It has long been the key question of the Trump-Russia affair: Did Donald Trump's presidential campaign collude with Russia to influence the 2016 election? Now, we have the first official, albeit partisan, answer.
"We have found no evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians," said Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee Monday, as they released findings from a 14-month Trump-Russia investigation.
GOP Rep. Mike Conaway, who formally oversaw the committee probe, said, "We found perhaps bad judgment, inappropriate meetings, inappropriate judgment in taking meetings." But no collusion.
Committee investigators looked at the events often cited as evidence of collusion. They looked at the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower in which Donald Trump Jr. and other top campaign officials talked to a group of Russians who promised, but did not deliver, damaging information on Hillary Clinton. They looked at the activities of peripheral Trump advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. They looked at the allegations in the Trump dossier. They looked at all that, and they could not find a thread connecting events into a narrative of collusion.
"Only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take this series of inadvertent contacts with each other, or meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a fictional page-turner spy thriller," Conaway said. "But we're not dealing with fiction, we're dealing with facts. And we found no evidence of any collusion, of anything that people were actually doing, other than taking a meeting they shouldn't have taken or inadvertently being in the same building."
The collusion question is the most contentious of the Trump-Russia investigation. Some Democrats have long said we know enough now to prove collusion. Indeed, just last month, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said, "There is already, in my view, ample evidence in the public domain on the issue of collusion if you're willing to see it."
When Republicans released their findings, though, Schiff did not mention collusion, choosing instead to accuse the majority of cutting short the investigation and placing "the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country."
Would-be believers in collusion could suffer another disappointment later this year when the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee releases its report. Shortly after the House findings were made public, the chairman of that committee, Sen. Richard Burr, told CNN he has not seen evidence of collusion, despite his committee having spent more than a year looking for it.
"'I've read a lot about it, but I haven't seen any' evidence of collusion, Burr said," according to the CNN report. "Asked about repeated efforts by Russians to coordinate with the Trump campaign, Burr said: 'It's collusion on part of the Russians, I guess, but not the Trump campaign.'"
Burr's official position is that the investigation into collusion continues, but he has sent out signal after signal that he doesn't think it happened -- an opinion that supports what House Republicans found.
Yes, the House committee findings are partisan -- they were released under the leadership of the committee's controversial chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, are the work of Republicans on the committee, and are sure to be disputed by Democrats. But they are still the first official report ruling out collusion in the 2016 campaign.
And they were released in the context of some nervousness on the left that the collusion narrative, a fundamental element of Trump resistance, might not work out. The comic version of that came on "Saturday Night Live," in a skit -- a parody of "The Bachelor" -- in which special counsel Robert Mueller broke the news to an anti-Trump true believer that collusion might not have occurred.
"So, uh, you know that I've been struggling a little bit over the last few months just trying to figure this whole thing out and just grasp everything," the actor playing Mueller said. "The reality is I don't think I can give you everything that you want right now, and I think you sense that."
"So ... what?" said the stunned woman. "You don't have Trump on collusion?"
"I think I need to explore the possibility that I have a stronger case with some other stuff," the Mueller actor said. "I'm just trying to be honest with you in telling you I can't commit to collusion right now."
Devastated, the woman responded: "Collusion is literally the only thing that I've been looking forward to the past year."
Back in the real world, none of Mueller's indictments or guilty pleas so far have alleged collusion. But it is always important to note that we do not know what is coming next.
And in the skit, the respected special counsel Mueller delivered the news. In real life, it was House Republicans. And a lot of Democrats, and some in the public as well, will simply not believe House Republicans' word on the matter. They'll wait to hear from other sources.
That is coming, perhaps sooner rather than later, and the collusion question will finally be settled.
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