Stop Using the Word “Collusion”—How to Frame the Critical Question at the Heart of Trump-Russia

Much of the discussion surrounding the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia in the months leading up to the 2016 election has been mystifying for the American public. As the country prepares for the Mueller probe 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 emerged over the past two years partly as a result of the unique combination of a counterintelligence and criminal investigation presented by the Mueller probe. This hybrid investigation has led to two linguistic extremes, neither of which accurately conveys the problematic national security issues raised by the Trump campaign’s actions. 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 dictionary, is a “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 that remain whether or not 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 instead. These are stylized as questions a journalist might pose to an interviewee, such as a member of a congressional committee. 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.” We also hope these five lines of inquiry may help commentators in analyzing and writing about these issues.

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. Wikileaks

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?

 

Photo credit: Journalists watch U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the press center of Presidential Palace on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images) 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.

Asha Rangappa

Senior Lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She served as an FBI counterintelligence agent from 2002 to 2005. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow her on Twitter (@AshaRangappa_).