The Trump Campaign and Collusion with Russia

[You can find my work on Russia & Election 2016 at Electionado.com, on Twitter and on Tinyletter ]

It’s all about links and coordination

The prevailing narrative among Trump supporters has been that the Trump campaign never colluded with Russia, and that even if they did, it was all legal. On 7/8/17, I wrote a piece for Shareblue summarizing why those claims were wrong. I’m going to expand on that in more detail in this post and update my observations with newer developments. I’ll split this post into 4 parts:

A: Hacking, Russia and WikiLeaks

B: What do we mean by ”Collusion”?

C: Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia?

D: Were the Trump campaign’s actions illegal? (pending)


PART A: Hacking, Russia and WikiLeaks

Before we jump into the topic of collusion, it’s useful to address some underlying myths relating to the Russian active measures campaign during Election 2016. A number of false claims have been made by Trump defenders (mostly on the “Right” and some on the “Left”) relating to the evidence of Russian hacking and the focus on Russia. In many cases, coincidentally, there has been considerable overlap between these claims and similar claims emanating both from Donald Trump and from the Russian government.

FALSE CLAIM #1: There’s no compelling evidence that Russia hacked/leaked Democratic documents/emails

It has been claimed that the evidence showing that the Russian government was behind the hacking and leaking of private information from the DNC, DCCC and John Podesta’s emails, is not compelling enough.

That claim is wrong. The evidence is very compelling and points to the Russian government, as I’ve outlined in this tweetstorm:

The Public Evidence Shows Russia Was Behind The DNC Hack

FALSE CLAIM #2: The relentless focus on Russia is just “Red-baiting” or “McCarthyism”

Some people on the left have claimed that it is “red-baiting” or “McCarthyism” to focus so much on Russia. Arguments offered in support of that claim include stuff like “Democrats mocked Romney in 2012” on Russia, no one previously “tried to make Putin a bad guy”, that it’s “fake news”, that Trump just followed Obama’s policy on Ukraine, and that Russia was justified in its actions in Europe because the US /NATO have been aggressors or because NATO has been expanding by breaking a promise to the former Soviet Union. A related argument is that the allegations leveled against Russia by Clinton and her team would lead to World War III.

Those claims are all either very misleading or completely false, as I’ve discussed here:

Talking About the Russian Hack is Not “Red-Baiting”

…here:

Clinton, Syria and World War III: No Kremlin Plots, Just a Talking Point

…and here:

Trump, Ukraine and Russia — There’s a Pattern

FALSE CLAIM #3: The CIA cannot be trusted on Russia because they were wrong before

The case of non-existent WMDs in Iraq is regularly used to cast doubt on the evidence pointing to Russia. This deliberately deceptive talking point is intended to make the public believe that the only evidence pointing to Russian involvement comes from the CIA — when in fact, a substantial amount of it comes from top private cybersecurity experts. In addition, the “we can’t trust the CIA” talking point is also misleading for other reasons as I explained here:

On Russia Hack, Beware of False Comparisons on CIA’s History

FALSE CLAIM #4: WikiLeaks is trustworthy and not connected in any way to Russia

The claim that WikiLeaks is trustworthy rests primarily on the argument that they have not released any documents that have been determined to be fake or fabricated. A common talking point among WikiLeaks lovers is “everything they’re released is true”. This is another deliberately deceptive talking point for the following reasons.

First, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange were openly against Hillary Clinton and were widely praised and actively cultivated by Donald Trump, Jill Stein and some of their surrogates. Even though Russian actors had hacked both Democrats and the GOP, WikiLeaks only released information intended to hurt Hillary Clinton and Democrats. When confronted by this fact — as well as other salient ones — Assange was never able to give a credible answer as to why:

A Reddit #AMA Revealed Why WikiLeaks Has No Credibility

Second, the primary method used by WikiLeaks and Russia — also known as “weaponization” — was to publicize stolen documents by using words, quotes or passages taken out of context in order to deliberately deceive the public about the implication of the text. To understand how this works, using the historical example of “ClimateGate”, read this:

To Understand Wikileaks, You Need to Understand ClimateGate

Not surprisingly, there are dozens of examples where content from the DNC’s and Podesta’s stolen emails was weaponized to deceive. Some WikiLeaks supporters on the “left” and “right” gleefully participated in and amplified the weaponization. See, for instance:

Manufacturing Corruption — Part 23: Illegally Hacked Emails Published by Wikileaks

I’ve discussed some of these stories in more depth previously. A contentious topic during the election was the completely fraudulent claim that the DNC “rigged” the primary for Clinton — a topic that WikiLeaks invested heavily in:

