Jussie Smollett’s collapsing story about a homophobic, hate-filled attack on the streets of Chicago is affecting more than the career and future of the “Empire” actor — it’s also putting his most high-profile supporters, especially those who want to become president, in a tight spot.
After Smollett reported the alleged attack to police in January, weighing it with political import by claiming his assailants chanted President Trump’s campaign slogan, Democratic Sens. Kamala D. Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand quickly decried what they deemed a clear hate crime. Smollett’s case, Harris and Booker said in separate tweets, was an attempted “modern day lynching,” while Gillibrand called it “a sickening and outrageous attack.”
But as questions began to emerge about Smollett’s account, the three Democratic contenders faced uncomfortable questions about whether they were too quick to make a judgment and utter words of condemnation. On Thursday, Chicago police said the actor had staged the account.
In a tweet late Thursday, Harris said she was “sad, frustrated, and disappointed” after hearing the reports about Smollett. Making false claims diverts resources from police and makes it more difficult for other victims to come forward, she said, adding that it’s important to realize that hate crimes are increasing.
“Part of the tragedy of this situation is that it distracts from that truth, and has been seized by some who would like to dismiss and downplay the very real problems that we must address,” she said.
Gillibrand and Booker have said recently they will wait until the investigations are finished before commenting further. Representatives of the campaigns did not answer requests for comment Thursday.
Socially fraught incidents are becoming an early test for the growing list of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Many voters, especially in the fired-up liberal base, expect them to weigh in on matters of cultural concern at the speed of the Internet.
But if the apparent facts of a particular episode turn out to be unconfirmed, exaggerated or simply bogus, fast-reacting candidates can find themselves suddenly exposed.
Harris and Booker are both sponsors of anti-lynching legislation, which enhances sentences for anyone convicted of the crime. In public remarks, Harris has called lynching “an act of terror” and “a “summary execution,” and she had similarly strong words in her initial tweet about Smollett’s case.
“This was an attempted modern day lynching,” she tweeted. “No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.”
In January, Smollett, a black and openly gay actor, said he was the victim of a hate crime. The perpetrators poured bleach on him and put a rope around his neck, he claimed, and before they let him go, yelled “This is MAGA country,” using the acronym for “Make America Great Again.”
Smollett’s story appeared to crumple Thursday, when Chicago police held a news conference to say the actor had paid his personal trainer and another man $3,500 to stage the attack. The motivation was not hate but money, investigators said, adding that Smollett was “dissatisfied with his salary” on the Fox show and hoping to increase it through an attention-grabbing incident.
As questions arose about Smollett’s claims over the past month, reporters began asking public figures whether they had been too quick to pronounce judgment. They have responded in various ways.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) deleted an earlier tweet expressing outrage at the attack.
Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who is from Chicago, had initially issued a statement saying in part, “This is a hate crime plain and simple and I will not stand by while evil acts are inflicted on any citizen.”
On Thursday, he reacted with anger to the reports that the attack was fabricated. “I am beyond disappointed and extremely infuriated at Smollett’s brazen, devious, and disgraceful behavior,” Rush said in a statement. “I am outraged that he orchestrated an inflammatory story, which he knew would further divide this nation.”
After their initial condemnation, the candidates made more cautious statements on the campaign trail. On Monday, Harris said “the facts are still unfolding,” and, “There should be an investigation.”
“I still don’t know the facts of what happened, and so I will wait to find out the facts before I make another statement,” Gillibrand said recently.
Booker told reporters in New Hampshire that “I’m going to withhold until all the information comes out from on-the-record sources.” He added, “We know in America that bigoted and biased attacks are on the rise in a serious way. . . . I’m following this on the news as you are, and we’ll see what happens.”
Trump weighed in on Thursday, accusing Smollett of insulting “tens of millions” of his supporters “with your racist and dangerous comments.”
Presidential candidates were not the only people who voiced their support for Smollett. But others are less likely to be trailed by teams of reporters, and many of the celebrities who voice support for Smollett have simply deleted their tweets.