The Real Hoax
There is ample evidence that Trump colluded with Russia. Here’s how he convinced people otherwise.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell said, “needs a constant struggle.” Among Donald Trump’s many impressive talents is his gift for obscuring, occluding, and even inverting what is in front of America’s nose.
Most notably, he has convinced tens of millions of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, that he, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 election—which is pretty amazing, when you think about it. In close second place, though, is that he and his supporters have won the Russia narrative. They have convinced millions of people, including many in non-MAGA circles, that Trump and his campaign did not collude with the Russians in the 2016 presidential campaign; that in fact, if anyone colluded, it was Christopher Steele, the Hillary Clinton campaign, and the FBI—against Trump.
This narrative does seem to have some facts in its favor. It is true that people in Clinton’s orbit commissioned the ex-spy Christopher Steele to trawl for gossip about Trump and the Russians, that they and Steele brought his report to the FBI, that the FBI relied partly on the unsubstantiated dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant, and that two sources for the investigation have been indicted for lying to the FBI. You don’t have to be a master propagandist to weave those facts into a claim that a politicized FBI was in cahoots with Trump’s adversaries.
But you would be wrong. An exhaustive investigation by the inspector general of the Justice Department—and that would be President Trump’s Justice Department—reviewed more than a million pages of documents and conducted more than 170 interviews. The finding? The FBI’s investigation was properly predicated; it was not politicized; it predated the Steele dossier. The bureau did rely on the dossier’s unverified allegations and make some misstatements in its bid to surveil one person, which resulted in the felony conviction of an FBI lawyer. But those failings, while troubling, had no bearing on the outcome of the FBI’s investigation or anything else.
Was the dossier dodgy? Yes, but it was widely understood to be unconfirmed gossip, which is why reputable media outlets declined to publish it until Buzzfeed (improperly, in my view) dumped it all out.
Did Clinton associates and Steele alert the FBI? Yes, but that is what concerned citizens are supposed to do if they have reason to think a hostile foreign power is interfering in our election (as, of course, one was). In fact, as really ought to be obvious, Russia’s efforts to penetrate the Trump campaign should have been reported to the FBI not only by Christopher Steele, Clinton associates, and Australian diplomats, but also, and especially, by the Trump campaign.
Ironically, the Steele dossier and the ensuing fiasco benefit exactly one person: Donald Trump. Steele’s material was salacious enough to be irresistible to the media and plausible enough to seem newsy, yet also flimsy enough to set up gullible media outlets for the fall they experienced. The dossier proved the perfect vehicle for Trump to redirect attention from his own misdeeds to the media’s.
The brazenness and success of this counternarrative are remarkable, because what is there in front of our nose, in plain view, is an undeniable and undenied stack of evidence that the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence viewed the 2016 presidential race as a collaborative venture. The facts are these (all according to undisputed reports by special counsel Robert Mueller, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, and many news outlets):
The Trump campaign eagerly and knowingly accepted overtures from the Russian government to provide dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The campaign and its associates had at least 100 contacts and probably more with assorted Russians, including (according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s account) ones with ties to organized crime and Russian intelligence.
The campaign team, including Trump, was well aware of potential plans by Russia’s Wikileaks partner to dump stolen documents, kept close tabs on it, and tried to schedule and exploit that possibility.
Meanwhile, at no point did Trump and his people report Russia’s activities to U.S. law enforcement; instead, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the campaign was “elated” by what it regarded as a “gift” from Wikileaks.
That the Trump campaign did all of those things and more is not seriously disputed.
So a few obvious questions arise for the “no collusion” crowd. Suppose I publicly ask a thief to rob you and give me the proceeds, I privately meet with the thief in hopes of collecting the goods, I provide the thief with inside information, I lie about my frequent and ongoing dealings with the thief, and all the while I report nothing to the police. Even if a prosecutor couldn’t charge me criminally, would any reasonable person say I did not collude in the robbery scheme? Would any serious person call the claim of collusion a hoax? And does anyone doubt that if Hillary Clinton had behaved the same way, every Republican in the country would be calling it collusion and much worse (treason, for instance)?
How does Trump World invert reality, when so many of the facts are undisputed? Start with the oldest propaganda trick in the book: simple repetition. Ample research and copious experience demonstrate that the more often we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it. Even debunking a claim tends to hammer it in deeper. Similarly, we are more likely to believe notions that are memorable or come readily to mind. Those biases are so strong that they can fool us even when we’re aware of them. Trump, like countless demagogues before him, exploits this cognitive quirk by incessantly repeating catchy slogans: NO COLLUSION! RUSSIA HOAX! After a while, even if we think we know better, we become acclimated to the lie. It becomes part of our cognitive furniture.
Trump and his apologists also resorted to a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. They defined “collusion,” a non-legal term, to imply that it’s synonymous with “conspiracy,” a legal offense with a high burden of proof. Then they reasoned backwards by saying that if Trump’s campaign did not commit criminal conspiracy, it did not collude, either, and so the charge of collusion is a lie.
Word games helped former attorney general Bill Barr, among others, convince the public that the Mueller report was a nothingburger, when in fact it was chockablock with evidence of Trump-Russia connections (and also strong evidence of an illegal coverup). That made room for Trump to play two of his strongest suits: reversing the charge against him and substituting a counternarrative.
From early in his career, Trump was a master at denying any charge he confronted and then flipping the script. That was what he was up to in that famous “No, you’re the puppet!” moment during a debate with Hillary Clinton. Reversal and substitution are the heart of the #StopTheSteal campaign: We didn’t attempt to steal the election, you stole the election! Mainstream media and opinion-makers have resisted Trump’s substitute election narrative, perhaps because it is patently absurd. But many sophisticated people have been confused by his claim that the FBI was the real puppet.
Even better for Trump, the Steele dossier became, in the public’s mind, the litmus test for collusion. “It presented a story of what collusion might look like,” as the former FBI agent Peter Strzok said recently. (Strzok, who was later fired and vilified by Trump, was the FBI’s head of counterespionage and led the investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russia’s election operations.) “Lost in that [was that] there are a thousand other ways, many more likely, that problematic counterintelligence behavior might exist. But everybody was focused on the dossier and it became almost a dispositive test. Did these things occur? If so, it’s horrible. If they didn’t, Trump must be innocent, and there must be no wrongdoing.”
I could go on, but you get the point. The Steele-Clinton-FBI counternarrative is not as loony as #StopTheSteal, but it is a wall of flak thrown up to distract from Trump’s undisputed behavior. If you prefer some term other than “collusion,” you can choose your own. It will not change what is in front of our nose: Trump’s behavior was unprecedented, unpatriotic, sinister, subversive, and obscenely corrupt. That is what we should be talking about.
Jonathan Rauch is a columnist at Persuasion and the author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.