President Trump and his attorneys used to demand a high standard for proving collusion. Words alone, they argued, weren’t enough. Trump and his aides might have met secretly with Russians, solicited campaign help, received campaign help, and done favors for Russia. But without proof that all these words and deeds were connected, they insisted, there was no basis for investigation.
We can now junk that argument, because Trump and his lawyers have shown they don’t believe it. They believe that corrupt words are sufficient to investigate, terminate, and jail a public official. That’s the standard they’re applying to FBI employees involved in the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the Russia investigation. And if it’s the right standard for other executive branch employees, it’s the right standard for the president.
On Thursday, the Justice Department’s inspector general released a report on the Clinton investigation. The report says “several FBI employees who played critical roles in the investigation sent political messages … that created the appearance of bias.” One employee, Lisa Page, asked in an August 2016 text: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Another, Peter Strzok, replied: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.” The report condemns these messages. But it repeatedly says “we found no evidence” that investigative or prosecutorial decisions were “based on improper considerations or influenced by bias.” The FBI, in a statement attached to the report by Trump’s handpicked director, Christopher Wray, agrees that “there was no evidence of bias or other improper considerations affecting the handling of the … investigation.”
Trump rejects this distinction between words and deeds. He says Strzok’s words are proof of corruption. “They were plotting against my election,” the president told Fox News on Friday. As to the lack of evidence that bias affected the investigation, Trump scoffed: “That one sentence of conclusion was ridiculous.”
Donald Trump Jr. made the same case in a Thursday night interview on Fox. So did Trump’s White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, on Sunday. “Although people say that, ‘Oh, the actions weren’t biased,’ the people certainly were biased,” Conway told NBC’s Chuck Todd. In an exchange on Fox and Friends, Brian Kilmeade pointed out that “we just have words” from Strzok and Page. Kilmeade asked Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani: “Are words enough?” Giuliani replied: “Absolutely. I mean, words are the making of a conspiracy.” In an interview with Sean Hannity, Giuliani concluded that based on the IG’s findings, special counsel Robert Mueller “should be suspended,” and “Strzok should be in jail by the end of next week.”
You can argue that this standard for dismissing public employees, and certainly for jailing them, is too harsh. But let’s indulge the president and others who advocate this standard, by applying it to them. If conspiratorial words warrant imprisonment, or at least removal from office, what are we to make of the messages exchanged during the 2016 election between Trump, his son, his aides, and his Russian benefactors?
In March 2016, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort emailed a contact in Ukraine, asking how he could use his position to “get whole” with a Russian oligarch to whom Manafort owed money. In April 2016, a Russian agent told Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton, in the form of “thousands of emails.” The next day, Papadopoulos told fellow Trump adviser Stephen Miller that he had “interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.”
That May, Trump Jr. met with a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank to open a communication channel between Russia and the campaign. Also that month, Trump’s friend Roger Stone—at the behest of Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo—met with a Russian who was offering dirt on Clinton. The meeting was documented in text messages, which Stone and Caputo later failed to disclose to investigators.
In June 2016, Trump Jr. received an email from Rob Goldstone, an intermediary for a Russian oligarch, offering “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. wrote back: “If it’s what you say I love it.” Six days later, Trump Jr., Manafort, and Jared Kushner met in Trump Tower with a Russian agent who was supposed to deliver the dirt. “So I believe you have some information for us,” Trump Jr. told her.
She didn’t provide the dirt. But five days after the meeting, the Washington Post reported that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. The Trump campaign dismissed the report and said the DNC had faked the hack. Several weeks later, Trump aides intervened to block Republican platform language that challenged Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On July 22, WikiLeaks began to publish emails from the DNC hack. Five days after that, at a press conference, Trump said of Clinton’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
On Aug. 8, Stone exchanged text messages with an agent for the DNC hackers. From August through October, the hackers and WikiLeaks repeatedly released material that Stone had publicly predicted. Trump spoke regularly with Stone and made the WikiLeaks material a centerpiece of his campaign. He praised and defended Russian President Vladimir Putin. WikiLeaks also exchanged direct messages with Trump Jr., offering campaign assistance and seeking an ambassadorship for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
After the election, Trump and his aides said none of this mattered. They argued that their conspiratorial words weren’t provably connected to what Trump had done for Russia or what Russia had done for Trump. “There was no further contact or follow-up of any kind,” Trump Jr.
said of his meeting at Trump Tower. “Zero happened from the meeting,” said the president. “No action was taken, no follow-up whatsoever,” said Conway. “There was absolutely no follow-up,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Nothing happened as a result,” said Trump’s attorney, Jay Sekulow. To this day, Giuliani dismisses the meeting as meaningless on the grounds that “it led to nothing.”
These are lies. There were subsequent emails between Goldstone, Donald Trump’s personal assistant Rhona Graff, and Steve Bannon, explicitly written on behalf of the oligarch in whose name the June meeting was arranged. During the transition, Trump’s aides secretly met with Russian officials and secretly discussed easing sanctions. In February 2017, Trump asked then–FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation of these secret talks, saying, “I hope you can let this go.” When Comey failed to comply, Trump fired him. The next day, in a private meeting, Trump told Russia’s foreign minister: “I just fired the head of the FBI. … I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Now Trump is demanding that Russia be readmitted to the G-7, from which it had been evicted for invading and annexing part of Ukraine.
If the texts between Strzok and Page provide a molehill of evidence of corruption at the FBI, then the messages sent by Trump, Trump Jr., Manafort, Stone, Kushner, Caputo, Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, and other Trump accomplices provide a mountain of evidence of collusion with Russia. There’s no universe in which “We’ll stop it” is incriminating but “I believe you have some information for us,” “I hope you can let this go,” and “I faced great pressure because of Russia—that’s taken off” aren’t. In fact, the main difference between Strzok and Trump is that in the IG report, Strzok says he wouldn’t have let bias affect his investigative decisions. Trump, his son, and his aides say just the opposite: that the only reason they didn’t use the dirt promised in the Trump Tower meeting is that the Russians didn’t deliver it.
Giuliani says Strzok’s texts warrant a hard look at everything he did afterward. “He was engaged in clearly very, very suspicious activity—these strange conversations about how he was going to stop Trump,” the former mayor argued Sunday on Face the Nation. “Who is to say,” Giuliani asked, that the subsequent Russia probe “wasn’t part of that effort? That needs to be investigated.”
Same to you, Rudy. Your client, his family, and his henchmen are up to their eyeballs in suspicious conversations that seem highly related to what he’s done for Russia and what Russia has done for him. By your standards, they should be in jail.