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Jussie Smollett case prompts criticism from prosecutors and Trump amid questions about dropped charges

Actor Jussie Smollett, right, stands with his attorney Patrica Brown Holmes during a news conference at Cook County Court after Smollett's charges were dropped on March 26, 2019, in Chicago. (Paul Beaty/AP)

Prosecutors’ decision to drop charges against the actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago continued reverberating across the country Thursday, with President Trump saying he wanted federal officials to look into a case he called “an absolute embarrassment.”

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) pledged that the city would try to get back the money it spent investigating the “Empire” star’s claims that he was the victim of a prejudice-laden assault there.

Smollett — who said he was attacked in January by people shouting slurs and then later arrested and accused by police of staging the whole thing — remained silent Thursday, even as his attorney said he was innocent and that the accusations were “a much harsher attack than what he endured that night.”

After prosecutors drop charges, a sharp rebuke from the mayor and police

Since prosecutors suddenly dropped the charges Tuesday, the case and its volatile collision of issues involving race and law enforcement has prompted a new wave of acrimony, with both key figures involved and outside observers taking aim at each other.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who was elected in 2016 and recused herself from the case, has given interviews defending her office’s decision. Emanuel and Eddie Johnson, the Chicago police superintendent, have both pilloried the move. The police union blasted the decision, as did an organization of Foxx’s fellow prosecutors and one of her peers in Illinois.

Smollett, who is black and gay, said two men attacked him shouting homophobic and racial slurs and making a reference to “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s campaign slogan. The initial outpouring of sympathy changed when police said last month they had determined he was the perpetrator and lambasted him during a news conference.

Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts — all of which were suddenly dropped Tuesday.

Trump weighed in Thursday with an early-morning tweet, saying the FBI and Justice Department would “review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago.” Speaking to reporters later, he did not elaborate on what such a review would entail, saying: “I have asked that they look at it. I think that case is an absolute embarrassment to our country, and somebody at least has to take a very good, hard look at it.”

The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago declined to comment.

Jussie Smollett says he wants to ‘get back to work.’ Can his career recover?

Federal authorities were not investigating the prosecutor’s office as of Thursday, according to two officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One official said federal authorities have sought to gather basic details of how Smollett’s charges were dropped as they examined the separate question of a threatening letter Smollett reported receiving. A different official familiar with the issue said that the FBI is continuing to look into who sent the letter.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether it had been contacted by federal officials.

Nobody on Smollett’s legal team has heard from the FBI or Justice Department about the charges being dropped, said a person speaking on their behalf who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The same person said Smollett met with the FBI about the threatening letter and never heard back, adding that “he didn’t send that letter, he had nothing to do with that.”

Authorities in Chicago, unhappy with the prosecutors’ move, also vowed to get more from Smollett than the $10,000 bond he agreed to forfeit. Emanuel said in an interview with WGN Radio on Thursday that the Chicago police were calculating the cost of resources spent on the investigation that led them “to the understanding that in fact this was a hoax” so they could ask for that money back.

A letter that Chicago’s Law Department said it sent to Smollett and his legal team Thursday included that bill, requesting more than $130,000 “expended on overtime hours in the investigation of this matter.” It also warned that if the money was not paid, the department “may prosecute you for making a false statement,” which could add fines.

Smollett’s attorneys released a statement earlier in the day responding to Emanuel’s comments, saying that it was the mayor and police superintendent “who owe Jussie — owe him an apology — for dragging an innocent man’s character through the mud.” They said late Thursday they had not received the letter and declined to comment further.

While Foxx continued defending her office’s actions, some of her peers still registered disapproval. The National District Attorneys Association, which bills itself as the country’s biggest organization of prosecutors, released a statement saying Foxx’s entire office should have been recused.

The group also condemned the case as being “resolved without a finding of guilt or innocence” and said it illustrated that “the rich are treated differently [and] the politically connected receive favorable treatment.”

Stewart J. Umholtz, the state’s attorney in Tazewell County, Ill., shared the statement with reporters Thursday and added: “It saddens me when unprofessional conduct diminishes public respect for my profession.”

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.