What exactly is "collusion"? What is Robert Mueller expected to prove?

  • It seems to me that what most people typically mean when they say "Trump colluded with Russia to win the election" is, quite simply, that Trump, or his campaign, knowingly met with some key people from Russia (who either were government officials, or had connections to government officials) and received help from these Russians in order to help Trump's campaign, and this particular "help" from the Russians was illicitly obtained by them in the first place (e.g. through hacking).

    However, all of the above is already proven. It is known that Donald Trump Jr. met with these officials in order to get dirt on Hillary. It has recently also become known that George Papadopoulos also met with Russian agents in order to get dirt on Hillary. In both these cases, the particular knowledge that Russia had on Hillary would, obviously, had to have been obtained illicitly by them (such as her private e-mails and what not).

    So my question is, if above is not what collusion actually means, then what does it mean? What is the Special Counsel actually expected to prove before this entire collusion-matter can be laid to rest?

    I just don't get it. It seems to me that collusion has already been proven? I mean, do we expect the Special Counsel to prove that Trump sat in a room with Putin and they were both laughing maniacally about how they were going to collude together? Obviously any collusion that would take place would take place in the form mentioned above, with meetings and exchange of information, but we already know that happened, so what else is there to prove?

    New NYTimes opinion piece argues against using the term "collusion"; that it is "implying precision where there is essentially none".

  • You are correct that "collusion" is being used very loosely. There is no specific federal criminal statute that outlaws "collusion", for example (except for an antitrust law not relevant here).

    This NYTimes editorial argues that the term is a problem:

    The problem is that the focus on the term “collusion” has had the effect of implying precision where there is essentially none. Meeting the standard of “proof of collusion” isn’t a matter of meeting a technical definition or threshold — it is a matter of persuading enough people that what we’re seeing is collusion. It is, in other words, a political judgment and, as with all things political, is extraordinarily subjective and vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations. The fuzziness of the current discourse may not matter much to the F.B.I., whose investigation will surely adhere to the letter of the law — but it might matter a great deal for how its findings play in the court of public opinion.

    Some people appear to use it broadly, as a synonym of "cooperate"; others use it more strictly, closer to "participating in a proven criminal conspiracy". Still others probably wouldn't admit it was truly "collusion" even if they saw a literal contract signed by Trump and Putin.

    The problem is that we're talking about pretty wide range of possibilities in the Trump/Russia matter, many of them with very different bottom lines:

    • Were members of the Trump campaign aware in advance of the hacked emails, or only after the fact?
    • Did they actively coordinate with Wikileaks about the timing for releasing the emails?
    • Did they know or care that Russia was involved in the email hack?
    • Did some minor figures in Trump's campaign simply have some passing interactions with a few people associated with Russia, that ultimately came to nothing (as they are currently claiming)?
    • Did members of the Trump campaign innocently but eagerly accept offers of damaging info on Clinton from people who happen to be from Russia? If so, is their claim that nothing ever came of it true?
    • Or, did members of the Trump campaign enter into a wink-wink-nudge-nudge with Russian agents that Trump might be willing to consider reducing or dropping Russian sanctions in exchange for help getting elected?
    • If so, was this known and approved by Trump himself? Was it coordinated by Sessions in his meetings with the Russian ambassador? Or was it the machinations only of long-gone people like Flynn? Would members of the campaign really keep this important information from their boss?
    • Or, as the "dossier" claims, did Russia and Trump have an explicit quid-pro-quo to not only help elect Trump but to also give Trump a 19% stake in Russian oil company Rosneft in exchange for changing the party platform on Ukraine and for dropping Russian sanctions? Is it just coincidence that Rosneft sold 19.5% of its shares (worth $11 billion) shortly after the election?

    Obviously, these aren't the only choices, nor do all of them necessarily mean that Trump (and/or Pence) were personally aware/involved, but they all involve some measure of "collusion".

