In May 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to look into issues around possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which the media and Democrats quickly boiled down to a single charge: “Collusion,” a vague charge which Donald Trump nonetheless was almost surely guilty of when it came to Russia.
Twenty-two months later, the report has been issued and has just been summarized by Attorney General William Barr. Mueller and his team issued no indictments against Donald Trump or anyone in the Trump administration for conspiring or coordinating with the Russian government’s 2016 election interference. Is it significant that the first version of the story Sunday afternoon by Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner avoids that ubiquitous charge, “collusion”?
To mark the end of the long investigation, here’s an extremely incomplete list of occasions Times reporters, editorialists and columnists freely tossing around the accusation of “collusion,” before moving the goal posts and deciding that word was too vague and all-encompassing, with the word suddenly in quotes in Eileen Sullivan’s Friday story upon the Mueller report’s release, “What Happens Now? That Could Be Complicated.”
Will this be the final word on “collusion”? Unlikely. First, collusion has no legal definition, though it has become a term of art as a shorthand reference to the Russia investigation.
Another recent Times story also put the word in danger quotes, and found it vague.
Many Democrats, persuaded that the president has criminally obstructed justice, await final proof of “collusion” with Russia, the vague standard that has become a measure for Mr. Mueller’s ultimate findings.
Now they tell us, after two years of constantly bandying about the term “collusion” when they thought they had Donald Trump all but convicted of collaborating with Russia. With the release of the Mueller report suggesting no further indictments regarding Russian interference, “collusion” is suddenly a bad word.
Reporter Michael Schmidt in April 2018: “Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday that it was “disgraceful” that questions the special counsel would like to ask him were publicly disclosed, and he incorrectly noted that there were no questions about collusion. The president also said collusion was a “phony” crime.”
But if, as the Times now tell us, “collusion has no legal definition,” didn’t Trump have a point?
The Times certainly took the term’s relevance for granted. From May 2018: “Top officials became convinced that there was almost no chance they would answer the question of collusion before Election Day.”
Another May 2018 story was quite confident in its “colluded” terminology.
Mock an investigation into whether your campaign colluded with a foreign government to swing the election as a “phony cloud,” a “total hoax,” “fabricated and politically motivated,” a “witch hunt” and an “artificial Democratic hit job” that “makes the country look very bad” and serves as “an excuse for losing an election that they should have won” -- and also claim that the Democrats were the real colluders.
Nicholas Fandos and Noah Weiland downplayed the term “collusion” in a mid-March 2019 story, after it appeared that Mueller’s report would not fulfill the most vengeful anti-Trump fantasies:
The president and his allies are continuing to label the investigation an overreach -- Mr. Trump prefers to refer to it in all caps as a WITCH HUNT -- and have kept the bar for wrongdoing very high. Outwardly confident that Mr. Mueller will not find evidence of a conspiracy between Mr. Trump and Russia, they have routinely sought to reduce Mr. Mueller’s investigation to a single term -- “collusion” -- or bust.
Reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis went on an extended gripe in her August 2018 story, mocking Trump for mocking “collusion,” in “Can’t Shake a Collusion Investigation? Then Make a Game of It.”
Have you heard the one about the collusion? Nobody can seem to find it....“Where,” Mr. Trump demanded to know, “is the collusion?” Spreading his arms in mock confusion, as if half expecting to find it hidden, like a particularly elusive Easter egg, somewhere near the lectern bearing the presidential seal, Mr. Trump issued the challenge again. “Find some collusion,” the president bellowed, making the notion of uncovering a conspiracy with a foreign power to sway a presidential election sound more like a scavenger hunt -- a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” for undermining American democracy....The president’s fondness for the phrase has inspired its share of ridicule. Stephen Colbert recently riffed on it on his late-night television show, joking that “no collusion” was like the president’s version of “aloha -- it means both ‘hello’ and ‘I’m guilty.’”
But if Trump saying “no collusion” is ridiculous, what does that make the paper’s constant drumbeat claiming “collusion”?
Even fact-checker Linda Qiu took the term as a real thing in an August 2018 article, “Fact-Checking Trump’s (Many) Attacks on Russia Inquiry.”
The paper’s opinion writers got in the act. Nicholas Kristof sniffed “treason in the air” around the Trump White House way back in March 2017. The text box read: “Did a traitor work with Russia to help Trump?” Trump associate Paul Manafort.
Michelle Goldberg flew the flag of “collusion” in May 2018: “Truth vs. Power In the Russia Investigation.” The text box took the maximum possible paranoid position: “Are Republicans covering up evidence of collusion?”
Of course Paul Krugman got in on the act, prefacing a piece about another Republican outrage with: “Don’t worry: This isn’t going to be another piece on Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia, which is being ably covered by other people.”
In December 2018, reporter Katie Rogers argued that some pro-Trump books contained “their share of Trump-friendly declarations that do not necessarily track with the truth: 'The Russia collusion investigation is over,' Ms. Pirro wrote in her book. (It’s not.)"
And now, at long last, it is.