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Analysis: 'No collusion,' after all?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/23/2019 Aaron Blake
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President Trump has uttered the phrase “no collusion” the past two years to pretty much anybody who would listen — more than 200 times total. And on Friday, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation ended with the news that Mueller won’t be indicting anybody else. Nobody has been charged with conspiracy in working with Russia during the 2016 election, and now nobody will, at least by Mueller’s team.

Of course, Mueller’s findings have not yet been made public. Even so, some of Trump’s top surrogates are already declaring victory. Here’s the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel:

Without the report, though, can we really draw such conclusions? Here’s what we do know.

It has been clear for months that Mueller was still pursuing possible conspiracy angles late into his investigation. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was revealed to have lied about sharing polling data with an associate with alleged ties to Russian intelligence, and a top Mueller team lawyer said the episode went “very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating.”

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Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was also recently indicted on charges related to his outreach to WikiLeaks, which disseminated documents the Russians had hacked. His indictment said “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE,” which was a curious and unusual use of the passive voice that didn’t indicate who did the directing. There was plenty of thought that person might be Trump himself. Trump denied it was.

Ultimately, though, Mueller didn’t charge Stone or Manafort with conspiracy, even as he charged them with other crimes. Now, it appears he won’t be indicting anyone else within Trump’s inner circle.

President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs the White House for a trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 22, 2019. © Carlos Barria President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs the White House for a trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 22, 2019. It’s worth noting that collusion (which is a blanket term Mueller’s team has used for a number of different types of conspiracy) is a crime that’s very difficult to prove. And even the publicly known links between the Trump campaign and Russia have been somewhat tenuous, as Philip Bump has rightly emphasized for months and months.

Which brings us to Trump. According to existing Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be indicted. So the fact that Mueller isn’t indicting Trump tells us nothing about his conclusions about the president personally. But the fact that none of his campaign aides or advisers are going to be charged with conspiracy does suggest Trump won’t be accused either.

Trump could still theoretically have collusion-related problems, particularly if (a) Trump himself directly colluded or (b) someone else having colluded on his behalf but for some reason is not being charged with it. Perhaps they cooperated and got leniency, for example. Or perhaps Trump publicly asking Russia to steal more of Hillary Clinton’s emails could amount to collusion by itself. It’s possible, but it seems unlikely.

So in that way, Trump and his supporters can rightly be encouraged by the news Friday.

It does not mean, however, that Trump is out of the woods. For all the focus on collusion, it was never the most problematic aspect of Mueller’s investigation for Trump personally. The collusion narrative was the sexiest one for the media to cover (and the one Trump pushed), but obstruction of justice was always the more likely crime Trump had committed. Friday’s news tells us next to nothing about whether Trump’s myriad questionable actions vis-a-vis the Russia probe, starting with firing James B. Comey as FBI director, might yet land him in hot water. Mueller’s probe has also sprouted other probes in which Trump has been implicated (but not directly accused of criminal activity) in Michael Cohen’s campaign finances violations, and also in which Trump’s finances and entities are being scrutinized.

Trump, to his strategic credit, kept the focus on “NO COLLUSION” throughout, perhaps knowing it was unlikely it would ever be proven and that the lack of proof could then be used to undermine whatever else Mueller finds on him. "They didn’t find collusion, so they looked for a bunch of other stuff," is already an argument the Trump team has been making. And given the intense focus on the topic, it’s important to emphasize how much Friday’s news indicates Trump was probably right — at least in Mueller’s eyes.

But it’s also worth noting that Trump doesn’t seem to be celebrating quite yet. In fact, he’s been very quiet. Perhaps that’s because he’s decided to let other people draw these conclusions rather than step on his own good news. Or perhaps it’s because he knows this is hardly the end of his troubles.

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