion, that efforts to embarrass Hillary Clinton would work to the benefit of Trump in the election. It wouldn’t even require much eye contact to put such collusion in motion.

In this regard it’s telling for me that Trump has done next to nothing (Sessions, too) to condemn the known Russian interference. So should we expect to learn of explicit coordination? I don’t think so. Perhaps it took place, but it needn’t have to render this election illegitimate.

For me, it’s also telling that Trump has been eager to hear reassurances that he isn’t under investigation. He received such assurances from Comey, but now the Washington Post reports Trump himself is indeed under investigation after firing Comey. Perhaps Trump is dissembling, but that strikes me as unlikely. More plausible is that some collusion (encouragement or coordination) took place between members of his staff and Russian agents. Trump himself may be unaware of what took place.

That possibility puts me back in mind of the famous Sen. Howard Baker question during the Watergate Hearings. (Baker, a Republican, was the ranking minority on the panel.) “What did the President know and when did he know it?” That question became a touchstone for Watergate, and made all the more explosive the revelation that the President did know of the cover-up and di help to orchestrate it. Likely Baker began posing that question to help insulate Nixon from damage. As the Christian Science Monitor explained it years later, “What’s forgotten today is that Baker thought he was protecting Nixon with that line. He was attempting to wall off the president from the actions of aides who might have done something wrong.” Baker had begun to suspect something bad had happened; perhaps all the blame could fall on Nixon aides and Nixon himself could be shielded from the fallout.

I remember thinking at the time that Nixon himself should be held responsible for the behavior of his close aides and advisers. So, too, with Donald Trump.

The question of collusion between the Russians and the Trump/Pence campaign is a live one. It’s made more vital by the lies and denials of Flynn, Sessions, Kushner and others. It’s made more vital by Trump’s refusal to release his taxes. It’s made more vital yet again by his firing of Comey. The more these things come to light, the more we have to wonder what more there is to learn.

The question of collusion is a critical one for U.S. democracy and self-government. It wouldn’t have taken much more than a wink or a nod between the Russians and the Trump team to change the outcome of this very close election, and to render the result illegitimate.

Who’s to say “illegitimate?” On the one hand, recognition of collusion on the part of the Congress could lead to impeachment and removal of Trump (Pence, too?) from office. But that judgment would be up to the Republican majorities in both Houses. Just now, they’re sticking close to Trump.

On the other hand, it’s really up to the American voting public. What will we conclude in the weeks and months to come about whether there was collusion? And if we see there was, what will we do about it?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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