“Evidence” and “proof.” Two words that are inter-related, but very different. Two words that are often used interchangeably, but cannot be legitimately interchanged. Two words that are (often by design, but oftener by accident) improperly used to mislead.
As we watch the investigations into the hacking of the 2016 Election by Russia, and the questions of whether the campaign benefited from the hacking, and if it did so innocently or by design, we are often misled by improper usages of these two words.
Donald Trump constantly says “there is no proof” of collusion. He is (thus far) right. . . but in an investigation at this stage, the absence of “proof” is inconsequential, and irrelevant. Given that Trump clearly showed in a tweet that he does not know what the word “colluded” means, it is not illogical to presume that he does not know the difference between “proof” and “evidence” either. It would also “not be illogical” to presume that he does not care to know the difference.
I’ll attempt to educate those who DO want to know about the difference between “evidence” and “proof” and why it matters. To begin with, while there is (to date) no “proof” that the Trump Campaign colluded with the Russians, there is evidence that they did so.
That Trump campaign surrogates met with Russians repeatedly is “evidence” that there was “opportunity for collusion.” That there was evidence of this “opportunity” does not “prove” that collusion happened. . . but it is “evidence” that it could have. When investigators begin collecting evidence, they look first for means, motive, and opportunity. In this case, the meetings with the Russians were the “opportunity.” They “prove nothing by themselves” but provide a “basis for suspicion.”
This “basis for suspicion” is the key to understanding “evidence.” Any bit of information that indicates a “suspect” has means, motive, and opportunity to commit a crime is valid evidence. Each bit of information (in and of itself) is far short of being “proof,” but the patterns of evidence and information that emerge from an investigation begin forming “chains of evidence.” When a “chain of evidence” becomes strong enough to bring to trial, then a judge, jury, etc will decide if the “chains of evidence” constitute “proof.”
In America, the prosecution (i.e. the investigating entity) has the “burden of proof.” The function of “the prosecution” is to find chains of evidence strong enough to lift said “burden of proof” and convince a jury or judge (or other deciding entity) that the chains of evidence do amount to proof.
The more serious the crime, the stronger the “chains of evidence” have to be in order to find the “chains of evidence” amount to “proof.” To find someone guilty of running a stop sign, the word of a single policemen (or a camera) are sufficient to issue a fine. There is little (or no) real “presumption of innocence” for traffic violations because the consequence of being found guilty isn’t large enough to require it.
To find someone guilty of a misdemeanor, relatively little evidence can be found to constitute “proof” by a judge, or by a jury. A simple “preponderance of the evidence” is adequate to find someone guilty of a misdemeanor. (That just means that there is slightly more evidence of guilt than of innocence.) Again, the relatively minor consequence of being wrongly convicted means that lesser amounts of evidence can be considered “proof.”
To find someone guilty of a more serious crime, one must provide more evidence. A more “significant preponderance of the evidence” must be provided to convict a man of Robbery, than to convict a man of trespassing or vandalism.
To find a man guilty of a capital crime (one in which there is a theoretical chance that life in prison, or death would be the consequence of guilt) the “chains of evidence” must be stronger, and more compelling still. A simple “preponderance of the evidence” is not enough. The “chains of evidence” must be strong enough in such cases to be considered (by a judge and/or jury) to indicate guilt “beyond a REASONABLE doubt.” Not “beyond a doubt.” Few chains of evidence could ever become that strong or compelling. “Beyond a REASONABLE doubt.”
So, here we are. Let’s examine where “here” is in regard to the differences between “evidence” and proof. Each “piece of evidence” can be seen as a “link in this chain.” Every link in every “chain of evidence” is important in it’s own right. But few of these bits of evidence (in and of themselves) creates a “chain.”
As evidence builds, several different “chains of evidence” will be created. If all the facts could be gathered, they would create one, long, strong chain that would lead without fail to “the truth.” But, of course, “all the facts” are never known at the beginning, or mid-point, and usually even at the end of any investigation.
Early in any investigations, there are short “chains of evidence” that do not yet (and possibly never will) link up into a longer, more revealing “chain of evidence.” As more and more evidence is discovered (links in the chain that in and of themselves “prove” nothing, but which link more and more short chains into longer ones) a “case is either made” or invalidated. If the short links of evidence never go anywhere, after a reasonable time, the case must eventually be dropped.
So here is where we are in regards to evidence (links in the chain) and “linking bits of chains together.”
Every meeting with Russians by Trump representatives is “weak evidence” (i.e. a small link in a chain) of collusion. Not proof, just evidence. When there are an unusually large number of such meetings, each meeting becomes a “link in a chain.” Each meeting is evidence (not proof) that means, motive, and opportunity existed. That there are an unusually large number of occasions where means, motive, and opportunity come together is, itself, further evidence.
If that is all there is though, then the investigation dies. The chains will not ‘lift the burden of proof.’ More substantial evidence is required than the mere convergence of means, motive, and opportunity.
But there was from the beginning of this investigation, (and there still is) much more. If there wasn’t, the investigation would have long ago been invalidated and abandoned.
Each meeting that is held is just “weak evidence” without corroborating evidence of collusion. But if one of these meetings is initially denied until it is proven, then the lying denial is additional evidence. If there are twenty meetings with Russians (for instance) and half of them were openly admitted, the half which were openly admitted largely fail to “corroborate” the conclusion of “collaboration or collusion.” The definition of “collusion” is “A secret conspiracy to commit harm.” No secret, no collusion. It’s that simple. But, the desire and/or attempt to hide evidence is evidence. And it is often a crime itself.
