Does the Trump-Putin collusion claim make sense?

On January 20, James Clapper, the departing director of national intelligence, declared that he has seen no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians. More recently, Mike Morell, former acting director the CIA, said:

On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all. There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.

But let’s put aside the lack of evidence of conspiracy or collusion. Do such conspiracy claims make logical sense?

I’m finding it difficult to see how. Russia didn’t need to collude with the Trump campaign. It needed neither Trump’s permission nor his assistance to hack the emails of John Podesta and others.

Nor should we assume that Russia needed the Trump campaign to offer anything in exchange for hacking the Dems. Everyone agrees that Russia often engages in hacking, and other forms of interference, during political campaigns throughout the world. This was the view of witnesses at a Senate committee hearing last week on Russian interference, a hearing dominated by Democrats. Indeed, Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, attempted to influence American elections.

Have past beneficiaries of Russian/Soviet interference promised anything in exchange? Have they been accused of doing so? I don’t think so.

Russia often has reasons of it own to favor one candidate over another or, alternatively, just to demonstrate what it’s capable of doing or to sow confusion. Interference doesn’t imply collusion.

It’s possible, of course, that this case of interference did involve collusion. Maybe the Trump campaign offered the Russians something in exchange for hacking or the continuation of hacking.

However, four months after the election and two months into the Trump presidency, there is no sign of a quid pro quo. Trump has made no meaningful concessions to Russia. He has not lifted sanctions. He has pledged fealty to NATO. His influential Secretary of Defense is a NATO booster, and his Secretary of State seems to concur. His U.N. ambassador speaks out strongly against Russia.

It’s possible that Trump is waiting for the right moment to keep up his end of an alleged bargain and repay Putin for hacking the Democrats. As of today, though, neither evidence nor logic backs up the collusion theory.

The more I think about how the 2016 election campaign was conducted, the more implausible the collusion theory seems. If Trump were colluding with Putin, it’s likely that he would have taken a stronger anti-Russia line during the campaign. That way, he could limit suspicion. A Manchurian candidate hides any positive, or even neutral, feelings towards “Manchuria.”

Recall too that Trump “invited” Russian hackers to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. Trump was only joking, but this doesn’t seem like a joke he would have made if he were conspiring with Russia. Nor, if one insists that Trump wasn’t joking, is this something he would have said in seriousness. A Manchurian candidate doesn’t publicly solicit “Manchuria’s” help.

And what about the Russians? If they wanted concessions from Trump in exchange for hacking, they would, in all likelihood, have taken pains to ensure that the hacking could not be traced to them. That way, Trump would have maximum freedom to make concessions to Russia. If the hacking were traced to Russia, concessions might be viewed by Trump’s many domestic adversaries, including the media, as part of a quid pro quo arrangement with Putin, forcing Trump to do less for Russia than Putin would have wanted.

Did the Russians take pains to ensure their hacking could be traced to them? It doesn’t seem so. I have heard several knowledgeable people say that if we know the Russians did the hacking, it’s because they want us to know. If they want us to know, that cuts against a collusion theory for the reason stated above.

But even if the Russians aren’t skillful enough to hack us without our intelligence people finding out that they did so, it doesn’t seem like the Russians did their best to disguise their involvement. Again, this would cut against a collusion theory.

To be clear, I’m not ruling out the possibility of collusion. I’m just saying that right now there is no sound basis for believing, or suspecting, that they did.

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