Rewriting History 105: How the DNC “Rigged” Dem Primary for Clinton (Not)

In that context, I used the specific example of Donna Brazile’s emails to illustrate how they were weaponized in order to deceive the public:

How the U.S. political press enabled a post-truth America — Part 4

There were also other less potent stories, such as the example of misleading the public by claiming that Clinton believed everything that was emailed to her:

Rewriting History 103: How Hillary Clinton Agrees With Everyone Writing to Her

So, at its core, WikiLeaks has been a propaganda and misinformation operation working against Democrats and in favor of Clinton’s opponents, especially Trump. What they did in 2016 had a direct impact in shifting votes away from Clinton to Trump and third parties.

Third, Assange and WikiLeaks have a long history of making false and deceptive claims using stolen documents, as well as advancing false conspiracy theories. They have also released malware and doxed numerous innocent civilians. The notion that WikiLeaks is somehow a “media” organization has certainly not been true in the last several years.

Fourth, Assange has a history of aligning with Russia and being cultivated by the Russian government. The only known entities that hacked the DNC, DCCC and Podesta’s emails were linked to Russia and they passed on stolen materials to WikiLeaks — either directly or via intermediaries, something that people in the Trump campaign were well aware of. In short, WikiLeaks is an arm of Russian intelligence masquerading as a whistleblowing organization.

The combination of these facts makes it clear that WikiLeaks never had any credibility and their primary purpose was to defeat Hillary Clinton and enable Donald Trump to win in 2016 — a motive they shared with the Russian government.

FALSE CLAIM #5: The murder of former DNC Employee Seth Rich was tied to the DNC Hack

Like many other claims, this egregiously offensive fabrication has been promoted by Trump supporters on the Right as well as opponents of the Democratic party on the “left”.

No, Seth Rich’s Murder Had Nothing to Do With the DNC Hack

Indeed the lawyer for the nonsensical lawsuit against the DNC advancing the false “DNC rigged it” claim, is one of the people who has propagated the fake #SethRich and #Pizzagate conspiracy theories.


PART B. What do we mean by “Collusion”?

Until the recent revelations about Peter Smith and Donald Trump Jr., most denials of “collusion” were based on the claim that Trump or his acolytes did not conspire with the Russian government in order to hack and leak documents from individuals associated with the Democratic Party. However, even if that were to be true, it rests on an extremely narrow definition of “collusion” which is not consistent with the law or with what the FBI and DOJ are actually investigating.

1. “Collusion” is not a legal term in the context of Russia

To start with, collusion is not a legal term — at least in the context of counter-intelligence and election laws. Former FBI Director James Comey explained this to the House Intelligence Committee in March:

QUIGLEY: And can you explain and elaborate how this sort of — problems with defining what collusion is — the differences that might be involved with explicit or implicit collusion?
COMEY: Collusion is not a term, a legal term of art and it’s one I haven’t used here today, as we’re investigating to see whether there was any coordination between people associated with the campaign…

2. To understand “collusion”, you have to start with “links and coordination”

Many people use the non-legal word “collusion” to refer exclusively to the notion of an upfront conspiracy involving some form of quid pro quo. In the process, they wrongly imply that the FBI, DOJ and the Special Counsel are merely investigating whether there was any upfront conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. In reality, Comey pointed out that the FBI was actually investigating links and coordination with the Russian government, and *any* crimes associated with that:

[COMEY]: I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

3. Links and coordination could take many forms

In response to a question, Comey clarified that coordination could include a situation where someone “do[es] things to help a foreign nation state”:

QUIGLEY: Explicit or implicit coordination?
COMEY: I guess implicit, I — I would think of it as knowing or unknowing. You can do things to help a foreign nation state, as I said, without realizing that you’re dealing with. You think you’re helping a buddy, who’s a researcher at a university in China and what you’re actually doing is passing information that ends up with the Chinese government. That’s unwitting, I don’t know whether it’s same as your implicit. Explicit would be, you know, I’m sending this stuff to this researcher in China and I’m doing it because I wanna help the Chinese government and I know he’s hooked up with the Chinese.

As I’ll discuss later in this post, there are many ways in which one might help a foreign state further their goals, and in the process end up violating certain laws — such as providing “substantial support”, by “aiding and abetting” or via a “conspiracy”. Soliciting help from a foreign entity to interfere in an election could also be illegal in certain contexts.

