Defining Collusion Down
When Attorney General Bill Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings dropped on Sunday, millions of liberals experienced the same sinking feeling that beset conservatives in Bill Clinton’s heyday.
Clinton’s scandals billowed smoke, but the fire was, if not nonexistent, less than the four-alarm blaze the Right had predicted. So it is with the Resistance under President Donald Trump: never content to take what their political nemesis is unambiguously giving them, they must allege treason and other high crimes. If the Barr letter faithfully describes the full Mueller report, the dots cannot be so readily connected.
The indictments gave a strong clue that the results of Mueller’s investigation were going to be underwhelming compared to the Resistance fan fiction that kept popping up on cable news. Yes, there were a lot of them, as well as guilty pleas and criminal convictions. But no American was ever charged with conspiring with Russia to commit an election-related crime; the indicted Russians were never described as having witting U.S. accomplices; and the narrative portions of the indictments never attempted to establish a grand Trump-Russia conspiracy.
Liberals, and more than a few Never Trump conservatives, fervently believed Mueller was building his way up to a big collusion reveal—establishing Paul Manafort’s financial motives, getting Michael Cohen to expand upon Trump’s Russia-related business conflicts, revealing Michael Flynn’s back channels, demonstrating Roger Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks.
But Mueller’s indictments represented what the special counsel thought his team could walk into a courtroom and prove. These were largely financial crimes that predated the Trump campaign or process crimes resulting from the investigation itself. They all raised legitimate questions about the ethics and professionalism of certain Trump team members, as well as the judgment of the president himself—he didn’t only hire the best people, as it turned out.
What none of these indictments did, however, was try to prove a Trump-Russia conspiracy. Thus it is unsurprising that the Mueller report does not ultimately allege one. If Manafort, Flynn, Stone, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page did not collude in some legally meaningful way, then who did?
None of this means the full Mueller report will be exculpatory in its every particular. A real risk for Trump was that Mueller would use this document to elaborate on things he suspected and for which he had some evidence but could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt. This would have been a questionable tactic, similar to how FBI Director James Comey declined to recommend prosecuting Hillary Clinton but proceeded to publicly trash her conduct anyway. But ultimately the president cannot be indicted under existing Justice Department guidelines and impeachment is essentially a political decision by members of Congress.
We know, according to Barr, that Mueller laid out evidence on both sides of the obstruction of justice question. He could not similarly punt on collusion, but it’s entirely possible that there are examples of inappropriate contacts with the Russians during the campaign that could be pieced together in a manner damning to the president or those in his orbit. If impeachment-hungry Democrats feel Barr downplayed or sanitized such instances in his letter, they will be outraged.
That’s where the Trump-Russia affair will take its next Clintonian turn: debating the definition of collusion. Trump world plays this game too when it suits their purposes, accusing the Democrats of colluding with Russian sources for the Christopher Steele dossier. The Trump Tower meeting, “Russia, are you listening?” and Stone’s WikiLeaks contacts may not be the only examples of at an unseemly willingness to benefit politically from Russian dirt.
Yet from the dossier to Hillary Clinton’s own theory of how collusion worked, the allegations were more detailed and the conspiracy more elaborate. This is also true of the Crossfire Hurricane origins of the Trump-Russia investigation itself. If Trump and company were truly working hand-in-glove with the Russians, or even generally aware of what the Kremlin was doing, they would not have needed Rob Goldstone to set up a Trump Tower meeting or to ask Stone about WikiLeaks.
Nevertheless, if we learn that Mueller discovered other previously unreported incidents along these lines, those who once put their faith in the special counsel will begin to argue he was too narrow, conservative, and legalistic in his definition of collusion. The public may get tired of this, but Democrats will be tempted to define collusion down.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.