How Did We End Up With The Word ‘Collusion’?

Donald Trump Jr., son of President-elect Donald Trump, walks from the elevator at Trump Tower, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster/AP

One of the abiding, albeit far from the most consequential, mysteries of the Trump/Russia story is how we ended up with the word “collusion” as the canonical term of art at the center of the story. I thought I’d remembered that one or more publications had investigated this minor mystery. But when I asked if anyone remembered such an article I was pointed to this actually quite recent (6.29.18) post from Lawfare. Victoria Clark, a senior at Georgetown who interns at the site, investigated the question and her explanation seems pretty definitive.

The quick version is this: “collusion” became the term of art almost literally from the beginning, if we judge the first release of Wikileaks/DNC emails on July 22nd, 2016 as ‘the beginning’. Indeed, it appears to have risen up almost organically. Two days after that first emails release, on the morning of July 24th, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook appeared on CNN and pointed the finger of blame at Russia and claimed Russia was releasing the emails through Wikileaks “for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump.” Within an hour The Washington Examiner wrote up responses from Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. denying any connection between Trump and Vladimir. The Examiner reported that the two men “vigorously denied any kind of collusion between Trump Sr. and the Russian president.”

Clark notes that Mook said this on CNN. The Examiner story references his interview on ABC with George Stephanopolous. Mook was making the rounds of the Sunday morning shows and saying more or less the same thing in each case.

So, at least on Clark’s inspection, the first use was by The Washington Examiner. When I first read this I thought: Wait, could it possibly be that Byron York is the guy who made “collusion” the chosen word? No dice. The byline is by Gabby Morrongiello and Anna Giaritelli.

What is noteworthy is that none of five men – Mook, Manafort, Trump Jr or hosts Jake Taper and George Stephanopolous – used the term “collusion”. That was the Examiner’s gloss. The statements themselves were not to The Examiner but from TV appearances on the same shows Mook appeared on.

Donald Trump Jr’s comments came on the same edition of CNN’s State of the Union when host Jake Tapper asked him to respond to Mook’s “suggesting that this is part of a plot to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.” Trump launched into a fusillade of accusations against the Clinton campaign but didn’t really address the actual question one way or another.

Manafort’s comment came in the same edition of ABC’s This Week not long after Mook appeared. George Stephanopolous asked him to respond to Mook’s claim as well as a column published that morning by Bill Kristol in The Weekly Standard which pointed to financial ties between Trump, Manafort and Putin. After Manafort first refocused the question on the leaked emails, Stephanopolous pressed the point: “Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign and Putin and his regime?”

Manafort responded: “No, there are not. That’s absurd. And, you know, there’s no basis to it.”

Ninety minutes after The Examiner published, ABC pushed a report which characterized Mook’s claim as an “allegation of collusion between the campaign and Russia.” It appears that both the Examiner and ABC independently fixed on the word “collusion”. As Clark describes, from there it was pretty much ubiquitous and picked up by everyone.

Clark’s account seemed so clear cut I wanted to make sure there wasn’t some pre-July “collusion” backstory she’d missed. So I did some additional sleuthing myself. In the Nexis database, I searched for the words “Trump” and “Russia” within 100 words of “collusion” for two years prior to the release of the Wikileaks/DNC emails on July 22nd. I got 35 hits. But none were references to “collusion” as we’re discussing it here or anything about the relationship between Trump and Russia. I tried various other arrangements of words. Still nothing. Just as she says, for the rest of the July the word quickly becomes ubiquitous.

One additional detail that popped out to me is that there’s another high-profile use of “collusion” over these key days and it comes from Julian Assange of all people. On Monday July 25th, the day after the exchanges with Mook, Manafort and Trump Jr., Assange did a Skype interview with NBC News in which he disputed claims of Russian involvement and insisted that “the real story is what these emails contain, and they show collusion at the very top of the Democratic Party” to make sure Hillary won.

