Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
We can’t have an intelligent conversation about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia when we’re focused on a nonsense word.
By Ron Rein / 01.11.2018
“Collusion” is on America’s lips. Cable news personalities say it. The president can’t stop tweeting about it. But every time someone uses the word “collusion” to describe the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians, the entire country gets collectively dumber. The word has no useful meaning and should be abandoned. Instead, we need to start using the words that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is probably using: “conspiracy” and “coordination.”
The term “collusion” is not entirely meaningless – it’s in the dictionary, and in an unrelated context (antitrust), it is reasonably well-defined. In the Trump-Russia context, however, it has no legal or other agreed meaning. Worse, centering the word “collusion” leads to irrelevant arguments. Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz asserts on television that “it is not a crime to collude with a foreign country.” President Trump empties the word of any remaining meaning as he tweets:
Hillary Clinton colluded with the Democratic Party in order to beat Crazy Bernie Sanders. Is she allowed to so collude? Unfair to Bernie!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2017
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2017
Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” That through-the-looking-glass mentality applies to how Trump and his surrogates use “collusion” on cable news and Twitter. Because it has no legal meaning in this context, they can always dismiss newly emerging evidence as not “collusion.” Trump’s campaign chairman, son and son-in-law meet in Trump Tower with Russian nationals, whom they are told are working on behalf of the Russian government, in the hope of gaining information that would benefit the Trump campaign? Not “collusion,” apparently. And who can prove them wrong, when the word has no clear definition?
In the words of George Orwell, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Any sentence that uses the word “collusion” in this context is already halfway to folly.
Imagine that we had cable news and Twitter in 1933 when the FBI was investigating John Dillinger for bank robbery. Bank robbery is a federal crime. But imagine that the media, elected officials and Dillinger himself decided to use the nonsense word “percrustulate” to describe what Dillinger may or may not have done. Dillinger would announce, “I did not percrustulate.” Dillinger’s surrogates would enter TV studios armed with talking points that “percrustulation is not a crime.” It’s hard to have an intelligent discussion centering on a nonsense word.
So what words should we use to describe suspicious Trump-Russia connections in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign? It depends on the context.
One important context is counterintelligence – studying and preventing intelligence activities by foreign powers, whether or not any crimes were committed. According to former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, counterintelligence professionals analyze Trump-Russia connections under the rubric of “recruitment.”
Another important context will be congressional impeachment proceedings. The framers of the Constitution worried about the “corruption” of our government through “foreign intrigue.” As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” could not be “better gratif[ied] … than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” James Madison argued that the Constitution must include an impeachment provision as a safeguard against a president who might “betray his trust to foreign powers.” But the Constitution’s standard for an impeachable offense – “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” – does not require violation of a specific criminal offense, so precise terminology is less critical.
When we’re discussing potential criminal activity, two of the most important words are “conspiracy” and “coordination.” Here, these terms are ultimately grounded in the Federal Election Campaign Act. That statute bans foreign nationals (not just foreign governments, but also individual foreign citizens) from spending money to influence U.S. elections. They can’t spend their own money, can’t contribute to campaigns and can’t give campaigns things which would otherwise cost money (“in-kind contributions”); campaigns, for their part, cannot accept or solicit anything with money value from foreign nationals.
This is where “conspiracy” and “coordination” enter. Federal law defines conspiracy as an agreement to commit an offense, and an overt act in support of that conspiracy. The nesting dolls of Trump’s Russia connections may seem exotic, but conspiracy law is bread-and-butter for federal prosecutors.
“Coordination” is more technical, but equally important. If someone outside a political campaign spends money in support of the campaign but “coordinates” that spending with the campaign, it may qualify as an illegal (and criminally punishable) “coordinated communication.” A coordinated communication is illegal both for the foreign national and the campaign and its key personnel. Even before Trump’s inauguration, there was enough information to raise suspicions of coordination; that evidence has only grown. (Separate from the Mueller inquiry, the Federal Election Commission is considering a long-pending administrative complaint about Trump-Russia campaign coordination based on information already public.)
There is much that we do not yet know about possible criminal activity stemming from the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian nationals. But we can have a grown-up discussion by using real words. It’s time to retire the worn-out and vacuous word “collusion” from our national dialogue.