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Russia-Trump collusion or not, the damage has already been done Open in fullscreen

Marcus Montgomery

Russia-Trump collusion or not, the damage has already been done

'Collusion' is not a felonious crime in the United States [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 July, 2017

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Comment: Trump and his aides might escape legal action, but in the court of public opinion, much less evidence is required to render a guilty verdict, writes Marcus Montgomery.
The third week of July is being marketed by the Trump administration as "Made in America" week - demonstrating the president's commitment to ensuring that manufacturers are dedicated to "America First"; meaning goods are manufactured in the United States by Americans. 

The irony here extends well beyond the fact that the Trump brand has been fashioned on the backs of foreign workers for years. To that same notion, many Americans wonder if Donald Trump's presidency was even crafted in these United States of America.

Voters across the country are, instead, convinced that Mr Trump was a benefactor of a concerted Russian effort to meddle in the United States' most sacrosanct institutions, namely its presidential elections.

Proponents of this narrative were given more fodder this month when The New York Times reported that the president's son, Donald Trump Jr - a vocal surrogate of the Trump presidential campaign - met with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Russian leadership.

Despite the administration's attempt at spinning the report as a harmless meeting with an independent Russian citizen, a report days later detailed emails between Trump Jr and a publicist name Rob Goldstone, in which Goldstone explicitly told Trump Jr that the lawyer could provide "incriminating" information on the senior Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Trump Jr responded to this assertion with, "I love it."

Many Americans wonder if Donald Trump's presidency was even crafted in these United States of America

As troubling as some may find this news, the revelation about Donald Trump Jr's meeting - which included former campaign boss, Paul Manafort, and Trump's son-in-law and political adviser for nearly everything, Jared Kushner - is only the latest in a long line of reporting about the Trump campaign's murky ties to Russia.

Along with Trump Jr, Manafort, and Kushner, former advisers Carter Page and General Michael Flynn and current administration officials like Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson have had, or currently have, significant connections in and around Russian circles.

A majority of the country views him as an illegitimate and incompetent president, at best, or a treasonous puppet of Moscow at worst

The steady release of report after report detailing suspect contacts with Russian figures in and around the Kremlin will continue to have implications for President Trump and his team.

Read more: Donnie Darko (Jr) and the deathly tweet

Those implications are not necessarily criminal, in the president's defense, but there certainly could be legal consequences for any number of individuals involved. While the potential for legal consequences is uncertain, there will undoubtedly be political ramifications for the Trump team's seemingly endless ties to Moscow.

Possible legal implications

The term "collusion" has been a mainstay in US media coverage of Trump-Russia affairs since the beginning. So much so, it should garner serious consideration for Merriam-Webster's top-ten list of words in 2017. But, it is crucially important to understand the limits to this characterisation of events.

There is a zero percent chance anyone in or around the Trump administration faces legal troubles for 'collusion'

Even if things continue to unravel, there is exactly a zero percent chance anyone in or around the Trump administration faces legal troubles for "collusion".

"Collusion" simply is not a felonious crime in the United States, outside of a singular, narrow clause relating to antitrust law. 

While no Trump campaign official will be tried for collusion - by that term - with the Russian government, there are a host of criminal activities that could be of interest in the ongoing criminal and counterintelligence investigations.

As the brilliant legal minds recently recounted for Politico, the independent Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, could be investigating members of the Trump campaign for numerous other offenses, including "conspiracy," which is likely the closest legal definition for what pundits consider the Trump campaign's crimes. 

At this point in time, the most likely legal consequences - if there are any - for any one of the aforementioned Trump aides stems from their behavior after the fact.

Like all other crimes in the United States, the government must prove members of the Trump team broke a law, beyond a reasonable doubt; that is, with no other plausible explanation.

As of now, the most anti-Donald Trump prosecutor in the country would still be wary about trying anyone for any crime with that threshold for guilt; the evidence simply is not strong enough.

'Conspiracy' is likely the closest legal definition for what pundits consider the Trump campaign's crimes

However, current administration officials Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner have omitted information of Standard Form 86 (SF-86) - the required form for gaining security clearance - which is potentially a felony case and is easier to prove.

Additionally, Mr Mueller could determine that officials misled, or even lied to, federal investigators and that, too, could be a punishable offense. 

Political implications

The implications of all of the Trump-Russia talk in the present, however, are much clearer. Even if the president and those around him are cleared of any wrongdoing in the criminal and counterintelligence probes, the optics of the whole saga are abhorrent.

Sure, it is likely extremely frustrating for the Trump administration to spend the majority of its time combating the coverage of Russian meddling. But, those around the president have done an excruciatingly poor job at presenting a coherent strategy for convincing the public of its innocence.

The president and his team have turned to bombastic rhetoric to discredit coverage while simultaneously offering demonstrably false accounts of any and all interactions with Russian citizens.   

As a result, anyone who is not part of Trump's base sees a president and his administration depleted of credibility. It turns out that in the court of public opinion, much less evidence is required to render a guilty verdict.

This president and his aides have done a fantastic job of making themselves look guilty

This president and his aides have done a fantastic job of making themselves look guilty. The Russia narrative - and the Trump team's response to it - will continue to slow down the president's agenda and frustrate his fellow party members on Capitol Hill due to the time and resources required to address the numerous questions.

The president and his supporters can continue dismissing the stories as "witch hunts" and "nothing burgers," but the fact remains that public perception is everything in politics and, right now, a majority of the country views him as an illegitimate and incompetent president, at best, or a treasonous puppet of Moscow at worst.

In the broader context of the Trump-Russia stories, perhaps there are few possible legal ramifications over which members of the administration should fret. However, should the Trump team carry on with its modus operandi as demonstrated thus far, it will continue to suffer from the perpetual leaks.

Normally when one performs this poorly, he or she might be comforted with the idea that things can only go up.

However, President Trump enjoys little support beyond his core voters - and that is very unlikely to change anytime soon - so he should be concerned about the effects of the Russia leaks on his remaining political capital.

His base does not believe in the Russia stories, sure, but eventually those same voters will be impacted by the sparse progress he has made on his ambitious economic and legislative agendas.

As long as Donald Trump is promoting "Made in America," perhaps he should try to get ahead of the Russia stories and assure the public that his own presidency does not come stamped with "Made in Russia".


Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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