Special counsel Robert Mueller is authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” The popular word for that is “collusion,” and it remains at the heart of both the Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee investigations.
We know the indictments he has filed and the pleas he has reached with various figures in the case. Some target either people on the Russian side of the equation or those for whom there are no suspicions of collusion.
But Mueller has charged three people who were in the Trump campaign inner circle — former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former deputy campaign chairman Richard Gates — all with ties to Russia and all of whom might be expected to be part of a collusion scheme, had one existed. Mueller has also charged one peripheral hanger-on, George Papadopoulos, who might conceivably have been part of a collusion scenario.
But all have faced charges and none of those charges, at least so far, has involved allegations that they played a role in a scheme of collusion.
What kind of collusion scheme could have existed without Flynn, Manafort or Gates being part of it? And yet none of them has been charged with taking part in a collusion scheme.
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about a phone conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Manafort has been charged with a daunting number of financial crimes, including fraud and tax evasion, relating to his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
Gates was charged with most of the crimes Manafort faced, but received a deal from Mueller, allowing him to plead guilty to one count of lying to investigators and one count of hiding profits from his work with Manafort in Ukraine.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to one count of lying to investigators about a conversation he had with a Russian seeking ties with the Trump campaign.
All those charges, and none alleging that any of these men, some at the highest levels of the Trump campaign, took part in any collusion.
“I can’t imagine that there would have been collusion or conspiracy with the Russians that Michael Flynn didn’t know about,” said Sol Wisenberg, a former prosecutor with the office of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
But in the Mueller investigation, it is precisely the people who would most be expected to be part of a collusion scheme who have not been charged with taking part in any such activity.
Nevertheless, for those hoping for collusion, there are still some possibilities. Mueller might lodge, or might have already lodged, additional charges against Flynn, Manafort or Gates.
And there is still Carter Page, who traveled to Russia in 2016. Perhaps Mueller is waiting to charge him with something. Or maybe someone else will be charged with taking part in the long-sought collusion.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a collusion plot that never touched Flynn, Manafort or Gates. Maybe it happened, but after more than 18 months of FBI, and now Mueller, investigations, it’s becoming harder to see how.