    Some of these might involve broken laws (campaign finance laws, money laundering laws, criminal conspiracy laws, etc.), while others may not; but all have likely political fallout.

    Please note that it is absolutely possible for Trump to be impeached based on actions he took that weren't illegal. For example, Trump clearly had the power to fire Comey as director of the FBI, but many people view that action as an improper abuse of power and an attempted obstruction of justice (whether anything comes of that is still to be determined). In a similar way, a clear quid-pro-quo with Russia (election help in exchange for dropping sanctions) could be politically damaging enough to result in impeachment, even if it isn't clear that any laws were broken.

    Clearly the Trump administration is denying and minimizing as much as possible, but as so many of their past denials have proven false ("nobody involved in the campaign met with any Russians, ever!"), I don't give their denials much weight.

    Personally, I agree with you, that even the information that has been admitted by members of the Trump campaign (Trump Jr's emails, Papadopoulos' signed confession, etc.) clearly indicate we are somewhere among the bullets above. How exactly this all shakes out is still unclear.

    To answer your second question, Mueller was authorized to conduct an investigation into the following:

    1. Any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and
    2. any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and
    3. any other matter within the scope of 28 C.F.R. 600.4(a).

    It also authorizes the Special Counsel to "prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters".

    This article describes what 28 C.F.R. 600.4(a) may mean:

    Section 600.(4)(a), which is referenced in Rosenstein’s order, would seemingly allow the special counsel to investigate efforts to obstruct the Russia-related investigation, since obstruction of justice is specifically enumerated as something a special counsel has authority to investigate.

    Note that "prosecuting federal crimes" isn't the only possible outcome of the investigation. As I discussed previously, Mueller could also uncover non-criminal "links and/or coordination" that are politically damaging enough to lead to impeachment.

    So, yes, I think based (only) on the Papadopoulos confession, we know that Mueller has found at least some "links and/or coordination", although the full scope is still undetermined.

    The indictments of Manafort and Gates, as they aren't (directly) linked to Russia, appear to be a result of "matters that arose directly from the investigation".

    It seems likely that much more is still to come as Mueller continues his work.

    Excellent answer and I will amplify that the purpose of this investigation is to see if it is politically expedient to Impeach President Trump. Even though I support the President, it is a fact that impeachable acts are anything Congress think is impeachable, for example wearing the wrong color tie is impeachable if Congress thinks it is.

    Thanks, @FrankCedeno. Instead of "political expedience", I'd describe it more like "can congressional Republicans do the minimum possible to maintain even the thinnest veneer of plausible deniability to keep this obvious criminal madman in office so they can keep pushing their congressional agenda", but that would be opinionating, so I left that part out :)

    To add to the last point re Rosneft -- a few words to Google: Kara Sea, Exxon, Tillerson. Four *trillion* dollars worth of oil is reason enough to dare interfere with the US elections.

    @Frank Cedeno or, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, impeachment is for when an official has "rendered himself obnoxious".

    You say that a president can be impeached “based on actions he took that weren’t illegal.” How does this jive with the statement in Article II, section 4, that impeachment comes about because of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”? Surely collusion, if not illegal and doesn’t involve bribery, should not fall under this terminology? I will note that certain points on the list could be considered bribery, but, for instance, prior knowledge of the hacks doesn’t seem to fit this requirement.

    @DonielF Because “high crimes and misdemeanors” doesn’t mean what you think; its a vague term of art that includes other things besides literal crimes. See http://www.newsweek.com/you-dont-have-commit-crime-be-impeached-647926

    Here’s an example not connected to our current situation: what if the president just said “I hate this job, screw this mess” but refused to resign and instead holed up with endless beer in the bowling alley in the basement of the White House for a few weeks. Or months. Or years. Clearly no crime involved, but Congress could absolutely impeach him and remove him for refusing to do his job.

    The Clinton impeachment centered entirely on acts that weren't illegal in themselves.

    @pcj50: I thought the Clinton impeachment was about him lying about it afterwards.

