No matter where you get your news from, your last few media cycles have probably been dominated with the following story: a TV star is formally cleared of criminal charges. The accused falsely (and publicly) conflate this decision with innocence and frame it as an attack by their political enemies.
If you watch Fox News, I’m talking about Jussie Smollett. If you watch MSNBC, I’m referring to Donald Trump. And if by some miracle you’ve been in a bunker, siloed away from the culture wars, let’s bring you up to speed.
Last week’s long-awaited conclusion of the Mueller report found no criminal collusion between Trump and Russia — at least, that’s what the Attorney General and his four-page summary say. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Chicago prosecutors decided not to charge Smollett with a range of offenses stemming from allegations that he faked a hate crime against himself in January
While the two men appear to be very different on the surface, those distinctions are wholly superficial. Both leveraged the privilege of wealth and celebrity for unearned political credibility. Both exploited racial tensions for their own personal gain. Both proclaim that they are victims of false and biased media. Both appear to be inveterate, unrepentant liars.
Return to Innocence
In Trump’s case, he took the conclusions of a report he had previously made every effort to discredit as incontrovertible proof of his innocence. “Complete and Total EXONERATION,” he proclaimed on Twitter. To those who long ago decided to support Trump through thick and thin, the Mueller report was a delicious opportunity to stick it to the “fake news media,” which to varying degrees had been pedaling what turned out to be a false narrative.
But anyone with even the tiniest amount of political objectivity can see that Mueller’s investigation hardly came up empty. Trump and his family may not have been criminally charged (as many, including this writer, had hoped) but, as CBS News points out, “Mueller’s probe has yielded seven guilty pleas and 99.5 months in prison served, and 34 individuals and three separate companies have been charged.” Those sentenced to prison include the president’s campaign manager and personal lawyer.
You could (and Trump does) make the argument the special counsel overstepped the parameters of its investigation. The fact remains that two of the President’s closest advisors committed felonies on his behalf during the campaign. That’s a long, long way from all-caps EXONERATION.
Similarly, Smollett immediately attempted to spin the dismissal of charges against him into conclusive proof he did nothing wrong. Right after the hearing, his legal team issued a statement that doubled down on his status as a victim, not just in the actual assault but of “false and inappropriate remarks made to the public causing an inappropriate rush to judgement.”
The problem is that the prosecutor “stand[s] by the investigation” and initial decision to charge him. “The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can’t make it any clearer than that,” attorney Joseph Magats told the Chicago Tribune.
According to the Tribune: “Magats said the office reached an unwritten deal with the defense in recent weeks to drop the charges if Smollett forfeited the $10,000 bond and did community service — an arrangement he characterized as a routine way to resolve nonviolent charges against first-time offenders.”
Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was even more harsh. He said that letting a wealthy, famous defendant free without charges was a “whitewash of justice” that was “not on the level.”
Rather than count his blessings and slip out the back of the courthouse without comment, Smollett, like Trump, needed to preen to the cameras. “I have been truthful and consistent on every level since day one,” he told reporters, adding, “I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’m accused of.”
That sounds a lot like R. Kelly’s performative plea that he would have to be stupid to lead a sex cult after his previous accusations of sexual assault. Or any number of Trump’s flailing excuses when he’s caught saying something stupid or vile. But in our current choose-your-own-adventure culture, the lies must be spoken to satiate the political sympathizers who will defend them regardless
As for the rest of us, we’d be wise to recognize that neither the left or right has a monopoly on the manipulative, shameless, and power hungry. Smollett and Trump are two sides of the same coin and the sooner we can purge them from our politics, the better off we’ll be.