President Donald Trump’s defenders are muddying the waters in the Russia scandal after his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.
Two of Trump’s confidants (Flynn and Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager) may have lied to investigators; four (also counting Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos) may have been charged with felonies, but at least, the president’s apologists argue, there is no evidence of collusion!
Nothing to hide
David French’s recent column in National Review is a good example. He writes:
Nothing that we’ve seen in any of the plea deals or indictments yet indicates any scheme to collude with Russia to influence the election.
Flynn, argues French, committed no crime when he reached out to Russia during the presidential transition to discuss sanctions and a United Nations Security Council vote. His crime was lying about these communications to the FBI.
This is also Trump’s defense.
After Manafort was arrested and charges with financial crimes, the president tweeted (in all-caps), “There is no collusion!”
He calls Flynn’s guilty plea a “shame” and insists, “There was nothing to hide!”
Then why did Flynn lie?
They didn’t know any better
Another column in National Review argues that, “whatever ‘collusion’ means, there was no actionable, conspiratorial complicity by the Trump campaign in the Kremlin’s machinations.”
This is another by-now familiar defense: Trump’s team didn’t know any better. They were duped.
I can believe that about political neophytes like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. But Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency? Manafort, a man with decades of experience in politics, including in the former Soviet Union? They didn’t realize what the Russians were trying to do?
Whatever they knew, it is illegal for political campaigns to receive, much less solicit, foreign support.
Collusion may be hard to prove and Trump’s lawyers argue there is no specific law against it.
But if Trump’s campaign accepted Russian help (and we know Trump Jr. was at least willing to accept it in the form of damaging information about Hillary Clinton) that would be a crime — and a scandal.
Mueller’s job is not to prove collusion per se. It is to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election generally and links and/or coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign in particular.
By demanding he prove collusion, Trump’s apologists are creating a context in which they’ll be able to vindicate the president if Mueller “only” establishes links and coordination between Russia and the campaign.
And he is almost certain to prove that much. We already know of plenty of links from the press (CNN has a good overview) and at least one attempt at coordination (with WikiLeaks being used as an intermediary).
Obstruction of justice
We haven’t even got to another possible crime yet: obstruction of justice.
Here the president himself may be implicated.
We know he fired FBI director James Comey for refusing to drop the investigation into Flynn. He admitted as much to NBC News.
We also know he asked Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Admiral Michael Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, to publicly deny Russia had conspired with his campaign. The spy chiefs refused.
In both cases Trump was clearly trying to influence the investigation.
Then there are the many lies Trump and his people told.
Aside from Flynn, Kushner, Manafort and Trump Jr., who all publicly denied Russian contacts before admitting to them, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, hid several meetings with the Russian ambassador from the United States Senate.
Again — if there’s nothing here, why the lies?