Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saw the Trump campaign up close and personally. After endorsing Donald Trump's presidential campaign in February 2016, Christie was by the candidate's side for much of the campaign and ran the transition effort once Trump won -- until he was fired from that gig.
Christie's history with the campaign means that when he talks about Trump and those around him -- as he does in his new book "Let Me Finish" -- we should all listen. And in an interview with The New York Times' Maggie Haberman about the book -- and his time with Trump -- Christie offers up a theory on why he doesn't believe there was any collusion with the Russians. Here it is:
"Mr. Christie said the campaign was too disorganized and threadbare 'to run a Tom Clancy operation,' and said he never saw evidence of collusion with Russian officials."
What Christie is arguing here is that the candidate and the campaign he ran was simply not sophisticated enough to possibly run some sort of broad-scale collusion operation with the Russians. That they were too dumb, politically speaking, to pull off anything close to this.
Which, is a) intriguing b) insulting to the Trump campaign and c) something I have heard from people who were tangentially connected to Trump's campaign in 2016.
It also might be, at this point, the best defense Trump and his team have when it comes to charges of collusion -- they might have been being worked by skilled Russian operatives but they were totally clueless about it and, therefore, didn't collude.
Take the much focused-on June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and a handful of Russians, including Natalia Veselnitskaya.
If you view the Trump campaign as deeply strategic and set on coordinating with Russians to aid their chances of winning, then this meeting is something close to proof positive of that theory. The meeting only happened because Trump Jr. was promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton that, according to emails he exchanged with publicist Rob Goldstone, came through some fuzzy Russian quasi-governmental sources. Trump Jr. didn't tell the truth about the meeting when he was found out -- he said the focus was on adoptions -- and both he and the President didn't tell the truth about who wrote the statement from Trump Jr. to The New York Times about the meeting. (It turns out the President dictated the statement for his son.) It seems pretty cut-and-dry, right?
Except, now look at that meeting through the lens Christie suggests: That these people were simply borderline incompetent. Trump Jr., who has never been involved in politics before, gets an email from a guy he knows who says the Russians have some good negative information on Clinton. Being utterly unaware of the potential dangers of sitting down with people with close ties to a foreign government during the heat of a presidential election, Trump Jr. takes the meeting. It winds up being nothing like he hoped -- because he did zero actual checking into who the people he was meeting with were or wanted -- and he ends it quickly.
Knowing what you know about Trump Jr., what do you think is the more likely scenario here? I'm honestly not sure myself, but the idea that these people were rank amateurs who were blundering into all sorts of dicey waters because they didn't know what the hell they were (are?) doing makes a decent amount of sense.
Now, that theory -- call it the incompetence argument -- might fly for some people in the Trump orbit (maybe including the President) but it's a harder sell for some others. At the top of that list is Manafort, Trump's one-time campaign chairman who, during his time in that role at the head of Trump's campaign, chatted with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian with ties to that country's intelligence services and shared polling data with him. It's a harder sell -- at least for me -- that Manafort, who had been around politics and working on races in foreign countries for decades, wouldn't understand how those conversations might look to an outside observer. Plus, Manafort has since been convicted for a series of financial crimes related to his work in the Ukraine.
Christie's theory -- these guys weren't smart enough to collude -- isn't exactly the most flattering when it comes to the President and his family.
But put it up against all the smoke special counsel Robert Mueller has found over the course of his investigation into Russia's attempted interference in the 2016 election. Illegal coordination -- which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about collusion -- is based on both sides knowing the deal. If the Russians were effectively working members of the Trump campaign and those people in Trumpworld were totally clueless they were being worked, it's not a crime.
The "incompetence argument" is a very depressing one when you consider that many of these people -- including the President of the United States -- are now running our government. But legally speaking, it may well be the best defense lots of people intimately involved in Trump's 2016 campaign can offer.