I was wrong—as were most folks in both major and minor media. I have been covering this Trump-Russia madness from the very start, and I have lamented the term “collusion” used by major media to describe an emerging criminal conspiracy. Credit to former special counsel of the Department of Defense, Ryan Goodman, for helping me realize my error. Goodman highlighted this portion from a secret Justice Department memo publicly released back in April:
Allegations that Paul Manafort:
— Committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for the President of the United States, in violation of United States law.
A big reason why “collusion” emerged as the catchall term for this mess is because the media is loath to use the word “conspiracy” (which appears in several indictments)—likely thanks to the lighting rod that is the phrase “conspiracy theory.” The trepidation to report this harrowing story as the special counsel describes it in their indictments showed up again last night in ABC’s simultaneously informative and misleading report. Per ABC (emphasis mine):
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office wants to ask President Donald Trump about obstruction of justice, among other topics, sources close to the White House tell ABC News. According to sources, the president learned within the last day that the special counsel will limit the scope of questioning and would like to ask questions both orally and written for the President to respond to.
The problem with ABC’s report is that they framed Mueller’s interview as being solely focused on obstruction of justice, and the story is supposedly that Robert Mueller is willing to decrease the questions surrounding obstruction. Further reporting proved that while yes, Mueller is reducing the number of questions around obstruction in his latest offer, but that’s not the main thrust of the story. Per The Washington Post (emphasis mine):
For months, Mueller has been seeking to question the president as part of his investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 campaign, which is also examining whether Trump has sought to block that probe.
In a letter sent Monday, Mueller’s team suggested that investigators would reduce the number of questions about potential obstruction of justice they would ask in person and instead seek some answers in written form, according to one person.
The primary story here is not that Mueller is dropping questions related to obstruction. The primary story is that Mueller is focused on team Trump’s overtures to the Kremlin—AKA “collusion” or “conspiracy.” I’ll let lawyer/national security reporter/former Russiagate skeptic, Marcy Wheeler, explain what’s really going on:
Do you really think Mueller would put Donald Trump right there on page 8 of the GRU indictment and be focused primarily on obstruction? Do you really think Mueller doesn’t have the conspiracy to defraud the US (and conspiracy to commit CFAA) indictment that has been clear since February planned out, where even without an interview he could include Trump as “Male 1” to indicate how he communicated acceptance of a Russian deal over and over? Do you really think people with a significant role in the conspiracy would know that Trump was moving within 14 hours of the polls closing to pay off his debts to Russia if there weren’t more evidence that Donald J Trump willingly joined a conspiracy with Russia?
I even got asked the other day, by a self-described expert on this case, why so many witnesses are talking about being asked questions about obstruction. I noted that the only witnesses we’ve heard from recently — close associates of Roger Stone — were instead describing questions about meetings attended and Russian deals floated and social media campaigns launched. That is, they were asked about conspiracy, not obstruction. We don’t even know what Jared Kushner was asked in his lengthy April questioning, but I assure you it wasn’t focused primarily on obstruction.
This is a perfect example of how the mainstream media struggles when a story falls outside of its preferred narrative. For years, we have been told that both parties respect the legal process and while politics can be ugly, everything that happens is done to help America. The idea that an entire political party could be aiding and abetting an adversarial foreign regime for personal gain is anathema to the Sorkinesque lie we have been sold for decades. I mean, look at this extraordinary e-mail the special counsel obtained from an American, saying that they were setting up a Republican backchannel to the Kremlin through the NRA. Between this and Don Jr.’s “I love crime with the Crown Prosecutor of Russia!” e-mails, intent to collude has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Obstruction is the focus in the media because it’s something we’re familiar with. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were both impeached over obstruction of justice. Trump basically admitted to obstructing justice to NBC’s Lester Holt when he said he fired James Comey over the Russia investigation. It’s really an easy narrative to report on. Conspiracy to defraud the United States is a much more difficult sell, and because major media’s primary motive is profit, not truth, there is an inherent fear to essentially accuse an entire party of treason.
Even if profit wasn’t the primary motivation in the media, this would still be a tough story to report. However, the media is partially failing at their duty. Conspiracy is what Paul Manafort is charged with. The indictment of Maria Butina highlighted an array of communications with members of the Republican Party. Robert Mueller’s indictments paint a much more harrowing picture than the overall reporting on those indictments. For my entire 31 year life, the GOP has preached that liberalism is the greatest threat to America. Viewed in that context, colluding with Vladimir Putin to defeat the Democratic Party is simply a logical next step for a party who has spent my entire life working against the broader interests of the American people in order to stuff the pockets of a small cabal of rich folks unmoored from loyalty to any citizenry.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.