In his testimony after he was fired, Comey also said this:

If any Americans were part of helping the Russians do that to us, that is a very big deal

4. Financial entanglements could be an integral part of links/coordination

In his March 2017 testimony, Comey confirmed that financial entanglements might be one mechanism by which a US person under investigation could be influenced by a foreign entity:

SWALWELL: I want talk about the Kremlin playbook and there are a number of ways that a foreign adversary can seek to influence a person, do you agree with that?
COMEY: Yes.
SWALWELL: Financial?
COMEY: Yes, that can be one.

5. Obscuring the truth about links or coordination

As I wrote earlier, the ability of investigators to get to the truth rests on all entities being truthful about pertinent facts. For example, it’s worth recalling that Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the Chief of Staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted not for the underlying crime that was being investigated — namely, the illegal disclosure of the classified identity of a CIA official — but for false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice in relation to the underlying investigation. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Comey acknowledged the relevance of false statements to US government officials in investigations:

SWALWELL: With respect to Donald Trump, do you remember the other instruction relating to truthfulness of a witness or a defendant? If the defendant makes a false or misleading statement relating to the charged crime knowing the statement was false or intending to mislead that conduct may also show he or she were aware of their guilt.
COMEY: Yes, familiar to me from my distant past.

6. Obstructing the investigation into links and coordination

After Comey was fired by Trump, he testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) in June, saying that he believed he was fired due to the FBI’s Russia investigation. At the time, Comey also observed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would have to look into whether there was any attempt to obstruct justice:

MANCHIN: Do you believe this will rise to obstruction of justice?
COMEY: I don’t know. That — that’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.

Clearly, obstruction that is intended to prevent the FBI/DOJ from carrying out their investigation unimpeded is a serious issue.

So, let’s sum up.

As we look at Comey’s public statements, it is quite obvious that the FBI/DOJ are not merely investigating the question of an upfront conspiracy. Rather, the investigation involves multiple related elements that are all integrally tied to the question of links and coordination with Russia. Hence, the term “collusion”, in the context of the ongoing investigation, refers to a combination of these various elements, each of which has associated criminal laws that are quite pertinent. Upfront conspiracy — regularly used by Trump supporters and some Democratic critics to declare the Russia story a “nothingburger” — has never been a requirement to establish collusion.

As Robern Raeburn aptly summarized in this tweet:


PART C: Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia?

Based on the legally relevant aspects tied to links and coordination that I discussed in Part B — aspects that form the legal basis for the non-legal, umbrella term “collusion” — it’s quite obvious that regardless of legality, Trump and his campaign colluded with the Russian government.

Based on the public evidence we have to-date, Trump and/or his aides:

1. Had numerous links and communications with entities tied to the Russian government, both during the 2016 election campaign and prior to Trump’s inauguration

2. Repeatedly lied about, intentionally hid and failed to disclose many of their communications with entities tied to Russia — including in disclosure forms that are subject to criminal penalties

3. Expressly encouraged illegal hacking and leaking by Russia or their proxies such as WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, with unanswered questions on whether they had advance knowledge

4. Via direct communications, enthusiastically welcomed help from entities linked to the Russian government — to specifically defeat Hillary Clinton — and then falsely tried to blame Democrats, while claiming that their outreach to Russia was just fine (moreover, an individual linked to Flynn actively solicited help from Russian hackers to expose Clinton’s emails)

5. Extensively helped the Russian active measures campaign against Hillary Clinton and Democrats by spreading — in a very deceptive manner — information leaked by Russia using illegal hacks (moreover, the GOP even used some of the stolen material in campaign ads against Democrats)

6. Actively aided Russia in denying their role in the hacking and leaking, by downplaying and dismissing compelling evidence showing Russia interfered in the US election, blaming the victims of hacking, and claiming that the story was a hoax or that the hackers might not have been Russian

7. Expressed little or no interest in condemning, learning about, or taking actions to prevent Russian interference and instead repeatedly attacked the US intelligence community

8. Showed no interest in holding Russia accountable for their illegal intervention and instead, worked actively and sometimes secretly to eliminate US sanctions imposed on Russia

9. Adopted many positions aligned with and appeasing Russian government viewpoints and against US government policies

10. Failed to disclose income from entities linked to the Russian government (Michael Flynn) or to properly disclose work done as a foreign agent for a Russia-friendly Party in Ukraine (Paul Manafort)

11. Fired former FBI Director James Comey over the Russia inquiry and bragged about that to senior Russian diplomats

This overwhelming pattern of behavior provides substantial evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to make the Russian interference against Hillary Clinton and Democrats successful. In addition, it provides direct evidence that, rather than punish the Russian government for what they did, Trump and his aides sought to remove any punishment imposed on Russia by the Obama administration, thereby rewarding Russia for its actions.

…to be continued in Part D.