    @DonielF Keep in mind, Bill Clinton's impeachment was initiated on two charges; perjury and obstruction of justice. Although he was acquitted, they stemmed from a sexual harassment case, in which itself was not illegal (although immoral). In this case, it's been proven that Donald Trump's campaign has committed perjury, and the only hurdle to turn that into a "crime" for Article II would be to see if Trump himself had anything to do with it. Regardless if he did or not, because of the relations his team has had, it wouldn't take much to make a connection between the two if Congress wanted.

    @Anoplexian Right. Clinton's (alleged?) perjury occurred during a deposition for a civil legal proceeding, not a criminal legal proceeding. Trump's situation isn't completely analogous, although he's repeatedly claimed no knowledge of or involvement with Russians, I don't know that any of HIS statements have been under oath or while being questioned by the FBI. So perjury or "false statements to the FBI" might not be on the table for Trump personally, even if "he lied to the country" could still be a valid basis for impeachment.

    @DonielF - Just to add to what BradC said, Andrew Jackson was impeached for "engaging in libelous 'inflammatory and scandalous harangues' against Congressional members whom he called 'traitors.'" among other things. (link).

  • First off, consider the charges against Manafort. The actual charges, without interpretation.

    Manafort and Gates have not been indicted for 'collusion'. They have been indicted for tax evasion, and for not registering themselves as foreign agents with the US state department - which is required. The period of time in which these offenses occurred was 2005-2012, long before the 2016 Trump campaign began.

    In addition, George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, made misleading statements to FBI investigators, which is also illegal - statements made to FBI investigators are essentially the same as testimony in court, with the same penalties for not being honest. Charges against Papadopoulos He apparently was seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton, and went to Russian sources to see if any could be had. (he didn't get it, but that's not the point - he lied to the FBI about seeking it)

    So, in the current indictments, there is nothing regarding 'collusion' between the Trump campaign and Russia, or any other foreign interest, other than a foreign policy advisor seeking but not getting dirt on a political opponent from a foreign country, which isn't necessarily illegal but is politically quite damaging.

    There may well be coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence services, but so far, nothing actionable has turned up. After all, Clinton couldn't have lost the election because she was out of touch with the electorate, beset with her own legal problems, plus backstabbing Sanders and his supporters, could she?

    Papadopoulos lied to the FBI *about details and timing of past and planned future meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian agents*. There is surely more to come, and it may not (yet) implicate bigger fish like Trump and Sessions, but to say this isn't related to the collusion charge is just silly.

    "The period of time in which these offenses occurred was 2005-2012," apart from the 2013-2014 money laundering, 2015-2016 mortgage fraud, the 2016 false statements to the DOJ, and so forth. https://www.politico.com/f/?id=0000015f-6d73-d751-af7f-7f735cc70000

    This isn't true. The indictments (if they hold) do prove collusion on some levels at this time.

    your commentary regarding Clinton contributes nothing to your answer. Who won the election should be independent of crimes committed by campaign personnel.

    I think you're inferring that the OP is seeking some excuse as to why clinton lost. I think it's easier to infer from the OP that he simply thinks that trump and his campaign did very shady, if not illegal activities - that some might consider treason, to gain an upper hand.

  • Collusion: "secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose"

    The media has been using Collusion as a catch all for other potential crimes that the Trump team is being accused of. I am not a lawyer, but the legal usage of Collusion would appear to be mostly limited to unfair market practices (e.g.: price fixing between two companies).

    So what Mueller needs to prove would depend on what he is actually investigating. His investigative powers are fairly wide ranging, and he has the ability to go where ever the evidence takes him (to be cliche). Recently, that led to Manafort(for acts committed years before he was a member of the Trump team), and appears to have started to latch on to Tony Podesta.

    It's not even clear that Mueller is currently investigating Trump specifically at this point.

