Jurisprudence

Stop Using the Word Collusion

There are better, more specific ways to ask about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Much of the discussion surrounding the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia in the months leading up to the 2016 election has mystified the American public. As the country prepares for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to reach its final stage and for congressional investigations to ramp up, it’s important to develop a more accurate and effective vocabulary for assessing the information that these bodies produce.

A problem with that vocabulary has emerged over the past two years, partly because of the Mueller probe’s unique combination of a counterintelligence and criminal investigation. This hybrid has led to two linguistic extremes, neither of which accurately conveys the problematic national security issues that the Trump campaign’s actions raise. The lack of precision in the language used to report on the campaign’s activities has obscured their importance and even the magnitude of the threat they posed.

At one end of the spectrum is an overreliance on the word collusion. The word is a slippery one, essentially without any legal or settled meaning outside of very specific contexts, like antitrust law. The general definition of collusion, according to Merriam-Webster, is “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal deceitful purpose.” But because this definition is not necessarily well-known or agreed upon, it allows some people to claim they have seen no direct evidence of Trump campaign “collusion” with Russia, and others to claim they have. Journalists still ask members of Congress, the White House, and witnesses in the Russia investigation about “collusion,” or allow officials and others to invoke the term collusion without specifying what they mean.

On the other end of the spectrum is the more precise legal definition of collusion, which is conspiracy. But because conspiracy is a criminal law term, it may be too narrow: The legal definition of conspiracy requires specific behaviors and states of mind that may not be present in various forms of coordinated activity against the interests of the United States. Further, focusing only on the criminal aspect does not capture the policy and national security concerns at the heart of the special counsel’s counterintelligence investigation, concerns about whether crimes were committed.

We suggest a different way of asking and framing “the question of collusion” to obtain more analytic precision and to get to the heart of Trump campaign associates’ possible relationships with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

To wit, we recommend the following five kinds of questions.

1. Are you aware of any direct or circumstantial evidence that Trump campaign associates coordinated with, cooperated with, encouraged, or gave support to Russia’s 2016 election interference activities?

2. Are you aware of any direct or circumstantial evidence of Trump campaign associates coordinating with, cooperating with, encouraging, or giving support to WikiLeaks’ election-related activities?

Relatedly, do you agree with the U.S. intelligence community’s report that WikiLeaks was used by the Russian government as an arm of the Kremlin’s 2016 election interference activities?

3. Are you aware of any direct or circumstantial evidence that Trump campaign associates attempted to coordinate with, cooperate with, encourage, or give support to Russia’s 2016 election interference activities?

4. Are you aware of any direct or circumstantial evidence that Trump campaign associates were willing to coordinate with, cooperate with, encourage, or give support to Russia’s 2016 election interference activities, or were receptive to doing so?

5. What is your definition of “Trump campaign associates”? Do you consider people like Roger Stone and Michael Cohen part of the Trump campaign? Do you consider people like Roger Stone and Michael Cohen to be Trump campaign associates?

A journalist might pose these questions to an interviewee, such as a member of a congressional committee. We also hope these five lines of inquiry may help commentators to better analyze and write about these issues. We believe that these formulations better describe the problematic behavior, actions, and activities at the heart of Mueller’s investigation and avoid both the ambiguity of the word collusion and the legalese associated with the word conspiracy.

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