When the Mueller investigation began in May 2017, many people hoped that it would shed light on what was perhaps the central question regarding Russia’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election: whether the Trump campaign actively colluded with the Russian government’s interference operation. Evidence in the media, in public intelligence community findings, from the Senate intelligence committee investigation, and in charging documents from the special counsel has made plain that Russia deployed an intentional and sophisticated influence campaign aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But the public record has left whether anyone associated with the Trump campaign actively colluded with the Russian government as an open question.
For almost a decade, I have studied how the United States and Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) execute this type of operation, which is called a “partisan electoral intervention” in academic literature. The 2016 case provides an interesting point of comparison to this backdrop. My research has led me to two conclusions. On one hand, it is more likely than the public record suggests, given what the public already knows about this intervention and applying parallels to similar past efforts, that such collusion had indeed occurred. On the other hand, given how collusion has actually been carried out in known real life cases, it is highly unlikely that Mueller will be able to find incontrovertible proof for it.
Collusion in Partisan Electoral Interventions
A partisan electoral intervention is when a sovereign country intentionally takes specific actions to influence an upcoming election in another sovereign country using a covert or overt manner in order to help or hurt one or more candidates. Four findings in my studies of such interventions bear relevance on the question of possible collaboration in the 2016 election.
First, collaboration and cooperation between the intervening great power and the assisted local actor (i.e. the beneficiary of this electoral aid) is a recurrent feature of partisan electoral intervention. In the vast majority of post-World War II electoral intervention cases for which there is sufficient evidence to examine this aspect at some reasonable level of certainty, I found such collusion to be occurring between the two sides. There are indeed a few cases of electoral intervention where there is clear evidence from the archival documents that no collusion occurred. However, the intelligence agencies in charge of such covert operations clearly dislike the option of intervening in a foreign election without any such cooperation. As then-CIA director Richard Helms later complained about one such rare case, the U.S. intervention in the 1970 Chilean elections, the CIA tried to “beat something with nothing.”
Second, covert electoral interventions in general and collusion in particular are usually unpopular with the targeted public. The great power and the assisted party usually choose covert electoral intervention because either the acts done or the involvement of and coordination with that particular great power are expected to invite backlash from voters, undermining the purpose of the effort. For example, in an American electoral intervention in the 1969 Thai elections, the U.S. government chose to intervene covertly because the local actor that it helped demanded complete secrecy. If exposed, many populations would probably see an electoral intervention in their country using the methods publicly known to have been used by Russia in 2016 as a shameful and unacceptable violation of their country’s democracy and sovereignty and would perceive any local actor who cooperated with it as a stooge of the foreign power if not an outright traitor.
Third, given the costs that exposure can have, the parties will usually use the most secure and inconspicuous communication methods available. For example, when the local actor initiates the contact, they frequently send a trusted intermediary to meet with senior officials in the foreign power’s capital to secretly convey their request, perhaps using an existing meeting with such senior members scheduled for a different purpose. Such personal meetings with a small number of senior decision-makers, records of which are highly classified and do not need to be conveyed through regular (and open to espionage) diplomatic channels, were usually seen as the most secure way to communicate. For example, the request of German Chancellor Willy Brandt for support from the Soviets in the 1972 West German elections was conveyed by two senior members of his party (the SPD) during a secret one-on-one meeting with a senior Soviet official. Both SPD members were in Moscow for a standard meeting on the negotiations between the Soviet Union and West Germany regarding Brandt’s Ostpolitik policies.
In other cases, when bypassing the local embassy is not possible for the local actor, they frequently might try to request assistance through messengers that can provide them with plausible deniability in case outsiders catch wind. For example, in the case of the 1965 Sri Lankan elections, the secret request of the UNP party leadership for U.S. support was first made during a visit to the U.S. embassy by the head of the local chamber of commerce, who also occasionally served as a fundraiser for the UNP. Only when that initial visit didn’t bring about the desired results did a senior UNP party leader visit the embassy and repeat the request. (The information regarding this and the following two historical examples is based on declassified U.S. government documents found during the author’s in-depth archival research in the U.S. national archives and the relevant presidential libraries on this topic.)
When the foreign intervener is the initiator, that power looks for equally secure or deniable methods. For example, when the Eisenhower administration was considering whether to intervene in the 1958 Venezuelan elections, it contacted its preferred local candidate through a man with no active ties to administration—an American who knew the candidate but had not served in government for 12 years. Likewise, when the Kennedy administration considered intervening in Chile’s 1964 presidential elections for the Chilean Christian Democrats, Kennedy decided to first meet its leader and likely presidential candidate, Eduardo Frei. In order to arrange such a meeting without raising undue suspicions, Kennedy organized an academic conference at George Washington University on Latin America to which Eduardo Frei and other leaders of the Christian Democratic party were invited as speakers. Their ostensible presence in Washington D.C. for this purpose then created an opportunity for a secret one-on-one meeting between Frei and President Kennedy.
Finally, once the intervention commences, any subsequent interactions on this topic are handled in similarly secure manner. CIA or Russian intelligence operatives, well trained in conducting secret meetings, are frequently used for this purpose. Likewise in covert interventions, the foreign assistance is usually kept hidden from most party and campaign officials, with only the closest confidants to the candidate and a handful of the senior party members being directly involved or aware of it. For example, in the case of the 1964 Chilean elections, aside from Frei himself, only four other senior members of the Christian Democratic party seem to have participated in meetings with U.S. officials in which the covert American intervention was discussed.