    The example sentence from your link is _acting in collusion with the enemy_, so I don't think unfair market practices are the limit of either the dictionary or the legal use. Also, from the charges: _From in or about and between 2006 and 2017_, so it includes much more recent than "acts committed years ago".

    I don't see the connection between your definition and your assertion that it only refers to price fixing.

    @blip https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collusion I stated price fixing as an example of the sorts of market practices that Collusion usually refers to. I looked, and wasn't able to find an example *outside* of commerce. IE: how it's being used for Trump and company.

    The point about it being used as a catch-all, and the illegality being deeper than just "collusion" was a great start, by, along with the others, I'm not seeing how you made the leap to claiming it primarily would be about price-fixing. Here's a non-commerce example - http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-englewood-four-misconduct-police-prosecutors-met-20170719-story.html

    @JeffLambert The most recent years (from skimming the indictment with layman's eyes) would seem to be their lying about past crimes, which at least have their origins over a decade ago. My point was, and still is, that the Mueller investigation doesn't seem to be pursuing the things that the media believes (or portrays) it is, and as a result, what they need to prove is going to vary on what they pursue. Manafort and Gates were allegedly involved in an illegal lobbying effort for Ukraine, and then hid the income from that (tax evasion).

    True, though we don't exactly know what Mueller's team is after yet. The indictments typically are about things they know they can prove *right now*. Often that means they are using those provable offenses as leverage to get into the deeper accusations that they may not have quite enough evidence of yet. ie, at this point, they may just be witness-flipping.

    @JackOfAllTrades234 The most recent crime listed in the charges is 2014, not a decade ago. Seven of the charges relate to not filing forms in 2011-2014. They did not charge Gates for 2011, so there are seven. The statute of limitation is only six years (or perhaps five and reported a year later), so they can't go back before 2011 in that set of charges. The conspiracy charge potentially allows them to reach back farther in evidence to prove a pattern. The relevant actions started in 2006, just over a decade ago, and continued until 2014.

    @Brythan I think if the indictment proves to be true (it's easy to forget that an indictment is not guilt, we thankfully don't have a legal system where that is true), it's narrative on how events played out make it pretty safe to say that the origin was over a decade ago. Legally, it's probably a string of separate offenses, but logically I'd call them branches of the same tree. It's hard (for me at least) to follow the narrative that this has anything at all to do with Trump, the Russians /maybe/ (the Ukrainian government paying for Manafort was a pro-Russian one).

    @JackOfAllTrades234 The probably point of how these financial charges relate to the accusations about Russia is that *Manafort's allegiance and motive is highly suspect*. The Ukranian president that paid him all this money was basically a *puppet of Putin's Russian government*. I think we will be hearing a lot more about (and perhaps from) Manafort.

    @JackOfAllTrades234 you are absolutely right that they are innocent until proven guilty. But note that federal indictments are usually already rock-solid cases. As I mentioned in another comment, odds are they are doing some witness flipping right now. Get them on known, provable violations in hopes they will cooperate to get the ones above them.

    If there's one thing I know about people who follow up $75 million money-laundering and tax evasion schemes with mortgage fraud, it's that they invariably go completely straight and commit no other crimes thereafter.

    Re: "I stated price fixing as an example": Ah. In that case you meant "e.g." (which means "for example") rather than "i.e." (which means "that is"). That's not an uncommon mistake, but it's nonetheless pretty confusing in contexts like yours.

    @ruakh Neat, I'd actually never realized those were Latin abbreviations. Learn something every day I guess.

  • To prove illegal collusion, they have to prove that the Donald Trump campaign or Trump himself made an agreement for someone to engage in an illegal act. Collusion is not in and of itself illegal, the actual crime would be something else.

    It is not illegal to hear information that Russia might want to share, even if the information were obtained illegally. It would be illegal to ask Russia to do something illegal to get information.

    It is normal for foreign dignitaries to meet with presidential candidates during the campaign to advocate for positions favorable to their countries. This is especially so since many presidential candidates (not Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016, but Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama and Clinton in 2008) already are in the government when they run.

