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On Friday morning, this exchange happened between White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and CNN’s Joe Johns:

Johns: You said there was no need to collude with Russia but there have been so many indictments and contacts with Russians. How do you balance that?

Sanders: It’s real simple to me. The President far and away was the better candidate. He had a better message and he outworked Hillary Clinton. That’s why he’s President. He didn’t need to, nor did he, collude with the Russians. Pretty simple.

That does seem simple. I guess this is exculpatory evidence that neither President Donald Trump nor anyone is his inner circle colluded with …

Wait a minute. This makes no sense. None. And I’ll explain why.

Let’s start with what we know.

  • We know, because it was the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community, that Russia sought to interfere in the election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, believing the billionaire businessman was better for them.
  • We know that multiple people within Trump’s orbit – former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen – have all pleaded guilty to making false statement to either Congress or federal investigators (or both) regarding the nature and breadth of their contacts with the Russians during the campaign.
  • We know that former Trump political adviser Roger Stone has been charged with lying to Congress about his knowledge of and dealings with WikiLeaks, the website that served as a clearinghouse for emails the Russians stole from the servers of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
  • We know that many of the contacts between Trump associates and the Russians date back to the spring of 2016 (at least), which is when Papadopoulos’ bragging to an Australian diplomat that he knew Russia had dirt on Clinton set in motion what has come to be special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
  • We know that in June 2016, three of the top officials in Trump’s campaign – Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort – met with Russians, a meeting the top Trump brass took under the promise of “dirt” on Clinton.
  • We know that Manafort, the campaign chairman at the time, shared polling information with a Russian with known ties to Russia’s intelligence operation.

Sarah Sanders would have you believe that all of those facts are immaterial because Donald Trump was a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Which, um, what?

The error at the heart of Sanders’ “simple” explanation is that she’s suggesting that Trump’s abilities as a candidate and the possibility of members of his campaign colluding with the Russians are mutually exclusive. That you have to pick one option or the other: Either Trump was a great candidate (and therefore didn’t need to collude to win) or his side was colluding. No in-between.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. It is absolutely possible that Trump won on his own merits as a candidate (and Clinton’s failings as a candidate) and members of his campaign colluded with the Russians to try to better his chances. It’s the same principle that makes Trump’s repeated assertions that he didn’t need the Russians to interfere in the election because he was a better candidate. Both things can be true!

None of that is to say that we have any proof that Trump himself colluded with the Russians. We don’t.

What it is to say, however, is that him being a good candidate is largely immaterial in whether there was collusion between his side and the Russians. Would any member of his circle know back in the summer of 2016 that his good candidate-ness was going to ensure he won the White House? No chance – especially because every available metric (polling, fundraising, message discipline, swing state organization) suggested he was likely to lose, and potentially lose big.

And even if one of Trump’s allies did believe he was the better candidate and would buck history to win, it’s not at all far-fetched to believe they might have viewed any coordination with the Russians as just another way to help that effort along. Why leave ammunition unfired, right?

Again – and this is important – there is no definitive proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Maybe Mueller’s report will find some. Maybe it won’t. But either way, the fact that Donald Trump was, in Sarah Sanders’ mind, the superior candidate in the 2016 election has approximately zero bearing on the question of collusion. Like, none.