But if the ten (of twenty hypothetical) meetings were deceitfully denied, then THAT (in and of itself) becomes another “chain of evidence” which gets stronger as it gets longer. And, this chain of evidence is “linked” to the meetings themselves, and so gets continually stronger and longer, becoming a true “chain of evidence” that indicates (but does not yet “prove”) collusion.
However, if (as in this case) the vast majority of meetings with Russians were deceitfully denied until they were no longer deniable, the very fact that so much lying was deemed necessary by those under investigation becomes an additional link in the “chain of evidence.”
A “suspect” can mitigate (i.e. negate the power of) evidence about him/herself by honestly revealing it early in the investigation. His/her honesty is “evidence” of his/her reliability and cooperation. Not proof, just evidence.
A chain of honest revelations is strong evidence of innocence, and can overcome chains of evidence that indicate guilt. No one in the Trump campaign has (thus far) made any attempt to use or introduce such “chains of evidence of innocence.”
The reality is that the Trump Campaign (and Trump himself) “act guilty.” “Acting guilty” is “weak evidence of guilt.” It is (for example) likely that Trump has trust issues that do not allow him to provide honest revelations of self, even when they would constitute “evidence of innocence.” Being incapable of trusting those who are investigating you can be “evidence of guilt.” But it can also be nothing more than evidence of terrible insecurity. Chains of evidence can be complex things.
When only “weak chains of evidence” (for example “circumstantial evidence”) are available, several weak chains can be (figuratively) braided together to form stronger chains.
One key to this investigation is that Trump keeps calling for an end to the investigation because “there is no proof of collusion.” While Trump himself probably believes that an investigation is invalidated by an “absence of proof” his lawyers certainly know better. The reality is that every revelation of new evidence of guilt” is a legitimate reason to continue seeking more evidence. In any criminal investigation, investigators only stop investigating when the flow of new evidence dries up. Typically, in any honest investigation, as long as evidence (i.e. links in the chain of evidence) keep being found, they do (and should) keep being sought.
Trump is simply wrong (and guilty acting) when he says otherwise. Regarding the contention by the Trump Administration that “in the absence of proof, you must stop looking for evidence,” it would be silly to do so. When a fossilized dinosaur tooth is found, that tooth is “evidence” that other fossilized dinosaur bits might be around also. If dinosaur hunters operated under the presumption that “lacking proof, you must not look,” we’d have never found a single dinosaur. But in reality, as long as dinosaur hunters continue to find new bits of fossilized remains, they keep looking. To end an important investigation, one looks for evidence long enough to prove it does NOT exist. Dinosaur hunters, and investigators both continue looking as long as new bits of evidence continue to be found.
Only after long, long periods of finding no new evidence (i.e. the “flow of evidence drying up”) do they conclude that they need to stop investigating. If it were a political enemy of his (or a personal one) who was being investigated, he’d throw a major fit if the investigation were dropped while evidence was still flowing. On some level, he really cannot claim to not know that evidence is still flowing. When he makes that claim, he’s not just mistaken, he’s lying. If he were capable of listening to his lawyers, he would know that.
In most investigations, evidence flows slowly. That the suspect (in this case Trump) constantly demands “proof or acquittal” this early in the process is usually evidence that the suspect does not want time for more evidence to be found. It is evidence (not proof – evidence) that the suspect has no faith that further evidence, if found will be favorable to him/her. In more blunt terms, it is evidence (not proof) that the suspect believes him/herself to be guilty.
So, to summarize. Evidence is a “link in the chain.” No individual bit of evidence in and of itself constitutes “proof.” The more links there are in a ‘chain of evidence’, the longer, and stronger the “chain segment” becomes. When enough “chains of evidence” are strung together to act in combination to “lift the burden of proof”, then a judge and/or jury (or other deliberative body) will rule on whether the chains of evidence are strong enough to “bear the burden of proof” and thus constitute “proof of guilt.”
Until they do, any discussion of “proof” is silly and premature. Until they do, any demand for “proof” is probably an attempt to distract the investigation, and becomes yet another link in the chain of evidence that strengthens the already gathered evidence.
What we know right now, is that there is still (even after the Donald Trump Jr. revelations) no “proof” that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians or otherwise illegally benefited from the Russian’s “help.” But we also know that there IS “evidence” that is more than adequate to justify continuing to investigate. More importantly, the “stream of new evidence” is obviously still actively flowing. The reality is that the stream of evidence that is coming in seems to be increasing in volume, not “drying up.” Until it “dries up,” there is no legitimacy to any claim that the investigation is unwarranted.
What we know right now is that none of us can really say (until the chains of evidence are complete enough to level charges) just how much evidence there is, and how strong it is. None of us yet knows whether there will be enough evidence to actually level charges. None of us yet knows if this will play out in a court of law, or just in the “court of public opinion.”
But all of us (who wish to know) CAN KNOW that there is no legitimate reason to shut down an investigation in which new evidence is literally flowing faster every month.
Those who claim that there IS a legitimate reason are either incredibly ignorant, or are lying. There is no third option.
Editor’s Note: It is also important to consider the source of evidence and the incentive for manipulation and fabrication in order to extend the investigation for obvious reasons. There is no direct evidence of such an action, yet the likelihood of such deceit, its historical precedent, and the clear and present motivations to do so, should be equally considered. Yet, that being said, the point remains, that to an investigator, there is currently every reason to continue to investigate, until such time as there is no longer any flow of evidence, regardless of its source.