WASHINGTON – There is no evidence, as of Friday, that President Donald Trump’s Thursday tweet -“FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago” – launched any new formal inquires into the uproar surrounding the Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropping felony charges against the “Empire” star, accused of staging a hate crime on himself.
Based on my reporting, I’m highly skeptical that Trump’s tweet sparked any new chain of events. I am writing this column to plant lots of seeds of doubt that Trump’s tweet had the impact of literally ordering the Department of Justice and FBI to do something that was not otherwise already being done.
Did the Justice Department and FBI interpret the tweet as an order? I asked the White House about the “review” and couldn’t get an answer. The Justice Department wouldn’t reply to questions and the FBI in Washington and Chicago had no comment.
What also can’t be ignored in analyzing Trump’s perspective: Smollett, a gay African-American, told Chicago police detectives his two attackers yelled out to him, “this is MAGA country.”
After Smollett reported being attacked — and at first was believed by police — Trump on Jan. 31 was asked by reporters, “Have you heard about that story? In Chicago, a situation — the actor from ‘Empire’ who was allegedly attacked with racist and homophobic — ” and Trump sympathetically replied before the question was finished. “That, I can tell you, is horrible,” Trump said. “I’ve seen it last night. I think that’s horrible. It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
He changed his tune a few weeks later. On Feb. 21, Trump tweeted, “@JussieSmollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA”
That tweet is part of the evidence that Trump is using the explosive Smollett controversy and questions about “celebrity” justice and what’s going on in Chicago to appeal to his voters, turning the legal issues into a political grenade useful for his 2020 re-election bid.
After the initial Smollett tweet on Thursday, sent at 5:34 a.m. ET, Trump talked two times about Smollett, at the White House and later on Thursday, at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“How ‘bout in Chicago,” Trump said as the Grand Rapids crowd booed at the mention of Chicago.
“He said he was attacked by MAGA country, did ya ever hear that? Maybe the only time I’ve agreed with the mayor of Chicago. That’s a terrible situation. That’s an embarrassment not only to Chicago, that’s an embarrassment to our country.”
Trump must have figured that the crowd did not know by then that after his tweet, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Trump to “sit it out” when it came to the Smollett case.
What is true is this: The FBI already has been involved in the Smollett case, Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
The FBI provided technical assistance in analyzing video and digital evidence of what police and prosecutors concluded was a hoax – that Smollett staged his attack.
A week before the Jan. 29 attack, a racial and homophobic threatening letter with a white powdery substance was sent to Smollett at the studio where “Empire” was shot. The powder turned out to be aspirin. The letter was turned over to the FBI, Guglielmi said.
Using the mail to commit fraud is a federal offense. Maybe that’s what Trump is referring to. But Trump should not be pressuring the FBI or the Justice Department to do anything. Until and unless there is more information about this “review,” I’d score it for now as a head fake.