Last night I watched the news from Washington (the capital),
The Russians escaped while we weren’t watching them (like Russians will).
Now we’ve got all this room,
We’ve even got the moon.
And I hear the USSR will be open soon
As Vacationland for
Lawyers in love.
— Jackson Browne, “Lawyers in Love“ (from Lawyers in Love, Asylum Records, 1983).
Perhaps today’s news doesn’t precisely parallel all of the political and cultural phenomena that fueled Jackson Browne’s early 80s Cold War commentary, but, if you’re a lawyer (and you remember the Cold War), today was a fascinating day (“Among the human beings/ in their designer jeans/ am I the only one who hears the screams/ and the strangled cries of lawyers in love?”).
The indictments of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were unsealed, alleging conspiracy, money laundering, and violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, among others. The indictment is here. Just after the President tweeted that the indictment shows there was “NO COLLUSION,” the news broke that Trump campaign national security adviser George Papadopolous pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI when interviewed in connection with the Russian meddling investigation. That guilty plea statement is here (via NYT). It is riddled with references to Papadopolous’s email exchanges with individuals connected to the Russian government, as well as references to other officials (some high-ranking) in the Trump campaign who apparently knew about Papadopolous’s efforts — and who did absolutely nothing to put a stop to the apparent contacts with Russian connections.
Politico has this entry with reaction from notable legal figures. What appears clear from the views of many experts is this: the Manafort indictment is not nearly as significant as the Papadopolous guilty plea.
Much of the difficulty with this entire episode is the hyper-focus on the word “collusion.” Somehow, somewhere, this became a term that has defined the nature of the scandal. But why? It has been said before but is worth reiterating: collusion is not per se a crime.
“Collusion” is a legally-neutral term; it can refer to criminal cooperation or simply to cooperation covertly or by deception. So although collusion is typically a term used to describe a state of affairs that is bad (that is, it is not morally neutral), its use in the present context does not, without more, connote violation of some specific criminal law. For lawyers, what we ought to mean by “collusion” in this particular context is that someone in the Trump orbit, and more specifically in the campaign, formed an agreement to cooperate with, or to develop a relationship with, the Russian government or individuals connected to high-ranking Russian government officials for the purpose of assisting Trump in defeating Hillary Clinton. That may nor may not be a crime, but it would seem to fit a proper understanding of “collusion.”
The extent to which that kind of agreement or relationship is a crime will vary based on the law applicable to the facts. Still, when one examines the Papadopolous document — and then adds the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 — it is hard not to conclude that at least some in the campaign were, in fact, trying to forge such an alliance. Again, whether that is criminal is a separate question, as is the question of whether candidate Trump himself knew anything about the activities of these lower-level actors. But to state that there is “no evidence of collusion” is to simply turn a blind eye to the obvious, once “collusion” in this context is properly understood.
So, when you hear the President or someone in the Trump orbit say “there was no collusion,” ask whether they mean there was no criminality, or whether they mean there was no intent or effort to develop a cooperative agreement with the Russians to help Trump win and to damage Clinton.
All that said, and regardless of where one stands on the merits of the ongoing investigations, there is much to be sad about today. I very much doubt that we would be discussing any of this, or spending enormous public time and resources on this matter, were it not for the pathological need of political campaigns to absolutely destroy their opponents in the effort to win. What we see, particularly in the Papadopolous news, is the disturbing length to which political campaigns will go in America to smear, to discredit, to ruin an opponent. It is not new, nor is it unique to the Trump campaign. Both parties do it. And they spend obscene amounts of time and money on it.
True, sometimes revelations about a candidate can serve a valuable purpose, where they bear on a candidate’s competence, or ability to do the job, or reveal truly bad acts about which the public ought to be informed. But dirt-digging ventures have routinely become a substitute for substantive debate between, and about, candidates. The danger is that national campaigns will focus not so much on the election of those who can best govern safely and effectively under the Constitution, but simply on which candidate is able to survive total annihilation.
When these are the wages of entry into electoral politics — not just defeating your opponent, but ruining them, and spending millions and millions of dollars to do so — is it any wonder that people who are good, smart, capable, and patriotic, but imperfect, do not want to run for office? Is it any wonder that so many good people who are currently serving no longer want to be part of the system?
Perhaps the need to annihilate our opponents proceeds directly from two additional pathologies in our contemporary politics: extreme polarization and hero worship. I shall have more to say about that soon. For now, fortunately, we have baseball.