On Monday, surrounded on all sides by news of indictments and a guilty plea, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made a very bold claim.
“There’s clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation and smear the President to influence the election,” Sanders said.
There is? That’s a huge story!
But — spoiler alert! — there actually isn’t “clear evidence” of collusion between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Russian government. So what is Sanders talking about, and how close is she to the actual facts?
At issue is the news — first reported last week by The Washington Post — that a lawyer for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee was using campaign dollars to pay Fusion GPS, an opposition research firm. Fusion GPS was, in turn, using that money to fund the construction of a dossier filled with anti-Trump information by former British spy Christopher Steele.
Steele got his information — some of it very salacious, most of it much more mundane — from interviews with Russian sources who are not named in the dossier. (Worth noting: Some of the claims made by Steele in the dossier — including that the Russian government engaged in a systematic attempt to influence the 2016 election to benefit Trump and hurt Clinton — have been separately corroborated by US intelligence services. Some of the more salacious allegations have not.)
So, here’s how Sanders’ logic — I think — works: Clinton campaign $ –→ Fusion GPS –→ Steele –→ “Russian officials” = collusion.
Or to expand slightly: The Clinton campaign funded the Steele dossier. And Steele talked to Russian sources to gain information about Trump. Hence, collusion.
The problem with that logic is that a) it’s very, very tenuous and b) it doesn’t come close to fitting the legal definition of “collusion.”
Here’s the definition of collusion: “1. a secret agreement, especially for fraudulent or treacherous purposes; conspiracy: 2. Law. secret understanding between two or more persons to gain something illegally, to defraud another of his or her rights, or to appear as adversaries though in agreement.”
That’s not what appears to be going on here. Even if you buy Sanders’ dicey connection between the Clinton campaign paying for Fusion GPS’ services which in turn paid for the Steele dossier which included conversations with Russians, it’s not clear that there was an effort to “gain something illegally” or “defraud another of his or her rights.”
All of which exposes, in blunt terms, what Sanders is doing here. She is trying to throw attention somewhere — anywhere — but on the guilty plea of former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and the 12-count indictment of former top Trump aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Which is part and parcel of the political spin all administrations engage in when trying to bury a bad story.
But just because Sanders says it doesn’t mean you have to believe it. And in this case, the facts simply don’t bear out the claim she is making.