Last week, several mainstream-media outlets reported that the FBI had given Rudy Giuliani a defensive briefing in 2019, warning that he was being used by Russian intelligence. Shortly thereafter, it retracted this report. It turned out the FBI had merely “planned” to warn Giuliani, but the actual briefing may not have taken place.
Giuliani’s media supporters immediately seized on this episode to reiterate their favorite defense of the scandal: It’s just more Russia collusion hoaxery. “You would think, after the journalistic failure of the Russia collusion hoax, that they might be wary of sinister interests in Washington who peddle misinformation about Trump and his associates under cover of anonymity,” scolded a New York Post columnist. “The Russia Collusion Smear Returns,” proclaims a The Wall Street Journal editorial.
What makes this story so surreal is that Giuliani was obviously colluding with Russian intelligence, in flagrante delicto. There were no clandestine meetings on park benches or dead drops involved. Giuliani traipsed through Ukraine, meeting with a series of Russian-linked figures, cameras in tow. His primary partner in the enterprise was Andrii Derkach, a graduate of the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow, who was widely known to be a Russian intelligence agent, and who was described by the Trump Treasury Department in 2020 as “an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services.”
This photo of the two working together is not taken from a hidden camera. Giuliani is very proud of it. Look, Ma! Collusion!
Whether or not the FBI went through with its intention to officially inform Giuliani he was being manipulated by Russian intelligence is politically interesting. Telling Giuliani his well-known Russian intelligence-agent partner had a Russian agenda would be like informing him that his hair appeared to have been treated with coloring. The point wouldn’t be to let Giuliani know, but to let him know the FBI knew — and that his undisguised work was being taken seriously as a counterintelligence threat.
To understand how an episode in which Giuliani’s completely undisguised collusion with Russia could become more evidence in the right-wing mind of a “Russia collusion hoax,” it is worth understanding how the term evolved in the Trumpist lexicon.
Beginning in 2016, the news media began noticing the Trump campaign’s cooperation with Russia’s efforts to assist his election. The Mueller report became the locus of this story, even though Robert Mueller never set out to investigate collusion, per se. He set out to prove crimes, and collusion is not a crime. “We did not address ‘collusion,’ which is not a legal term,” Mueller told Congress.
Trump memorialized this finding, falsely, as “No Collusion.” The “Russia hoax” became a pretext to justify all manner of lies and misdeeds by the former president and his inner circle. Some of those misdeeds included outright collusion with Russian intelligence.
Giuliani himself grasped the illegal versus improper distinction when he began working in Ukraine. Weeks after the Mueller report’s release, he was working with Russian-linked figures to smear Joe Biden, boasting to the New York Times, “There’s nothing illegal about it … Somebody could say it’s improper.”
When conservatives invoke the “Russia collusion smear,” what they actually mean is that they believe colluding with Russia is perfectly fine. Russia and Trump have a shared interest in helping Trump win reelection and pumping damaging stories about Biden into American media. They think Russia’s efforts are laudable, and it’s fine for Trump to cooperate with them.