President Donald Trump on Thursday said that the US Department of Justice and FBI will look into the Jussie Smollett case in Chicago, after local prosecutors dropped charges against the Empire actor for allegedly filing a false police report in a hate crime hoax.
“It is an embarrassment to our Nation!” Trump tweeted.
It’s unclear how or if the FBI and Justice Department will get involved. Federal investigators were already on part of the case, looking into a threatening letter Smollett allegedly mailed to himself.
Smollett was arrested in February for allegedly filing the false police report, after he purportedly got two men to stage a racist, homophobic attack on him in what authorities said was an attempt to garner public sympathy and increase his salary. But on Tuesday, Cook County, Illinois, prosecutors dropped charges against Smollett in an apparent deal.
The turn of events drew national attention, not just because Smollett is a celebrity but also because the attack initially drew widespread media coverage when Smollett alleged that it was politically motivated and carried out by supposed Trump supporters. Critics of Trump at first claimed it was another example of the hate Trump’s own racist rhetoric has inspired.
Joe Magats, the top deputy for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, told New York Times reporter Julie Bosman, “We didn’t exonerate [Smollett].” Magats said he stood by the investigation and charges against Smollett, but that officials agreed to drop the case as long as Smollett did community service and forfeited his bond to the city of Chicago.
“Here’s the thing: We work to prioritize violent crime and the drivers of violent crime,” Magats said. “Public safety is our number one priority. I don’t see Jussie Smollett as a threat to public safety.”
Critics, however, claimed that Smollett was getting special treatment because he’s a wealthy celebrity. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the situation “a whitewash of justice.”
Foxx argued that wasn’t the case. “Mr. Smollett was afforded the same opportunity that anyone in Cook County who had a nonviolent offense and the required background check would get,” she told NBC Chicago. “I was not part of the charging decision.”
This really isn’t totally out of the ordinary. Particularly as states try to move away from mass incarceration, prosecutors do often give nonviolent offenders a pass in lieu of some form of rehabilitation or a punishment that doesn’t involve jail or prison time. For example, drug courts will often defer criminal charges if a defendant agrees to go to addiction treatment.
But speculation about special treatment blew up on Tuesday because Smollett’s lawyers insisted the charges were not dropped as part of a special deal. Smollett has stuck to his claims that the attack against him was real and not staged. Given the facts of the case publicly available, a lot of people — including Trump, apparently — found that hard to believe.
Smollett initially tied the attack to Trump
Smollett, who’s black and gay, had claimed that he was attacked on January 29 by two masked men at the entrance of the Loews hotel in Chicago. The two men, Smollett said, yelled racist and homophobic remarks. They also reportedly told him, in a reference to Trump’s slogan, “This is MAGA country.”
But shortly after, Smollett was arrested and charged with 16 felony counts for allegedly filing a false police report.
The two men initially arrested for the attack, Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, had ties to Smollett, with one of them knowing Smollett through Empire. Police claimed Smollett paid the brothers $3,500 to fake the incident.
When police raided the brothers’ home in connection to the attack, they recovered, among other items, an Empire script. Police also were unable to find surveillance video of the attack, even though it was in a heavily trafficked area with plenty of cameras nearby.
So after a weeks-long investigation, Chicago police concluded the attack was staged, claiming Smollett faked it because he was unhappy with his salary.
Smollett insisted he didn’t stage the attack. He reportedly told the cast of Empire, after he was released on bail, “I would never do this to any of you, you are my family. I swear to God, I did not do this.”
After the arrest, Smollett was cut from Empire.
At some level, this is a bizarre case — one that seems to be getting attention only because Smollett is a celebrity. But the story, with its links to Trump and hate crimes, has activated much broader issues about racism, homophobia, politically motivated attacks, and distrust in the media. With every twist and turn, the case offers another chance to relitigate all these issues.
Now Trump is trying to directly insert himself in the story.
For more on the Jussie Smollett case, read Vox’s explainer.