    It is known that Donald Trump Jr. met with these officials in order to get dirt on Hillary. It has recently also become known that George Papadopoulos also met with Russian agents in order to get dirt on Hillary. In both these cases, the particular knowledge that Russia had on Hillary would, obviously, had to have been obtained illicitly by them (such as her private e-mails and what not).

    But Russia didn't actually give them any information. Instead, Russia asked them for things (like sanctions relief). To prove collusion, they would have to prove that Don, Jr. or Papadopoulos made an agreement with the Russians. Since neither returned with dirt on Clinton, the meeting was not obviously productive.

    An example of what they hope they could find. Rather than using Donald Trump, I'll talk about Bernie Sanders. The same basic argument would apply to Trump, while some of the details may differ.

    Think Progress:

    We’ve also learned that certain pages called for followers to vote for Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders, as opposed to Clinton — although those posts, especially as pertaining to Sanders, haven’t yet been revealed publicly.

    This shows that the Russians supported Sanders over Clinton. In fact, Russia hosted Facebook pages and bought ads supporting Sanders over Hillary Clinton both during the primary and after that. (They also supported both Trump and Stein in the general election.)

    If Sanders had shared Democratic National Committee information on voters (to which he had access as a nominally Democratic candidate) with the Russians so that they could then use it to target political messaging, that would be collusion. So they would have to prove that Sanders approved the transfer of information to Russia. It would not generally be enough to prove that an employee of his had engaged in the transfer. They would have to prove that Sanders approved of that action, at least implicitly.

    When they talk about colluding with the Russians to interfere with the elections, that's what they mean. That a campaign coordinated with the Russians, where the Russians provided advertising and the campaign took advantage of it. Or perhaps the Russians obtained information about voters (e.g. by hacking the state election system) that the campaign then used. They would like to argue that the Russians changed the election results by hacking, but Stein's recounts prevent that claim.

    They tend to avoid the idea that the Russians could have placed votes illegally. This is because most of those charging Russian interference are Democrats, and it is the Democratic position that fraudulent votes are rare if not non-existent. This is important to them because Democrat voters have traditionally been more likely to find requests for identification difficult to fill. I.e. Democrats are urban and less likely to have driver's licenses. So a claim of Russians changing the voting results by fraudulent voting might hurt Trump but would help Republican positions overall.

    This is of course very difficult to prove. It's not enough to prove that the Russians supported Sanders. That's illegal for the Russians, but it's not illegal for Sanders to receive illegal support. It would be illegal for him to have conspired to get that illegal support from the Russians.

    It's not enough to prove meetings, as they did with Trump (if there were meetings with Sanders and Russians, they haven't been published widely). It is not illegal to meet with foreign nationals. For example, Sanders did meet with the Pope, who is currently a resident of the Vatican and is an Argentine. It is illegal to accept campaign donations from them, but there is no proof nor even rumor that the Trump campaign received such donations. They would have to prove that the meetings led to something.

    It's quite difficult to prove agreement. Note the politicians who have skated recently, like Sheldon Silver. They proved that he received money and that he provided special treatment but failed to prove that the special treatment was illegally special.

    Robert Mueller needs to prove not just a legal meeting, not just a legal political position, not just illegal behavior by the Russians. He needs to prove that the illegal behavior by the Russians was the result of the meeting (or a different meeting, which he'd also have to prove), not because, say, they hate Clinton.

    Another way of saying this is that politically, Democrats can accuse Trump of colluding with the Russians based on a meeting with a Russian citizen who knew people in the Russian government. That's just how politics works. The meeting happened. Legally though, proof of that meeting is just a small step in proving a conspiracy (actual legal term) or other crime.

