Read: The genius of Trump’s “collusion is not a crime” claim
The second is a wily rhetorical maneuver by Trump and Giuliani. The president first argued in July 2017, against most evidence, that taking information from foreign governments is standard procedure in politics. In July 2018, Giuliani began emphasizing that argument frequently. The effect was to convert questions about Trump’s personal conduct and about foreign interference into a dry legal matter. Many of Trump’s critics, either not seeing the trap or convinced that Mueller would turn up clear evidence of a criminal conspiracy, went along with the frame.
Even before the Mueller report’s release, a plurality of Americans believed that Trump had “colluded” with Russians, according to Reuters. Mueller eschewed “collusion,” a nonlegal term, and instead noted that while his investigation did not establish the existence of a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Russian government, there were “multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government” offering assistance. “In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away,” Mueller wrote.
On State of the Union, Giuliani sparred with the host, Jake Tapper, over whether such conduct was wrong. Curiously, Giuliani said that he would not have accepted such assistance himself, but also that “any candidate in the whole world in America would take information,” and he insisted that there was nothing illegal about doing so. Tapper tried to shift the debate, asking whether taking foreign assistance was “immoral or unethical.”
But this framing, of legality versus ethics, misses an important point. The real forum for this debate going forward is politics—a realm that a cynic might suggest is seldom troubled by either laws or ethics. The question is not merely Should the president be held accountable for his campaign’s work with Russians?, but Should the government do anything to prevent a recurrence of such interference going forward?
Read: Trump goes all in on the “collusion is normal” defense
Any politician who doesn’t dispute Giuliani’s claim is effectively agreeing that there’s nothing wrong with accepting assistance from foreign governments, provided there is no direct coordination. By extension, there’s nothing wrong with foreign governments interfering in elections—so long as they don’t break laws such as bank- and wire-fraud statutes, which is where the Internet Research Agency went wrong. (Given Trump’s public statements, it’s not clear that he even objects to overt interference that breaks the law.)
The political system could respond with moves in two directions. One would be for Congress to write statutes that would change the situation Giuliani described by explicitly proscribing the acceptance of certain kinds of assistance. This would sidestep thorny questions about whether opposition research is a “thing of value” under campaign-finance statutes and thus illegal to accept. (Mueller was ambivalent.)