Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

As I mentioned yesterday, the story someone (probably from the Kushner camp) fed to Fox News about how the attempt to set up a back channel line of communication was simply a one-off might make some sense if you take it out of the context that the Trump transition team had been working on setting up a back channel from immediately after the election right up until January. But once you know the whole story, it becomes obvious that the Fox leak is a lie.

This is a problem that a lot of the American public is facing as items about the investigation are leaked in the slow dribble of one piece of the puzzle at a time. In order to get the significance of each bombshell, you have to put it in context of everything else we’ve learned. It’s also the case that those who want to discredit the leaks can often do so by by taking them one bit at a time and making a case without any reference to key contextual information.

An example of that would be the way that both the Trump administration and right-wing news outlets are making the claim that setting up back channel access to foreign governments is normal, while omitting the fact that it is not normal to do so prior to inauguration or with the goal of bypassing the U.S. national security bureaucracy.

Today, Ross Douthat makes a case for a more innocent interpretation of the Trump/Russia connection by conveniently leaving out an awful lot of key information. Here is the basic case he makes:

…the fact remains that Trump told us, over and over again, that he liked the idea of improving relations with Russia — an idea, as it happens, that this man of few consistent ideas has held consistently since the armaggedon-haunted 1980s. He was forthright, not deceptive. He did not act like a man with a dark secret, a man for whom Russia was a dangerous subject to be avoided at all costs, a man with an interest in turning the public’s attention away from anything related to the Kremlin. He was happy to talk about Putin, happy to wear his Russophilic intentions on his sleeve.

It’s true that Trump made no secret of his admiration for Putin during the campaign. But that ignores all of the times the president and his team kept things secret and/or lied about the connections. For example, they tried to deny that, while campaign manager, Paul Manafort’s associates intervened to tamp down the Republican Party’s platform statement about a response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Jeff Sessions’s lies about meetings with the Russian Ambassador led to his recusal from the FBI’s investigation and Michael Flynn’s lies led to him being fired as Trump’s national security advisor. Those are simply three of the things the Trump team wanted to keep secret.

In his attempt to provide a more innocent explanation for the Trump/Russia connection, Douthat also ignores the fact that all of this was happening at the same time that Russia was actively trying to intervene in the 2016 election to damage Hillary Clinton and support Trump. That is the enormous context that is often left out of attempts to explain away individual bits of this story as they are leaked.

One other item that slipped by me but could be important as this story progresses is the way in which both Comey and Rosenstein have characterized the investigation. Here is what Comey said when he testified before the House Intelligence Committee back in March:

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counter-intelligence 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.

In his letter announcing the appointment of a special counsel, Rosenstein used the same language. Mueller’s investigation is to include:

…any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.

Notice that the word they use is “coordination.” Somehow along the way, that has been lost and the word used by almost all media outlets is “collusion.” I suspect that both Comey and Rosenstein chose their words very carefully. Here is the legal definition of collusion:

where two persons (or business entities through their officers or other employees) enter into a deceitful agreement, usually secret, to defraud and/or gain an unfair advantage over a third party, competitors, consumers or those with whom they are negotiating.

The legal definition of coordination is not as clear. But here is what Merriam Webster says:

the process of organizing people or groups so that they work together properly and well

When you hear people on the right writing off the possibility of collusion and/or suggesting that it isn’t illegal, keep that distinction in mind. Mueller’s investigation won’t necessarily be looking for collusion, but simply coordination. Obviously they determined that the possibility of a campaign coordinating with an adversary to influence an election was worthy of a counter-intelligence (and perhaps criminal) investigation.

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