Donald Trump did collude with Russia. He and his presidential campaign’s collusion with Russia was sometimes even done right out in the open. We heard it. We saw it. The investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller resulted in criminal charges against 33 people, including Trump’s presidential campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his personal attorney/fixer, Michael Cohen. Those things happened.
So why then did Attorney General William Barr write a letter claiming the Mueller report said there was no collusion between Trump and Russia? The short answer is: he didn’t.
Barr’s letter does not say there was no “collusion”, despite the countless headlines to the contrary. In fact, Barr’s letter never uses the words “collusion” or “collude.” Not once. There are a few reasons why the word “collusion” matters and why Barr did not use it in his letter. Let’s look at those reasons.
We non-legal types use “collusion” to mean a situation when parties work together to cheat and deceive others. But it is not a legal term of art. Retired federal prosecutor with expertise in organized crime, Elizabeth de la Vega, confirmed to me in a private communication, “Despite its frequent use in quasi-legal contexts, ‘collusion’ is not a legal term. It’s just a shorthand term used colloquially to describe some form of coordination. It has no legal meaning.” [Published with her consent.]
Nonetheless, rather than using an easily understood legal term like “conspiracy” or any other actual legal terms, Trump has used the word “collusion” over 200 times since taking office. His administration and the Republican Party have also chosen the word “collusion” while ostensibly talking about legal issues. “Collusion” is even the chosen term in the GOP talking points for Trump supporters to use about the Mueller report and Barr letter.
In a situation with such serious legal implications, why do Trump and the Republicans choose to use the word “collusion” rather than one with actual legal meaning? Because it frames the narrative reported by the news media. And not just the right-wing media, but the mainstream news media as well. Take a look:
Why do Trump and the GOP want to frame the narrative so that the news media uses a legally meaningless term? Because using an all-encompassing word with no legal meaning like “collusion” causes the American public to question our own reality. Saying there is no “collusion” is an example of gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation and propaganda that can cause individuals and populations to doubt their own perception and experience.
So Trump and the GOP have framed the narrative falsely, and journalists and news outlets have acted as useful idiots on their behalf disseminating propaganda. As a result, Americans are now doubting our eyes and ears and questioning known facts in favor of false assertions, repeatedly stated. This is exactly how democracy begins to die.
Authoritarian leaders want those over whom they have authority to become conditioned to doubt their own perception of reality. They want to be the sole arbiters of truth versus fiction. They want even facts to become deniable and useful only in the context of the story they want told and accepted. Along these lines, Trump and the Republican Party want you to doubt what you know. They want you to question what you see and hear in favor of what they show and say. That’s why Trump and the GOP have been using the term “collusion” –– and that’s why it matters.
Going back to Barr’s letter, let’s take a look at what Barr actually did say and break it down. Here’s what he says in the letter:
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.”
Barr quoted the Mueller report, using “conspired or coordinated” –– not “colluded”. Conspired is a word with actual legal meaning. A conspiracy is a crime. In addition, in the little noticed footnote, Barr clarifies the meaning of “coordinated” in this context so it is understood to be substantially equivalent in legal terms to “conspired”:
In addition, the part of the Mueller report that Barr quotes does not even say there was no conspiracy or coordination –– it says the investigation “did not establish” there was, meaning the investigation did not find evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that could be used in a court of law to convict Trump or his campaign associates with the crime of conspiracy.
Not finding evidence sufficient to establish the crime of conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt is not equivalent to there having been no “collusion”. The former is a legal standard. The latter is a description of a set of activities, many of them observable and in the public domain in this case.
Let’s look again at the partial sentence of the actual Mueller report contained in Barr’s letter. The words also specify conspiracy was not established with “the Russian government” –– it does not say with any Russian oligarchs or organized crime groups or cut-outs once or twice removed from the government or Russian nationals or surrogates working on their behalf. It says “the Russian government”.
The reason this is important is that the scope of the authority of the Special Counsel was very limited and specified “the Russian government” as well:
As Russian dissident Gary Kasparov outlines in this thread, Russian President Vladimir Putin operates in the gray areas of plausible deniability.
Putin would not and did not send an official Russian government employee to sit down with a representative of the Trump presidential campaign to write up a quid pro quo agreement to get Trump into the White House in return for lifting sanctions. That’s not how Putin works. And yet, those are exactly the types of evidence and interactions Mueller was constrained by the terms of his appointment to seek and find in order to be able to prove there was a conspiracy.
In other words, Mueller was operating with his hands tied. Trump and Putin were not.
Finally, what is being almost completely ignored by most reporting is the confirmation within the Barr letter that the Mueller investigation found evidence confirming Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. That interference happened. The United States intelligence community reported it, Mueller confirmed it, and Barr admitted it. Trump is on record as having encouraged it, he and his presidential campaign leveraged the material involved, and he has helped Putin by repeatedly denying that interference happened at all for years now.
Why? Trust the facts you have seen and heard, not the propaganda you are being shown and told. Trust the reality you have experienced, not the narrative you are being sold. The answer is simple, and you know it.