    They would have to prove that Don, Jr.'s characterization of the meeting was false. That instead of the Russian lawyer lying about having proof that Clinton was taking money from the Russians when she just wanted to talk about how the Magnitsky Act was impacting adoptions, there was an agreement made whereby someone did something illegal at the behest of Don, Jr. or someone else as a result of a specific agreement.

    It's not enough to assert that the Russians would have had to obtained whatever information illicitly. They didn't. If they were laundering funds through intermediaries to the Clinton campaign, the lawyer could have found out about it quite properly. The lawyer could have been considered the representative of a whistleblower in that case.

    This is more of a rambling diatribe than a clear answer to the question. I also think your definition of collusion (that the Russians would have had to take future illegal actions at the explicit behest of Trump) is wrong, you can still engage in a criminal conspiracy, for example, for a past crime.

    But if it's a past crime, you wouldn't be charged with conspiracy to commit the past crime but conspiracy to obstruct justice (a future crime).

    Peanut gallery comment: this whole situation is often portrayed as Russia favoring Trump but all the stuff you pointed out helps paint the actual picture, which is that Putin personally hated Hillary Clinton and backed literally everyone who was not her. They have a history and she was very critical of Putin's last election, essentially turning Putin into a personal political enemy. This will never be "Trump colluding with Putin". It will be "Putin undermining Hillary" as a sort of personal vendetta.

    @JamieB it can certainly be--and likely is--both.

  • The Mueller report says the following about collusion (page 2 of the first volume, page 10 in the pdf). The second paragraph (it was originally one paragraph, but I added a line break to improve readability) is essentially a definition / description of the special counsel's focus.

    In evaluating whether evidence about collective action of multiple individuals constituted a crime, we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of “collusion. ” In so doing, the Office recognized that the word “collud[e]” was used in communications with the Acting Attorney General confirming certain aspects of the investigation’s scope and that the term has frequently been invoked in public reporting about the investigation. But collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.

    For those reasons, the Office’s focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law. In connection with that analysis, we addressed the factual question whether members of the Trump Campaign “coordinat[ed]” —a term that appears in the appointment order—with Russian election interference activities. We understood coordination to require an agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests. We applied the term coordination in that sense when stating in the report that the investigation did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

    A similar statement is repeated in fewer words on page 180 of the first volume (page 188 in the pdf):

    As an initial matter, this Office evaluated potentially criminal conduct that involved the collective action of multiple individuals not under the rubric of “collusion, ” but through the lens of conspiracy law. In so doing, the Office recognized that the word “collud[ej” appears in the Acting Attorney General’s August 2, 2017 memorandum; it has frequently been invoked in public reporting; and it is sometimes referenced in antitrust law, see, e.g., Brooke Group v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.. 509 U.S. 209, 227 (1993). But collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the U.S. Code; nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law. To the contrary, even as defined in legal dictionaries, collusion is largely synonymous with conspiracy as that crime is set forth in the general federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371. See Black's Law Dictionary 321 (10th ed. 2014) (collusion is “[a]n agreement to defraud another or to do or obtain something forbidden by law”); 1 Alexander Burrill, A Law Dictionary and Glossary 311 (1871) (“An agreement between two or more persons to defraud another by the forms of law, or to employ such forms as means of accomplishing some unlawful object."); 1 Bouvier's Law Dictionary 352 (1897) (“An agreement between two or more persons to defraud a person of his rights by the forms of law, or to obtain an object forbidden by law. ”).

    And the beginning of the next paragraph on the next page (emphasis is mine):

    For that reason, this Office’s focus in resolving the question of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law, not the commonly discussed term “collusion. ” The Office considered in particular whether contacts between Trump Campaign officials and Russia-linked individuals could trigger liability for the crime of conspiracy—either under statutes that have their own conspiracy language (e.g., 18 U.S.C. §§ 1349, 1951(a)), or under the general conspiracy statute (18 U.S.C. § 371).

    The word 'collusion' seems to be mentioned a lot, but so far as I can see these are mostly quotes of the people (e.g. headlines, tweets, etc.).

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