Trump: Smollett case ‘outrageous,’ FBI and DOJ to review
President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday that the FBI and Department of Justice will review the “outrageous” case of Jussie Smollett in Chicago, calling it an “embarrassment” to the country.
Prosecutors infuriated the police chief and mayor this week when they abruptly dropped 16 felony counts that accused the “Empire” actor of making a false police report about being the target of a racist, anti-gay attack in January.
The prosecution offered little explanation for the move and sealed the case, but authorities still insist the actor concocted the assault. Prosecutors offered no additional information Thursday during a court hearing where media attorneys argued that the public has a right to know what happened.
Trump tweeted: “FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago. It is an embarrassment to our Nation!”
Investigators believe Smollett, who is black and gay, hired two brothers to stage the Jan. 29 attack in downtown Chicago and that Smollett hoped the attention would help advance his career. Police also allege that before the attack, Smollett sent a letter threatening himself to the Chicago television studio where “Empire” is shot.
The FBI, which is investigating that letter, has declined to comment.
The Justice Department sometimes brings federal cases after state prosecutors have declined to bring charges, including after police shootings that the federal government believes might constitute civil rights violations. But department policy generally restricts prosecutors from bringing federal charges after state charges have been resolved, unless they can establish that the potential crime at issue is a federal one and involves “a substantial federal interest.”
Smollett attorney Tina Glandian said the two brothers are lying. She said Smollett had hired one brother as a personal trainer but had no idea who attacked him along a Chicago street until the brothers were later identified by police.
Smollett has repeatedly insisted the attack was real, saying two masked men shouted racial and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck and poured a substance on him. He also told detectives that the attackers yelled that he was in “MAGA country,” an apparent reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, police said.
Prosecutors initially charged Smollett with one felony count in February. A grand jury indicted him on 15 more counts earlier this month. But in a stunning reversal Tuesday, prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges, just five weeks after the allegations were filed.
In return, prosecutors said, the actor agreed to let the city keep his $10,000 in bail.
The dismissal drew a backlash and raised the question of why Smollett was not forced to admit any wrongdoing.
During Thursday’s court hearing, prosecutors promised to notify media outlets if Smollett’s lawyers tried to expunge his record. But lawyers for major news organizations, including The Associated Press, told the judge that the case has not been transparent.
“The public is entitled to know what happened and what’s happening in this proceeding,” media attorney Natalie Spears argued.
Judge LeRoy Martin said court proceedings had followed the law and that there was “no nefariousness.”
Also among those sure to keep pressing for answers is Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He appeared blindsided by prosecutors’ decision to drop the charges and visibly angry during a Tuesday news conference where he called the decision “a whitewash of justice.”
Emanuel said the city plans to try to recoup the money it spent on the Smollett investigation from the actor himself. He told WGN radio Thursday that the Chicago Police Department is determining how much the effort cost.
The city’s top prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, recused herself before Smollett was charged because she had discussed the case with a Smollett family member. The case was then handed to First Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Magats.
On Wednesday, the ex-chief of staff for former first lady Michelle Obama said she approached Foxx regarding the case on behalf of the actor’s family. Tina Tchen released a statement saying she’s a friend of Smollett’s family and knows Foxx “from prior work together.”
Tchen said her “sole activity” was to put the prosecutor in touch with “an alleged victim’s family.” Tchen said the Smollett family “had concerns about how the investigation was being characterized in public.”
Email and text messages that Foxx’s office provided to the Chicago Sun-Times show Tchen contacted Foxx to set up a telephone conversation with the Smollett relative. Foxx told the Sun-Times the relative expressed concerns over leaked information.
Foxx told the Chicago Tribune that she regretted dealing with the relative in the investigation’s early phases.
Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.