The Evolution of What Constitutes ‘Collusion’

Democrats, media shift goal posts on what qualifies as Trump-Russia wrongdoing

by Jim Stinson | Updated 21 Nov 2017 at 9:43 AM

The notion of what actually constitutes collusion with Russians to sway the 2016 election in President Donald Trump’s favor has dramatically shifted from the first unverified accusations made against Trump in the so-called dossier.

The accusations in that dossier, a list of unsubstantiated claims about Trump created by a Democratic-leaning research firm, were hurled at the president and his confidants before he took office.

What began as baseless speculation over hand-in-hand efforts to invade Democratic systems, steal emails, and then coordinate the release of those documents has now become a multi-pronged hunt for any evidence of any contact with any Russian individuals to discuss the campaign in any capacity. It's the Democrats' latest characterization of collusion, a nebulous theory whose definition tends to be based on the holder's belief system regarding Donald Trump.

The Democrats' collusion delusion has taken on many shapes and forms over the past year. It's gone from suggesting Trump himself was a puppet of a master Kremlin plot to steal the 2016 election, to smearing associates such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions for simply attending an event with numerous ambassadors — including one who was Russian — at the Republican National Convention last July, an event co-organized by President Obama's State Department.

The Narrative
The idea of collusion has broadened dramatically since Democrats first floated it as a theory. Any contact with the Russians — or a Russian private citizen — is enough to damage the presidency of Donald Trump.

And undermining the legitimacy of Trump's electoral victory is the entire objective. To keep the narrative of a "stolen" or "unfair" election going, the Democrats and media allies must keep going a narrative of "collusion."

"Liberal Democrats do not lose graciously," said Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. "On the contrary, liberals have contested the legitimacy of virtually every presidential election the Republicans won fair and square, except for President Reagan's landslide in 1984 — too overwhelming to deny."

Indeed, in 1988, it was Willie Horton. In 2000, it was the recount.

But collusion is a tricky case for the Democrats to make when they themselves participated in questionable conduct during the presidential race. Democratic National Committee operatives reportedly went to the Ukrainian embassy in Georgetown last summer to dig up dirt on Trump associates. On Sunday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the leading Trump critic in Congress, was pressed about the meeting on ABC News. He admitted it would not have been appropriate for the DNC, although it was not illegal.

The Left's strategy now is to cling tightly to the theory of collusion, which legal experts rightly note has no real meaning in the eyes of the law, except in antitrust law. Still, it would be a potent political problem for Trump if evidence of real collusion between his campaign and Russian state actors — not simply Russian nationals — comes out at some point in the future.

It's therefore important to examine what forms of collusion theory exist, and how those theories have evolved in the minds of the Left, from the summer of 2016 to today.

The Original Collusion Theory
The original collusion theory was that Trump associates, possibly within the campaign, guided the Russian government into a coordinated release of the stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee and the gmail account of John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

This happened after the alleged theft of the emails by Russian hackers who congressional investigators claim worked for Russian state intelligence forces. When Podesta's emails began surfacing on WikiLeaks on October 7, the Democrats immediately suggested the Russians were helping Trump. They have never changed that tune, and have always suggested Trump associates may have helped guide the release.

This would be damaging for Trump if it ever emerged that he signed off on such guidance, but it wouldn't be illegal. Frustrated pundits, including CNN's Andrew Kaczynski and HBO's Bill Maher, have of late been highlighting Trump defenders' shift toward an "it's not illegal" defense.

Last February 28, speaking on CNN, Michael Mukasey, President George W. Bush's attorney general, told Erin Burnett that collusion, or after-the-fact discussions about releasing hacked emails through WikiLeaks, is not a crime. (Newspapers, it should be noted, coordinate such releases all the time.)

"Saying you ought to get stuff on Hillary Clinton, believe it or not, is not a crime," said Mukasey. "Even if you are saying it to the Russians.

Hardcore Collusion
The Holy Grail of collusion would be that Trump and his staff actually plotted a cyberattack with the Russians on Democrats from the beginning, perhaps in 2015. That likely would be lawbreaking of the highest sort.

Few respected pundits or journalists claim that the Trump campaign or associates encouraged or conspired with Russian spies to hack into Podesta's email or the DNC servers before it happened. (Podesta's hack, by the way, happened in March 2016, but did not start hitting WikiLeaks until October 7.)

Some are getting closer to suggesting it, despite the fact that Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting in June 2016 shows nothing of the sort.

Still, CNN pundit and longtime Never-Trumper Amanda Carpenter claimed Trump Jr.'s meeting in June 2016 wasn't just about "opposition research." It was about getting the campaign's hands on stolen emails, she suggested.

"Opposition research is the emails stolen from the DNC and John Podesta," Carpenter tweeted out on Tuesday. "I mean, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure this out." Carpenter's timeline, however, is way off.

Still, the conspiracy theorists have the "dossier" put together by former British spy Christopher Steele for Fusion GPS, and published in January. That dossier, while discredited, is still seen as a map for some to prove Trump is a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has been for years.

Cyber Collusion
One of the most unchallenged collusion theories is being spread by a once-reputable news service, McClatchy. In two reports since the beginning of the year, McClatchy reporters Greg Gordon and Peter Stone contend that even conservative news sites such as Breitbart worked, knowingly or not, with Russian operators to spread fake news about Hillary Clinton.

This is an interesting theory as it does not necessarily involve hacked materials. McClatchy claims federals investigators are looking into this type of collusion, which hardly seems illegal under the First Amendment.

Attempted Collusion
The latest collusion theory is so-called attempted collusion.

It's the only type of collusion everyone can agree definitely occurred, since Donald Trump Jr. released emails on Tuesday showing he was interested in seeing political research that was promised him by a Russian lawyer through an intermediary.

With fresh proof that an ill-defined version of collusion occurred, this is the most potent charge for now. But the problem with this: Trump Jr. is not President Trump, nor was he ever a top campaign operative. And, back to Mukasey's point, it is not illegal to seek political dirt from a Russian, a Canadian, a Ukrainian, or a Briton.

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