Can We Please Stop Talking About ‘Collusion’?
Within hours after the American public found out that his most senior campaign official was under an indictment that described him as a secret agent of Russian interests, President Trump declared on Twitter: “There is NO COLLUSION!” A forceful statement if there ever was one. But what exactly was he denying so categorically? We have no idea.
For one reason or another, “collusion” has become the term of choice for discussing what the Trump campaign may or may not have done with Russians. Those in the Trump camp use it regularly: “I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government,” Jared Kushner told Congress this summer. “I did not collude with any foreign government,” Donald Trump Jr. said. “I deeply resent any allegation that I would collude with the oppressive Russian state,” the Republican strategist Roger Stone harrumphed.
It isn’t just those in the Trump camp, though, who have settled on using this word. Among the first to refer to collusion was John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, who raised the specter on “Meet the Press”: “I would argue that there’s very, it’s very much unknown whether there was collusion.” In that same week, Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said of Trump campaign connections to WikiLeaks, “So there is collusion there, clearly.” The term has been a touchstone ever since.
Mr. Trump and his inner circle have benefited enormously from this coalescing around the word “collusion” — a term with a legalistic feel but with close to “no legal meaning whatsoever” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and now a defense lawyer who has written a dissection of every public statement that a Trump associate has made to congressional investigators. If we care about the law — and about holding public figures accountable for their false denials — the impassioned disavowals of collusion by members of the Trump circle mean nothing. Donald Trump Jr.’s utterances to Congress, for example, were “not denying that he committed a crime,” Mr. Mariotti said. “Whether his denial is broader or more narrow than that depends on what exactly is meant by ‘collude’ in this statement — which we don’t know.”
What might the term “collusion” actually mean? Mr. Mariotti and I may disagree on a small technicality; it does have some legal meaning. It is found in one place in the federal code, in the area of antitrust law, concerning practices such as price-fixing. But that’s no help. To transpose the antitrust framework onto issues of election interference would require metaphor gymnastics.
Outside the legal definition, collusion might mean something along the lines of conspiracy and complicity. And we should not care only about whether Mr. Trump’s actions were inside or outside the boundaries of the law. The impeachment clause of the Constitution certainly doesn’t (you can be impeached for violating the public’s sacred trust without committing a crime). The sheer offensiveness of the action is what’s more important.
But the integrity of even this idea has been degraded by the ready mixing of the term with legal concepts (notions of “proof” of collusion and ideas of “criminal collusion”).
The problem is that the focus on the term “collusion” has had the effect of implying precision where there is essentially none. Meeting the standard of “proof of collusion” isn’t a matter of meeting a technical definition or threshold — it is a matter of persuading enough people that what we’re seeing is collusion. It is, in other words, a political judgment and, as with all things political, is extraordinarily subjective and vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations. The fuzziness of the current discourse may not matter much to the F.B.I., whose investigation will surely adhere to the letter of the law — but it might matter a great deal for how its findings play in the court of public opinion.
The use of the word has, for instance, allowed members of Congress handling the Russia investigation to tell us that they have not seen a scintilla of evidence of “collusion.” We now know that these congressional members had long been told by American intelligence officials that advisers to Mr. Trump might be working with the Russians to interfere in the election. That’s what use of the word “collusion” helped keep hidden
The term’s elusiveness has also allowed for an easy shifting of goal posts. Back in June, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to say that President Barack Obama was the one who “colluded” with the Kremlin to interfere with the election. When a reporter pressed the question — “what evidence does he have that President Obama was colluding?” — the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, responded that Obama insiders “knew about it and didn’t take any action.” If that were the standard for collusion, then if people on Mr. Trump’s campaign were aware of Russian possession of stolen emails and did nothing, they’d have no defense against allegations of collusion. But they do — because the term comes with no consensus as to its definition.
We have now surely lost touch with any reasonable sense of what “collusion” means. If we, as a country, knew a year ago what’s now understood to be an avalanche of well-reported facts, published emails and legal documentation, the behavior of the president’s family and associates would have crossed any reasonable line of what might be meant by an attempt to collude with the Kremlin.
Mr. Trump might have won anyway without Vladimir Putin’s help. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the behavior of Mr. Trump and his associates amounts to a deep offense against the public’s sacred trust. We need to reckon not only with that fact, but also with how as a nation, we’ve almost lost the sense to recognize it.