Trump's "no collusion" lie is finally falling apart — but will Americans actually notice?

Trump claims he read the Mueller report. He didn't. If he had, he'd know it's full of bad news for his presidency

Published June 18, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

 (ABC News)
(ABC News)

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Although the Mueller Report. has been in the public domain for nearly two months, there’s still a ton of confusion and disinformation around it. The confusion is specifically due to two things: Very few voters have actually read it, and Donald Trump is delighted to exploit that fact. It doesn’t help that Robert Mueller has been more than a little cryptic about his findings — refusing to answer questions or to appear for congressional testimony to clear the air.

Consequently, the president and his Red Hat loyalists continue to repeat the “NO COLLUSION!' lie with very little push-back. The all-caps falsehood gains momentum every time Trump repeats it. Likewise, Bill Barr’s March 24 letter and his subsequent public remarks erroneously confirmed Trump’s lie before anyone, including Congress, was allowed to actually read the report.

The lies were thicker than Trump’s AquaNet during a must-see one-hour interview special with George Stephanopoulos, originally broadcast this past Sunday night. During an awkwardly staged conversation in “The Beast,” Trump’s presidential limousine, the president insisted to Stephanopoulos that Mueller literally reported “no collusion.” Predictably, this is a lie.

From the ABC News transcript:

Trump: They found no collusion. And they didn't find anything having to do with obstruction because they made the ruling based on his comments and —

Stephanopoulos: (inaudible)

Trump: Are you trying to say now that there was collusion even though he said there was no collusion?

Stephanopoulos: He didn't say that.

Trump: He said no collusion.

Stephanopoulos: He said he didn’t look at collusion.

Trump: George, the report said no collusion.

Stephanopoulos: Did you read the report?

Trump: Yes, I did.

No, he didn’t.

Trump could have sat there and insisted the report said “no collusion” all day, and it still wouldn’t be true. Meanwhile, Stephanopoulos was right: Mueller didn’t investigate for collusion because it’s not a crime. This is a point that gets confused even by people who have read the report so it’s important to clarify what’s in the pages of the Mueller Report and what’s not.

It shouldn’t be such a mystery, given that Mueller addresses this issue on page 2 of his report, yet the president and his fanboys keep getting it wrong — either because they’re comfortable with the obvious caught-red-handed “no collusion” lie, or they simply couldn’t make it to page 2, or both. Either way, Mueller clearly writes, “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.’”

Mueller instead looked for a criminal conspiracy in which the Trump people and the Russian government entered into an agreement, “tacit or express,” to mutually participate in skewing the 2016 election toward Trump. Therefore, “the Office's focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law.”

To repeat what Trump insisted in The Beast: “He said no collusion,” and, “George, the report said no collusion.” No. There’s no gray area here. “No collusion” can’t possibly be a takeaway from the report, since Mueller didn’t investigate whether collusion occurred. It’s factually impossible and indeed, intellectually violent to insist Mueller determined “no collusion.” Robotically shouting that phrase over and over makes about as much sense as a drunk driver bragging that prosecutors didn’t convict him of mugging the occupants of the school bus he slammed into.

Even if Trump course-corrected and changed “no collusion” to “no conspiracy,” it wouldn’t hold much water either. Mueller writes on page 9: “... the evidence was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.” Simply put: there was evidence of conspiracy but not enough evidence to seek a criminal indictment. Mueller added that Trump campaign officials lied to investigators, which “impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.” The lies and the cover-up, drawn from mob tactics, flummoxed Mueller’s work.

On page 9, Mueller also writes that “the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign.” These “links” are roughly more than 100 clandestine meetings between Trump officials and Russians listed and described in Mueller’s report — meetings nearly all of these officials repeatedly lied about.

Despite these findings in the report, when asked whether the meetings took place, Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News Sunday, “Of course not. Why would there be any contacts between the campaign?” Whoops.

Throughout 2017 and 2018, as we devoured bombshell after bombshell about these meetings, most of us defined what we observed as the non-legal term “collusion.” In fact, it’s a fairly reasonable semantic jump from “links” to “collusion,” especially when we factor in Mueller’s reporting on Paul Manafort’s meetings with reputed former Russian GRU agent Konstantin Kilimnik, during which the men discussed everything from influencing the president to backstop Putin on Ukraine, to delivering proprietary internal polling data on “battleground states” Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to Kilimnik — the latter being one of the most shocking items in the report, given that those three states tipped the Electoral College in Trump's favor. 

Again, there are more than 100 documented episodes of campaign officials (mob-style “buffers”) and Russian operatives participating in secret discussions, during which the Trumpers and Russians remained vague and opaque enough for plausible deniability. Many of the most recognizable Trump-affiliated participants serially lied about the meetings, in some cases to the FBI and other cases on federal disclosure forms.

Finally, there’s a significant portion of the equation entirely missing from the Mueller Report, perhaps the most important element in this entire saga: Whether the president is compromised by Russia, the question at the heart of the mysterious counterintelligence investigation currently underway at the FBI.

If it’s determined the president is compromised in some way, that ominous, gargantuan conclusion would go a long way to explaining why Trump has been so pro-Putin, loudly bending over backwards to support the Russian strongman, holstering all criticism and, infamously, in Helsinki, believing Putin over the findings of the American intelligence community. Incidentally, Stephanopoulos managed to get Trump to confess to the Trump Tower Moscow deal, a project he’s categorically and angrily denied dozens of times since 2015. A few months ago, Michael Cohen testified under oath in Congress that Trump “knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it.”

All told, I’d wager Trump is acting in accordance with Russian interests over American foreign policy — another form of “collusion” — due to his myriad business relationships (which he lied about throughout the campaign and the early years of his presidency) and by the very existence of all those meetings during the campaign. Don’t discount the fact that Russia helped Trump win the election, and Trump will do anything to win.

To boil this down: The Russians know where Trump’s money comes from; they know how Trump won the election; they know what Trump’s people said in all those meetings — wouldn't it be a shame if that information was leaked to the Wall Street Journal. A threat like this alone could be enough to keep Trump in line with the Kremlin’s interests. Hence, Trump’s ongoing and impeachable collusion with Russia.

Ultimately, if Trump read the report cover-to-cover, he surely doesn’t want to regurgitate what he read since it’s mostly bad news for him and his presidency. (Trump never hesitates to quote favorable things. See also his Fox News tweets.) Chances are, though, he hasn’t bothered to read it. Why should he? His goal isn’t to carefully acknowledge Mueller’s findings. His goal is to flagrantly distort Mueller’s words, while simultaneously inventing nonexistent results.

Once again, Trump is treating his most faithful disciples like suckers who continue to swallow the lies of a well-documented con man with decades of history. The complexities of the report as well as Bill Barr’s artful preemptive obfuscation aided in this deception, assuring that the “no collusion” lie would travel around the world several times before the truth got its pants on.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.