Rudy Giuliani just watered down Trump's Russia collusion denial — again

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We don't know whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government, legally speaking. But we do know that those close to President Trump seem to be quite concerned about just how precisely you define the word “collusion.”

Rudolph W. Giuliani hit the airwaves of Fox News on Wednesday night to again raise the bar for what might constitute collusion. On the same day that 2,500 pages of testimony about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting were released, Giuliani declared that collusion would require using information that was provided by the Russians.

“And even if it comes from a Russian, or a German, or an American, it doesn’t matter,” he said of the opposition research that was offered. “And they never used it is the main thing. They never used it. They rejected it. If there was collusion with the Russians, they would have used it.”

Giuliani's argument was conspicuous, given that it appeared to go further in narrowing the definition of collusion than we've seen to date. Previously, the operative denial was that valuable information from the meeting didn't even exist — a contention that the testimony on the Trump Tower meeting seemed to confirm.

This may seem to be splitting hairs, but the new argument allows for the Trump team to have received information from foreign sources, as long as it wasn't utilized. We will see whether that's a distinction he's drawing for a reason. It's possible that Giuliani was just speaking loosely while trying to restate the previous company line. (He has certainly been sloppy before.)

But to be clear, this is the latest episode in what has been a steady narrowing of the Trump team's denials of collusion. Here are the seven distinct stages of collusion denial I've identified:

1. November 2016: No communications, period

Hope Hicks: “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”

2. February 2017: There were no communications, “to the best of our knowledge”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “This is a non-story because, to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place.”

3. March 2017: There were communications, but no planned meetings with Russians

Donald Trump Jr.: “Did I meet with people that were Russian? I'm sure, I'm sure I did. ... But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”

4. July 8, 2017: There was a planned meeting at Trump Tower, but it was “primarily” about adoption and not the campaign

Trump Jr.: “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow-up.”

5. July 9, 2017: The meeting was planned to discuss the campaign, but the information exchanged wasn't “meaningful”

Trump Jr.: “No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

6. December 2017: Collusion isn't even a crime

President Trump: “There is no collusion, and even if there was, it’s not a crime.”

Jay Sekulow: “For something to be a crime, there has to be a statute that you claim is being violated. There is not a statute that refers to criminal collusion. There is no crime of collusion.”

(Technically speaking, the criminal code doesn't use the word “collusion,” but it's generally understood as a broad term that could encompass more specific, codified crimes. And even special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's team has used it in court filings.)

7. May 2018: Even if meaningful information were obtained, it wasn't used

Giuliani: “And even if it comes from a Russian, or a German, or an American, it doesn’t matter. And they never used it, is the main thing. They never used it. They rejected it. If there was collusion with the Russians, they would have used it.”