On Nov. 9، 2016، according to the Mueller report، some redacted figure wrote to a Russian regime crony، “Putin has won.” Based on the assessment of the intelligence community and the findings of Robert Mueller، President Vladimir Putin of Russia did indeed succeed in his efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump.
But Mr. Putin’s ultimate victory may have come on Thursday morning، during Attorney General Bill Barr’s news conference. By seamlessly conflating the terms “collusion” and “conspiracy،” and absolving President Trump of both، Mr. Barr revealed that the Russian information warfare technique of “reflexive control” has officially entered American public discourse — and threatens، with his recent allegations of campaign “spying،” to stay there for a while.
Reflexive control is a “uniquely Russian” technique of psychological manipulation through disinformation. The idea is to feed your adversary a set of assumptions that will produce a predictable response: That response، in turn، furthers a goal that advances your interests. By luring your opponent into agreeing with your initial assumptions، you can control the narrative، and ultimate outcome، in your favor. Best of all، the outcome is one in which your adversary has voluntarily acceded. This is exactly what has happened with much of the American public in the course of Mueller’s investigation.
The assumptions that culminated in Mr. Barr’s conclusions began almost two years ago، when the White House، Trump supporters and the media characterized the focus of the special counsel’s investigation as “collusion.” The word “collusion” does not appear anywhere in Mr. Mueller’s appointment letter: His mandate was to investigate any “links andor coordination” between the Trump campaign and Russia. There is a good reason for this: “Collusion” is the legal equivalent of Jell-O. Outside of specific factual contexts — such as price fixing in antitrust law — the word “collusion” has no legal meaning or significance. In fact، in his report، Mr. Mueller explicitly stated that his conclusions were not about collusion، “which is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States code.”
The Trump administration seized on this legal ambiguity early on، with the refrain that “collusion is not a crime.” The standard set here is that anything falling below criminally chargeable behavior is acceptable. When it comes to the presidency، this is not true. The Constitution lays out the procedure for removing an unfit president from office for “treason، bribery، or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Nevertheless، we took the bait: Collusion may not be a crime، lawyers and pundits responded، but conspiracy is. This “reflexive” response adopted criminality as the bar to be met.