Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on my view of the current evidence of collusion in the Russian investigation. I wrote the column to explain my skepticism over these oft-stated theories. President Donald Trump included my view in a quote in the Trump tweet which triggered something of a torrent of irate emails. He did not misrepresent my views. As explained below, I still do not see the compelling evidence for such a claim. As discussed yesterday, that is obviously not the view of CNN Legal Analyst and former White House ethics attorney Norm Eisen who declared that the case for collusion is now “devastating” and that Trump is “colluding in plain sight.” The column is an effort to actually bring some legal content to this debate. There have been countless hours of broadcast “analysis” but very little of the actual cited evidence and how it could fit with any criminal provision or even credible definitions of collusion.
Here is the column:
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “Silver Blaze,” about Sherlock Holmes’s investigation of the disappearance of a race horse, the local inspector asked if there was “any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Holmes responds, “To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” When the inspector objects, “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” Holmes replies, “That was the curious incident.”
The point drives home the importance of objective, true observation by a detective like Holmes: The absence of a dog’s bark is as significant as any bark would be, albeit, leading to an inverse conclusion from the common assumptions of investigators.
This week, I was live on MSNBC’s program when I was cited in a presidential tweet about collusion. President Trump quoted my previously stated view on Fox News that I remain “skeptical” about the collusion theories advanced by critics and that I find these theories “implausible based on the evidence” currently available.
MSNBC host Ari Melber immediately disagreed and said I was assuming that the absence of evidence means that a case could not be made. Putting aside that I expressly referred only to the known evidence and left open the possibility of new evidence, the exchange reflects a common disconnect in the analysis of collusion theories. Critics of the president seem more than willing to speculate on highly attenuated evidence of some criminal conspiracy but refuse to acknowledge the continued absence of any direct or even plausible evidentiary basis for collusion.
The fact is that the Russians did not have to collude to achieve their purpose of disruption and influence. Russian intelligence is not known to run “colluders” in carrying out secret operations and rarely expose their operations in gratuitous meetings. Collusion theories tying Donald Trump to a Russian conspiracy remain the case of the dog not barking.
After more than a year of intensive investigation by both the special counsel and multiple congressional committees, there is no direct evidence of Trump colluding with Russians. After roughly 100 criminal counts against 19 defendants and five plea deals with cooperating witnesses, there is no direct evidence. After dozens of pages of “speaking indictments” by Robert Mueller describing Russian operatives trying to influence the election and false statements from former Trump aides, there is no direct evidence.
Does that mean that no collusion-based case can be made against Trump or his campaign? Of course not. Mueller is still looking for evidence and perhaps former Trump presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has a long, sleazy history with Russians, could flip and reveal an extensive conspiracy with the Trump campaign. Anything is possible, as critics love to say.
Mueller might have a photo of a shirtless “Putie” bragging of his influence in the Oval Office. Then again, he might not. However, the willingness to wildly speculate on collusion crimes but unwillingness to acknowledge the current lack of compelling evidence is telling. What evidence is known does not constitute even a growl, let alone a bark. Much of the “evidence” cited involves two meetings in an English pub and Trump Tower.
It is clear that Russians were trying to cultivate a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, and that in May 2016 he participated in a night of heavy drinking with Alexander Downer, the Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, during which he said the Russians had Clinton campaign emails. Moreover, members of Congress like Rep. Adam Schiff(D-Calif.) have cited the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians as evidence of collusion.
Those contacts, however, fall far short of any evidence of collusion and can actually be used to counter such allegations. The Papadopoulos contacts are often traced initially to a London-based Maltese professor, Joseph Mifsud, with close ties to Russia. Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to various Russians who expressed an eagerness to have better relations with the United States in a Trump administration. Papadopoulos would later tell the participants in a large campaign meeting that he had these contacts and that the Russians were eager to reach out to the campaign for better relations.
The available evidence, including the narrative of the special counsel, shows an effort to use Papadopoulos as a conduit to Trump, and while Papadopoulos comes across as something of a village idiot, he did not hide those contacts. The Trump Tower is even weaker as evidence of collusion. According to people like Schiff, this was smoking-gun evidence of a secret Russian conspiracy.
However, the meeting occurred in June 2016 when the hacking was already known publicly. As with the Papadopoulos contacts starting in March 2016, the meeting is rather late for an effort at collusion. Disclosure of the Russians hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign had already been made by the FBI in the prior year and was known at least in September 2015 by the FBI. In June 2016, the Washington Post was reporting on hacking of the emails.
Moreover, the Russians used a British music promoter familiar with Donald Trump Jr. to secure a meeting with the promise of evidence of unlawful contributions made to the Clinton Foundation. There was no effort to limit the participants or hide the meeting. This secret operation supposedly was advanced with a meeting at Trump Tower with an army of reporters outside and no prior knowledge of who would be present. The brief meeting primarily discussed the lifting of a federal ban on Russian adoptions. If anything, the meeting would indicate that, in June 2016, the Russians were still trying to make contact with the Trump campaign.
Does it really track that Russian intelligence was running a disinformation and hacking campaign but sought to collude with Donald Trump Jr.? If so, the meeting was curiously late and public for that purpose. Moreover, critics continue to refuse to recognize the different treatment given these contacts with Russians and the contacts of former British spy Michael Steele, who authored the controversial Trump dossier.
That effort was subsidized by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, but the funding was hidden and denied until much later. Steele reportedly received information from Russians with alleged ties to the government to be used against Trump. Yet, it is evidence of collusion to attend a meeting with Russians who said that they had evidence of illegal activities by Clinton, but it is not collusion to pay for a dossier with information from Russians and other foreign sources implicating Trump.
The indictment of the Russians in the election operation states that it began in 2014 and ultimately led to activities targeting both Clinton and Trump. When Clinton was the presumed winner of the election, the Russians ran false Facebook accounts and sought to support protests against her. When Trump won, the Russians organized protests against him. Objectively, the most direct explanation is that the Russians wanted to be disruptive and were seeking any target of opportunity to do so.
That is why I am skeptical. It takes willful blindness not to acknowledge either the lack of direct evidence of collusion or the implausibility of many of the theories abounding on cable news programs. None of this means that people cannot speculate on the existence of entirely undisclosed evidence, but some skepticism with the speculation would be helpful.