‘Exonerated’: The verdict from Trumps heartland



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Trump won 70% of the vote in Pope County, where Russellville is located

People in Arkansas thought that the Mueller report was a “witch hunt” and feel vindicated by its findings. Their affection for President Donald Trump is deep – and so is their scepticism towards the special counsel and Washington.

Joyce Smith, a retired nurse, heard about the findings on Sunday while she was driving across Oklahoma. A friend texted her the news, and she told her husband, Walter, who was in the driver’s seat. They were both delighted by Mueller’s conclusion.

Congressional Democrats, liberals and others in Washington may be clamouring for more investigations. Yet she and her husband reflect the views of many if not most of those who live in Arkansas, “flyover people”, she describes them, “the people in the middle who get skipped”, or as Trump says: “the forgotten people”.

They make up the bedrock of support for the president and on Sunday they celebrated since, as Mr Smith says: “Trump was exonerated.”

On that day she and her husband drove through a landscape that is familiar to those who know flyover country. Signs of the economic hardship, resilience and patriotism that mark small-town and rural America are easy to spot in west-central Arkansas.

Here in Russellville (population of 29,000), the place where the Smiths stopped before leaving on their trip, one can see vacant buildings in the downtown area and a gigantic American flag that whips back and forth in the wind.

The Smiths and others who live here were gratified by the results of Mueller’s investigation, which uncovered no evidence that the president colluded in the Russian government’s alleged attempt to interfere in the democratic process.

For the Smiths, Mr Trump is not a criminal or a Russian spy. Instead he is a leader who has ushered in economic growth to the country and hope to Arkansas.

Russellville is one of the many towns across the nation that has supported Mr Trump and his drain-the-swamp campaign despite the chorus of critics in Washington and demands for his impeachment.

In 2016 Trump won more than 70% of the vote in Pope County, where Russellville is located, and people here remain firmly behind him (and proud that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who lived in nearby Pulaski County, is working at the White House).

For many in Russellville, their enthusiasm for the president has not dimmed despite the fact that their own economic prospects may not any better than before he was elected. The median household income in town, $35,000 (£26,500), remains significantly below the national average of $56,000.

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Joyce Smith says she did not trust Robert Mueller or his investigation

Some people have high-paying jobs in manufacturing (Grace, which makes kitchen products, is based here) or at a nearby chicken-processing plant. But a lot of people work at Burger King or in other fast-food restaurants, and some – like the Smiths’ son – end up moving to Oklahoma or other states to find a decent job.

Mr Trump has not fixed the problems faced by many people in Russellville, but at least he has stood up for them and fought back against their common enemy, Washington.

This scepticism towards the federal government has been brought into sharp relief because of the Russia investigation, but the sentiment has a long history. These anti-Washington views are so entrenched it seems likely that they will continue to shield the president from whatever mishaps – or investigations – could dog him in the future.

Some academics trace the anti-Washington mindset in Arkansas and in other southern states – and the dislike that people express towards special counsels and federal investigations – back to the reconstruction era after the US Civil War.

Back then, says Kelly Jones, an assistant professor of history at a local university, Arkansas Tech, white people in Arkansas and in other parts of the south complained about the new political order and had “mistrust” of what they saw as a corrupt government. This is a charge that people in Arkansas continue to make today when they talk about Washington and the Mueller report.

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Walter Smith admires the way Trump has been fighting Washington

There are other historical reasons, too, for hating the federal government: here people see themselves as independent and resourceful.

Standing outside a Burger King in Russellville, Mr Smith says that more than four decades ago he and his wife were driving through Arkansas and liked the hilly, rustic landscape.

Mrs Smith points out trees for me: “Oak, cedar, pine.” They decided to move here, and over the years he has built a house, driven a school bus and raised milk goats – and expressed deep scepticism towards Washington and those who take “handouts”.

Years ago, conservatives in Arkansas rejected another independent counsel, Ken Starr, echoing a similar anti-Washington sentiment.

Starr led an investigation into a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, in the 1990s. Both Republicans and Democrats felt angry at Mr Starr, who became a symbol of Washington politics.

As Doug Thompson, a political reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, says: “There were people in the state who despised the Clintons and still hated the special counsel.”

She and others in town express similar disdain for the Mueller report: “A made-up thing to discredit Trump”, she says.

Or as Sam Eastman, an attorney in town, puts it, the investigation was “a way to root out people”, especially those who support the president.

“I don’t really care about the Republicans or the Democrats, and I don’t think either of them cares about us either,” he says of Capitol Hill.

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Toni Crites, shown with her mother, Mary Durham, says she wants investigators to keep in digging

Timothy Schroeter, a college student who is studying business, says he is glad the report is done so people can move on. He spent Sunday evening at the house of his relative, Toni Crites, who lives near a chicken hatchery on the east side of town.

“I feel like they have their own agendas,” he says of members of Congress. “I would hope that they want to better our country and not just try and stuff their pockets with money.”

Now that the report’s findings are public, he says he hopes that the president can go back to doing his job. But not everyone wants this chapter in US history to be over. Ms Crites says she hopes that investigators will continue to search for evidence.

“They need to dig and find out for sure,” she says. “Trump didn’t drain the swamp. He made a bigger swamp.”

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Uncertain about Mueller’s findings, Phyllis Hammond wants to see the full report

“There’s still something in that report,” says her sister Phyllis Hammond, who was sitting across the living room from her. “I think everybody needs to see the full report – we need to find out for sure.”

Still most people in town are like the Smiths, the so-called “forgotten people” who support the president and believe that the special counsel, members of Congress and others in Washington just get in his way.

“They have forgotten who their bosses are,” says Mrs Smith, “we, the people, are the ones that put them there.”

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