Application to the 2016 Russian intervention
The history of election interference by great powers suggests two conclusions about the 2016 election. First, contrasting 2016 with historical trends may suggest that the case that there was collusion between elements associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government may be stronger than the public record suggests. The 2016 election interference has some of the telltale signs of past electoral interventions: a clear preference by the intervening power for one of the local actors; multiple senior personnel in the Trump campaign with unusually strong pre-election ties to Russia who might make plausible conduits for making and maintaining contact; at least one known meeting between the Trump campaign and a possible “deniable” messenger of the Russian government in which a possible offer of electoral assistance was raised, and clear willingness by key members of the Trump campaign to collude with Russia for this purpose. There is also some preliminary evidence to suggest that the Trump campaign’s messages and the fake news and propaganda secretly spread by the Russians in the run-up to the election were quite congruent. The smoke of collusion swirling around the Trump campaign is very thick.
On the other hand, given what the historical record says about the mode and means of how collusion usually occurs in electoral interventions, it is unlikely that the Mueller investigation would be able to find the hard evidence necessary to draw the conclusion that collusion occured.
First, if possible collusion between the Trump camp and Russia occurred along the lines of past cases, the number of people who would know or who were involved in the collusion in the Trump campaign is probably quite small. Many senior members of the Trump campaign, including some of those personnel with ties to Russia, would likely have had no clue of such collusion going on. It may well be possible that even Trump was kept in the dark by those in his campaign who might have conspired with Russia.
But second, hard evidence of collusion would probably be very hard to detect by investigators. Colluding parties in the past were meticulously careful about the security of their communications. Likewise, foreign intelligence services, and even many hostile non-state actors, are well aware nowadays of the advanced signals intelligence capabilities wielded by American intelligence and counterintelligence agencies which can lead to the exposure of any contacts using digital means. Non-digital means of communications using the true and tried methods described in the preceding examples, such as face-to-face private meetings in secure or non-suspicious locations, would have been readily available to the two sides if such collusion had occurred. Furthermore, given the methods already known to have been used by the Russian government as part of this electoral intervention, if collusion had occurred it would have required only a handful of such face-to-face meetings. Likewise, in an age where anyone interested in diligently covering their tracks can get access to strong encrypted communications with a smartphone app, it may be harder than ever to find any such direct digital communications if used. As a result, it would be very hard to find direct communications linking anyone associated with the Trump campaign to Russian intelligence.
Third, a colluder might be able to hide their conduct from investigators without being caught. Several members of the Trump campaign and their associates have pleaded guilty to charges brought by Mueller pursuant to cooperation agreements, and their plea agreements require them to be fulsome in their cooperation. But if, as described above, Mueller has trouble finding hard evidence against which his team evaluate their testimony, then anyone under a cooperation agreement might still be able to withhold their knowledge of collusion while pleading to unrelated conduct. Notably, the Special Counsel’s office has now alleged that Paul Manafort, despite pleading guilty and promising full cooperation, has continued to lie to investigators in breach of his agreement.
One should also note that any such colluders, if they existed, would have very strong social and reputational incentives not to admit to their involvement in collusion. Given the highly negative view of any such collusion within the American public, any confessing colluder would expect their name to become a new byword for “treason.” Accordingly, even if they avoided serving any jail time, they would be wary of afterwards showing their face in public. Indeed even serving jail time on other, unrelated charges may be seen by such colluders as preferable to bearing the heavy social and reputational costs.
The example of the American intervention in the 1964 Chilean elections is instructive here. Although unambiguous proof of this covert American intervention came out as part of the 1975 Church Committee report, Frei repeatedly denied, until his death in 1982, any knowledge or involvement, claiming in one such denial that an internal Christian Democratic party investigation supposedly showed that he and his party have “never been associated with the activities of the CIA.” By the early 2000s, despite the declassification of U.S. government documents showing Frei’s and other senior Christian Democrats’ knowledge and involvement in this intervention, the strong negative views of the Chilean public about the collusion have led
the surviving associates of Frei to continue to deny any knowledge of it.
Given these facts, Mueller’s chances of finding the sort of clear, unambiguous evidence for collusion that would persuade a jury or two-thirds of the Senate are low. His team would have to identify, out of dozens of possible suspects, the specific associates within the Trump campaign who were aware of or involved in colluding with Russia.Then, if a possible suspect were located, Mueller’s team would need to find a way to overcome the heavy social and reputational costs that that suspect may fear more than serving significant time in prison. Alternatively, Mueller would have to find evidence of a handful of private meetings with few participants, which were conducted with people who have advanced professional training in hiding their tracks and avoiding surveillance. Likewise, given the possible non-digital nature of such contacts, Mueller’s team would have to do this without a critical investigatory tool: advanced U.S. signals intelligence and cyber-warfare capabilities.
Accordingly, when Mueller’s final report is published, the American public should not expect it to provide, despite the strong circumstantial evidence, a conclusive answer on the question of collusion. If there is evidence, it may take several decades to come out. We may be forced to wait until then for the answer.