“I am an innocent man,’ Billy Joel bellowed on his song of that name. “Oh yes, I am.”
“Love your music!” Donald Trump tweeted in 2016 after the Bronx piano-tickler had dedicated performances of his 1974 tune ‘The Entertainer’ to the showman from Queens.
Trump is an innocent man. Oh yes, he is. Robert Mueller spent hundreds of days and an uncounted number of taxpayer dollars investigating “collusion” in the 2016 election. He issued 2,800 subpoenas and nearly 500 search warrants. He conducted nearly 500 interviews. He indicted eight Americans with past affiliation to Trump’s campaign or administration, 13 Russian nationals with suspiciously good computer skills, a dozen Russian intelligence officers who are probably still laughing at Mueller, two other people who seem to have heard something at the time, and three Russian companies.
Yet Mueller, in attorney general William Barr’s summary, “didn’t find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election”. So, no collusion with Putin’s agents, no conspiracy to steal the election, and no co-ordination with Russian attempts to foster confusion and division among American voters — as if they needed foreign help with that.
What Mueller did find was what we already know, and Trump has already told us. Candidate Trump boasted that he knew politicians were corrupt, because he’d been paying them for years. President Trump doesn’t care for procedure either. He is a bit of a crook, and he likes to work with people of similar temperament. His appeal to the electorate can be summarised in another of Billy Joel’s lyrics: “I love you just the way you are… Don’t change the colour of your hair.”
The convictions and confessions that Mueller secured all confirm the flaws of Trump’s character. But they reveal nothing whatsoever about “collusion”. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted of hiding earnings, some of them from advising a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner, pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. A Dutch lawyer named Alex van Der Zwaan served thirty days for lying to the FBI about contact between Gates and an unnamed person in Ukraine. George Papadopoulos, a minuscule figure in Trump’s early campaign, served 12 days in jail for lying to investigators.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s first NSA advisor, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador, but the content and significance of the conversations is unclear. Two of Flynn’s advisors were charged with violating lobbying rules in their work for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Michael Cohen was convicted of campaign finance violations for paying off Stormy Daniels, tax and bank fraud, and lying to Congress. And Roger Stone is accused of lying to Congress about his links to Wikileaks.
All of these people are sleazy. But their crimes are those of common or garden greed and corruption, familiar to anyone who has ever attempted to build a skyscraper or a casino. None of these lowlives is the smoking gun, the missing link, the Rosebud connecting Trump to Putin. But none of that will make any difference to Americans’ perceptions of Trump and the Mueller report.
Billy Joel may be capable of elementary bipartisanship — “Bottle of red / Bottle of white”, he sang in “Italian Restaurant” — but most Americans choose their truths from a single-party set menu. So do most journalists and talking heads. The Mueller fiasco proves that most of the American media are not just denying the reality of the 2016 election result, but also deluding themselves about the role of journalism.
Since Watergate, and the myth of All the President’s Men, journalists have told each other that they are a protected class with special rights and duties, bound not by law or common sense, but by whatever happens to be on the syllabus at the Columbia School of Journalism, the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and the platform of the Democratic party.
The Times and the Post and CNN and MSNBC were outraged and appalled at Hillary Clinton’s defeat — outraged by this democratic insult to the arc of history, appalled that the votes of the vulgarians and deplorable counted no less than those of the hacks and opinionators. They have believed and circulated any absurdity, so long as it reflects poorly on Trump. “Never-Trump” conservatives, doubly affronted in that they felt expelled from their own party, were especially vigorous in circulating gossip as fact.