By Kent R. Kroeger (August 21, 2018)
There is a lot of news media attention on the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (among others).
“It proves Trump-Russian collusion,” says Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Ari Melber, Joe Scarborough, Chris Hayes, Joy Reid, Anderson Cooper, and the guy running the Falafel King food truck on the corner of 7th Avenue and 31st Street.
Everyone not currently employed by the Fox News Channel or the White House has concluded: The mere intent on Don Jr.’s part to receive ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton from Russians constitutes evidence of a conspiracy.
The defense of the meeting’s legality, in contrast, rests on the belief that conducting opposition research, even with foreign nationals, is not just legal, it is part of every presidential campaign. You could even argue that it is a campaign’s patriotic duty to discover any misdeeds perpetrated by their opponent, even if that means working with foreign nationals or going overseas.
Unsurprisingly, the partisan website PolitiFact rejects that defense, citing Democratic political consultant Mike Mikus from Pennsylvania, who says, “I have been working on campaigns since 1994 and have managed races since 1998. I have never heard of any operative meeting with a representative of a foreign government — friend or foe — to discuss opposition research.”
A guy from Pennsylvania who has worked on statewide elections is not who you talk to in trying to find out if presidential campaigns have ever conducted opposition research on foreign soil or using foreign nationals.
The obvious example is the Steele dossier. Its original genesis was as a Washington Free Beacon investigatory effort on Donald Trump. Ostensibly, it was journalism, funded by a major GOP donor opposed to Trump’s candidacy. Later, that effort would become what we now know as the Steele dossier and its funding was taken up (indirectly) by the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The Steele dossier is nothing less than opposition research, conducted by a former British spy and funded by political operatives connected to a presidential campaign. Furthermore, it contains information sought and derived from ‘representatives of a foreign government,’ and a hostile one at that.
Now, I will grant, a well-run campaign does not send the son and son-in-law of the candidate to gather such information from such sources. Even if it was legal, it was just dumb.
Had Don Jr. taken possession of stolen emails or some other illegally obtained information, then he would be in trouble. But that would have nothing to do with a conspiracy to defraud the U.S.
The Steele dossier is what aggressive, well-run presidential campaigns do. The Trump campaign just did it poorly.
Direct Evidence of a Trump-Russia Conspiracy Remains Elusive
What does the public evidence so far say about an alleged Trump-Russia conspiracy?
Here is what we know as fact: Trump campaign operatives gamboled around with a Russian lawyer purporting to have ‘dirt’ on Clinton, an Australian diplomat, a Maltese academic, a hacker going by the name Gucifer, and, through Paul Manafort, a variety of other Russian and Ukrainian consorts, some connected closely to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Trump campaign also actively (but amateurishly) pursued a new detente with the Russians during and after the 2016 campaign — which is not inherently illegal — and is probably a good policy.
Conspiracies are not hard to engineer, but proving one exists is
If the Trump campaign engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians to defraud the U.S., this question must be answered: “Did the Trump campaign premeditatively conspire with the Russians to defraud the American people by interfering in an U.S. presidential election.
As yet, the evidence of such a crime is conspicuously elusive.
However, a conspiracy does not require that the Trump campaign actively helped the Russians hack the DNC and Podesta emails or helped in creating and promulgating some Facebook and Twitter memes.
The Robert Mueller probe could indict principles from the Trump campaign on conspiracy charges if they either: (1) aided and abetted any criminal behavior by the Russians, (2) willfully participated in the planning of a crime prior to its commission (“accessory before the fact”), or (3) helped to conceal a crime already committed or give assistance to perpetrators of the crime to help them avoid detection, arrest or prosecution (“accessory after the fact”).
According to California defense attorney Paul Wallin, “In these situations, you are culpable under the accomplice liability theory because you knew of the illegal plan and willfully did something to cause it to be carried out or concealed.”
As yet, no evidence reported by the news media or rising from the Mueller probe’s initial indictments suggest the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians on that conditions outlined by Wallin.
Some legal experts believe Donald Trump himself committed a crime when he encouraged the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails during some of his public rallies in the early Summer of 2016 (which the Russians subsequently tried to do, according to U.S. intelligence sources). That opinion seems like broad conjecture; and, besides, how dumb would a conspirator have to be to announce their conspiratorial intent on live, national television?
Who could be that dumb?! Who?! Who?!
But here is what else we know…
The documented associations of the Trump campaign to the Russians almost all postdate the moment the candidate became the presumptive Republican nominee in March 2016. That is probably not mere coincidence.
Furthermore, the FBI opened a counterintelligence case (“Crossfire Hurricane”) against the Trump campaign only after “Western intelligence assets and Clinton-affiliated political operatives repeatedly approached the Trump campaign and tried but failed to damage it through associations with Russia,” reports Real Clear Investigations.
In my opinion, we all need a healthy dose of skepticism towards everyone involved in this collusion hash.
“I have certain rules I live by. My first rule: I don’t believe anything the government tells me,” once said comedian George Carlin. I would just amend that by adding: the news media, cable TV personalities, politicians, comedians, and myself.
With that caveat, here is my developing theory on the Trump-Russia collusion narrative:
The Trump-Russia collusion story is most likely borne from four sources:
(1) Trump’s associations with wealthy Russians (call them oligarchs or mobsters, if you must) involved in the real estate industry in New York City and elsewhere (And there is circumstantial evidence the Trump Organization carries substantial financial debts with Russians and other foreign lenders),
(2) campaign manager Paul Manafort’s falling into the arms of pro-Russia Ukrainians while trying to dig himself out of debt,
(3) the Trump campaign’s clumsy and reckless efforts at conducting opposition research and policymaking, and
(4) a political establishment, burned by the fact they were outmatched by Russian intelligence and unwilling to accept a Trump presidency they never believed possible, that manufactured elements of the collusion drama to drain the new administration’s political capital and neuter its impact while in office.
This fourth source of the collusion narrative speaks to an issue rarely addressed in the news coverage: How could the Obama administration have screwed up so royally in trying to stop Russia’s election interference?
Why aren’t there career bureaucrats high up in the intelligence community losing their jobs over this debacle?
We know U.S. intelligence was aware of Russia’s intentions to interfere in the election months before the email hacks of the DNC and John Podesta or the propagation of Russian-sourced Facebook memes on social media. And we also know the general public was beginning to become widely aware of the Russian meddling as early as July 2016 (see my Google Trends analysis here).
So what was the FBI and intelligence community doing to harden the defenses of the social media companies and the political parties in preparation for this foreign intrusion?
Apparently, not much, according to The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, who suggests the Obama administration feared they would themselves be accused of trying to manipulate the election outcome if they did too much publicly to stop the Russians.
Perhaps if the U.S. Department of Justice and intelligence agencies weren’t so politicized (and Obama is not the first president to make them so), they could be trusted to warn the American people about impending foreign attacks without it being dismissed as a partisan political act?
The news media’s obsession with the Trump Tower meeting is misplaced. If laws were broken, it is not clear how. If collecting legally obtained intelligence on an opponent from a foreign source is illegal, and someone in the Trump campaign is indicted for it, there will be a legal challenge and don’t be surprised if it goes to the Supreme Court.
It will be the First Amendment versus federal election laws — and, if the past is prologue, the Constitution tends to win those battles.
Until Mueller finally hands out the crown jewel of indictments — a conspiracy charge — as many in the media expect him to do, I suggest borrowing some more wisdom from George Carlin, “Question everything.”
Its a good life strategy, in general.
About the Author: Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org)