Whether this was a random coincidence or Assange trolling Americans after hearing the word used the previous day is unclear. The relevant point is that Clark’s reconstruction is air tight. But what Clark was trying to do was explain not so much the “why” as the “how”, the specific chain of events that led to “collusion” becoming the agreed upon word. But why did this word take flight? Clark’s reconstruction of the “how” points us in the right direction. It’s a highly fortuitous chain of events. Two reporters doing a straightforward write-up use a word to summarize the claims and counterclaims of two sides, neither of which actually use the word. They use it. Less than two hours later ABC uses the same word, seemingly independently of The Examiner. After that virtually everyone is using it. There doesn’t appear to be any interested party pushing the word or the interpretation implicit in it. It has a look of inevitability to it.

“Collusion”, despite the legal imprecision people now complain about, seemed to have a life of its own, an organic power. How else to explain it being happened upon independently at least twice almost immediaely and then quickly becoming canonical with virtually no effort to contest it or use a different word to describe what was being discussed? A particular need existed and it filled that need. If the Examiner hadn’t used the word, someone else would have.

I think we can understand that need if we place ourselves back in those days two years ago. The idea that a hostile foreign power might be actively assisting the Republican presidential campaign or that that campaign might be in league with that power was an almost inexplicable suggestion. The more legally precise term ‘conspiracy’ makes more sense today. But I don’t think you can really get to that reasoning without knowing about the elaborate and multi-pronged Russian campaign or the ever-unfolding list of meetings and contacts between the Trump campaign and various Russian operatives. Once you know those you can think more concretely about certain connections and whether particular chains of events that might constitute specific crimes. But at the outset things were much more amorphous and confused. It wasn’t at all clear what had happened or just what the hierarchies of different severities would be. The novelty and incredibility of what was being discussed was at war with the kind of precision or legal terminology many now crave.

One possible clue comes from another point I haven’t discussed yet. Not only did Mook not use the term “collusion”, he didn’t actually accuse the campaign of what most of us would now call “collusion”. He didn’t say the Trump campaign was in on it, or working with Russia or conspiring with Russia. He simply claimed, on the basis of what he said the campaign was hearing from “experts”, that the emails were hacked by Russian state actors (already semi-public information by this point) and that they were being released through Wikileaks to help Donald Trump. Here’s how Mook put it to Jake Tapper and then how Tapper put the question to Donald Trump Jr a short time later.

Just what was being talked about then evolved over the course of the day. On CNN, Mook pressed Russian support for Donald Trump and Tapper kept the focus there. It was George Stephanopolous who pressed Mook on whether he was suggesting ties between Trump and Putin’s government. Later in the show he put the question more broadly to Paul Manafort, asking him about “troubling signs of ties between the Putin regime and your campaign”. That yielded what appears to be Manafort’s most categorical denial.

The idea that Russia was intervening to help elect Trump and the idea that Trump and Russia were somehow working together were mixed up and discussed almost interchangeably. The Examiner mashed both exchanges together as claims of “collusion”. The fact that these are dramatically different scenarios, which seems obvious to us today, doesn’t seem that clear. And yet it’s not clear that this earlier conflation isn’t the more logical approach. One party doesn’t normally do a major and risky favor for another party if the two have nothing to do with each other. It’s possible. But it’s hardly the default assumption. Here we get to the heart of the issue. This vague and by design mushy and elusive word seemed so natural and inescapable because it was so hard to figure, so hard to contemplate what might be happening and what it would mean if certain facts were ascertained.

Building on Clark’s reconstruction, The Examiner gets apparent pride of place for first using the word. But if Morrongiello and Giaritelli or ABC hadn’t, it seems all but certain that someone else, quickly, would have. Like a new biological niche shaping a new life form that would fill it, it was an almost organic process rather than someone first spinning the issue or applying a template of their own interpretation which simply caught on. It still makes sense, even though “conspiracy” is a more legally meaningful term, because we are still trying to make sense of not simply what happened but what it means that it did. The entire saga is one our system of government and history leaves us largely unprepared to grapple with.