Put aside, for a moment, the raging controversies over this or that aspect of Donald Trump, the Russians, and the election. And then ask: What do we know about the allegation at the heart of the matter: Did Trump, his campaign aides, or his associates collude with Russians to influence the 2016 campaign?
The answer is, we know nothing. After all the investigating, after all the talk, after all the yelling — the public knows nothing. There may be people at the highest levels of U.S. government secrecy who know the answer, but even that is not clear at the moment.
The most definitive statement of the current situation came Sunday on NBCs “Meet the Press.” James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, admitted that he does not know of any evidence that proves collusion, or even points toward collusion.
“Does intelligence exist that can definitively answer the following question, whether there were improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Clapper.
“We did not include any evidence in our report … that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians,” Clapper answered. “There was no evidence of that included in our report.”
“I understand that, but does it exist?” asked Todd.
“Not to my knowledge,” said Clapper.
“If it existed, it would have been in the report?” asked Todd.
“This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government,” Clapper responded. “But at the time, we had no evidence of such collusion.”
Remember that Clapper was head of national intelligence until Jan. 20. There have been reports the Trump Russia hacking investigation was going on last summer, that it accelerated in the fall, and that it has been moving along ever since. So Clapper was there for most of the investigation. And he says he knows of no evidence of collusion.
Other government officials who know less than Clapper — but who should still know something — are in the dark. On Feb. 27, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “We still have not seen any evidence of anyone that’s — from the Trump campaign or any other campaign, for that matter, that’s communicated with the Russian government.”
Pressed about alleged contacts, Nunes said, “That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but I don’t have that. And what I’ve been told is, by many — by many folks, is that there’s nothing there.”
A few days later, Rep. Adam Schiff, Nunes’ colleague and the top Democrat on the Intel Committee, expressed frustration with the FBI for not sharing information on the investigation. “I would say at this point we know less than a fraction of what the FBI knows.”
Nunes and Schiff — who both have security clearances and, as the prime House overseers of the intelligence community should know what they are talking about — both agree: they know nothing about evidence of collusion. Nunes appears to believe that is because there isn’t any such evidence. Schiff appears to believe that is because the FBI has been hiding the evidence. But both say they don’t know much.
The situation seems no better in the Senate, where the biggest recent controversy has been over Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr acting at the behest of the White House to tell reporters there’s no there there on the collusion angle.
What all that suggests is that there is an information vacuum at the core of the Russia election controversy. Everybody is talking about things they don’t know even know happened.
The vacuum has not stopped President Trump’s accusers, who are suggesting there is incriminating evidence of collusion the public has not seen. “There are transcripts that provide very helpful, very critical insights into whether or not Russian intelligence or senior Russian political leaders — including Vladimir Putin — were cooperating, were colluding, with the Trump campaign at the highest levels to influence the outcome of our election,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons told MSNBC Friday. “I believe they exist.”
The problem, for Coons, and other Democrats, is that his belief might not be based in fact. On Saturday, Coons’ office released a statement saying he did not mean to suggest “that he is aware of transcripts indicating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.” And on Sunday, facing questions from Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Coons went into full retreat.
Wallace asked this: “Do you have any evidence, at this point, and this investigation has been going on for a long period of time … do you know of any hard evidence of collusion between what I call TrumpWorld and the Russians to interfere in this presidential campaign? Not suspicions, not contacts — but evidence of collusion?”
“Chris, I have no hard evidence of collusion,” Coons answered. “I think what hard evidence there may be will be discovered either through a full release of President Trump’s financial interests and concerns and taxes, or the intercepts that I believe our intelligence community and FBI have of conversations between and among Russian officials.”
The Coons “Fox News Sunday” interview could prove a revealing moment in the Trump Russia election affair. When Coons admitted that he had seen no evidence of collusion, where did he suggest it might be? In the president’s tax returns. Just how that might be possible is not clear. But there is no doubt Democrats work every day to pressure Trump to release his taxes (something candidate Trump broke with tradition by refusing to do). If Democrats come up with a dry hole on the Russia election matter, they might, like Coons, just seamlessly segue to Trump’s taxes.
In the meantime, there are mounting demands for a special prosecutor, or a “9/11-style commission” to investigate an alleged event — TrumpWorld-Russia collusion — that even the nation’s top investigators, after months of investigation, don’t know actually happened.
To be clear, it’s possible that incontrovertible evidence of collusion exists somewhere in the government’s classified investigation machine. It might be that the FBI director, or some other official, will soon release information to settle the question once and for all. But right now, even as there are calls to escalate the investigation, some very knowledgeable people are beginning to admit they know of nothing there.
Recently an anonymous Washington politico told Axios’ Mike Allen of the Russia election case, “This is the rare case where the smoke IS the fire.” That’s clever, but no, the smoke is not the fire. The fire is the fire. And right now, no one seems to know if there is any fire at all.