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Reality check: What about "Clinton collusion"?

Readers keep emailing us about potential Clinton collusion. Here's what we found.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The longer the Robert Mueller investigation drags on, the more we're told by President Trump's supporters that Mueller's focusing on the wrong target, because the real collusion on Russia was by the Clintons.

Between the lines: It's easy to dismiss the talk as a distraction, since Hillary Clinton isn't president and has no power. But the real question is whether the talk would deserve more attention if she had won. And the answer is, one broad storyline — foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation — would certainly be getting a closer look. The rest falls apart under scrutiny.

The "Clinton collusion" talk usually focuses on two claims:

1) The dossier

In this case, the alleged "collusion" means Hillary Clinton "colluded with the Russians to get dirt on Trump to feed it to the FBI to open up an investigation into the other campaign," as House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes put it in this Washington Post fact check

  • Here's how they connect the dots: Because a lawyer representing Clinton and the DNC hired Fusion GPS to create the dossier — and former British spy Christopher Steele talked to Russian sources in preparing it — the "collusion" with those Russian sources allowed the preparation of a dossier that was later used by the FBI to help get the court order for surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
  • That's the gist of the Nunes memo. The FBI said it had "grave concerns" about the memo's accuracy, and the Democratic response to the Nunes memo said the FBI had other reasons to suspect Page was helping Russian intelligence.
  • This "collusion" theory has also been spread on cable news. Sean Hannity has charged that Hillary Clinton "bought and paid for" the dossier, and talk show host Mark Levin told Hannity that Clinton "paid for a warrant."

The bottom line: WashPo concluded there was no evidence that Clinton was either involved in Steele's work or worked with those Russian sources, and gave Nunes "four Pinocchios." It's also in dispute that the dossier led directly to the surveillance of Page.

What to watch: This theory will remain stalled out unless there are new developments that tie Clinton to the dossier more directly than we've seen, or any new evidence that the surveillance of Page would not have happened without the dossier.

2) The Clinton Foundation

In this case, "collusion" means the foundation allegedly took money from Russian interests or their allies in exchange for Clinton's actions as secretary of state. The Uranium One deal — which gave Russia a financial stake in uranium production — is part of this list, but not the only example. (Here's a good rundown by National Review.)

The bottom line: This is a better example of an issue that would be getting more attention if Clinton had won. News organizations were already sniffing around during the campaign.

  • But it's better understood as potentially shady ethics and possible conflicts of interest, rather than the kind of "collusion" where a U.S. candidate and a foreign government were working together toward a common goal.
  • And the Uranium One dealanother frequent Hannity topic — depends on a chain of connections that may not hold up under thorough investigation, since the deal was approved by nine government agencies and there's no evidence that Clinton knew about it, as Shepard Smith of Fox News has pointed out.

What to watch: The FBI has reopened an investigation into the Clinton Foundation donations, so there will be another round of coverage whenever it releases its results. But the attention will only last if there's evidence that Clinton took official actions based on those donations.

Go deeper:

The big questions surrounding the Trump-Russia dossier

Facts Matter: Background on the U.S.-Russia uranium deal