It’s been nearly a month since actor and singer Jussie Smollett said he was the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime in an attack that briefly left him hospitalized. But now police are investigating Smollett as a suspect in a criminal investigation “for filing a false police report,” Chicago Police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi said on Twitter.
The announcement follows news reports calling Smollett’s story into question, suggesting that Smollett orchestrated the attack himself.
Smollett, who is black and gay, plays a queer character in the Fox drama Empire. Initial reports of the attack were quickly met with an widespread outpouring of support from Smollett’s colleagues, the LGBTQ community at large, and politicians. Empire co-creator Danny Strong, for example, condemned the attack and tweeted his support of Smollett.
Chicago police said from the outset that they were treating the incident as a possible hate crime. Media reports followed every development in the unexpected case of a celebrity who claimed to be a victim of targeted violence and hate.
But in the weeks since Smollett’s story first made headlines, the narrative has taken a number of twists and turns — from assumed tragedy to suspected hoax. Several reports, citing unnamed sources, suggest that police are investigating whether Smollett helped orchestrate his own attack. And federal investigators are reportedly looking into whether Smollett played a role in sending a threatening letter to himself prior to the attack.
Smollett, however, stood by his initial claims, with his lawyers arguing in a statement that he “has now been further victimized” by the allegations of a hoax.
Things took a turn on Thursday, however, when Chicago police confirmed they are looking into the case as a potential hoax, and presenting evidence to a Cook County, Illinois, grand jury that Smollett filed a false police report — a felony.
Though much of what happened on that January night remains unclear — or perhaps because it’s unclear — the story has activated virtually every lightning rod issue dividing America today, from racism and homophobia to distrust in the media and politically motivated attacks. Here’s what we know so far.
Police initially detained two suspects — only to release them when the investigation’s trajectory “shifted”
Smollett says he was attacked on January 29 by two masked men at the entrance of the Loews hotel in Chicago. He claims they yelled racist and homophobic remarks — making references to his show Empire and President Donald Trump’s signature slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Smollett says one attacker tied a noose around his neck and poured a substance on him that he believed was bleach. Then the two fled.
Police were unable to find surveillance video of the attack even though it was in a heavily trafficked area with plenty of cameras nearby. They did, however, release images from surveillance video a day after the incident that showed two shadowed people walking down a sidewalk. Authorities wanted to take them in for questioning.
On Wednesday, February 13, police arrested two Nigerian men, Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, brothers who were later found to have known Smollett prior to the incident. Their lawyer says one of them had worked as an extra on the set of Empire; Smollett’s lawyer says another was his personal trainer for a brief stint, though neither attorney specified which brother served which role, or whether they were both talking about the same person.
Police raided their homes in search of the liquid suspected of being poured on Smollett. They recovered Empire scripts, a phone, and a black mask.
Until Friday, February 15, the brothers were being treated by authorities as “persons of interest.” But by that afternoon, the narrative had turned. Police released them both without charges, saying new evidence has “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.”
News reports, citing anonymous sources, now suggest the attack was a hoax
Rumors began circulating that Smollett was somehow involved in his own attack, and that he may have even orchestrated it all. By Saturday, February 16, police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi said they were looking to interview Smollett again (although authorities still hadn’t indicated why).
Initially, local media outlets were primarily the ones driving the story. According to CBS Chicago, two unnamed sources with “intimate knowledge of the investigation” said Smollett was potentially behind the attack and had involved the two brothers. ABC7 ran another story, again with unnamed sources who claimed that police were investigating whether the attack was staged “allegedly because Smollett was being written off of ‘Empire.’”
National outlets then picked up the story. An unnamed source told CBS News that the Osundairos told investigators that Smollett had paid them off. CNN similarly reported that “[t]wo law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation” said Smollett “paid two men to orchestrate an assault on him that he reported late last month.”
CBS News, citing anonymous sources, reported that Smollett was upset that he didn’t get a “bigger reaction” from a threatening letter sent to him, so he staged the attack. Two federal officials told ABC News that the FBI and US Postal Service are now investigating if Smollett played a role in sending the threatening letter.
In his first televised interview since first reporting his account of the attack, Smollett on Thursday, February 14, told ABC host Robin Roberts that he was “pissed off” that critics doubted his story.
Stories then surfaced that Smollett had hired a high-profile defense attorney, Michael D. Monico, who is best known for representing Michael Cohen, but those reports appear to have been premature. Instead, Smollett is being represented by Chicago defense attorneys Todd S. Pugh and Victor P. Henderson. On Saturday, February 16, they released a statement saying Smollett is “angered and devastated” to find that he knows the alleged perpetrators in the case.
“He has now been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” the statement continued.
Police, however, continued pursuing the investigation. And now Smollett has turned into the suspect for filing a false police report, with his case going before a grand jury.
The rumors feed into a conservative conspiracy around media bias
Underpinning all the twists in Smollett’s story is his suggestion from day one that his alleged assailants supported Trump. The actor said in his statement to police that his masked attacker told him, “This is MAGA country,” along with racist and homophobic remarks. He later had to push back on reports that they were wearing MAGA hats while pinning him down.
“They called me a f****t, they called me a n****r. There’s no which way you cut it. I don’t need some MAGA hat as the cherry on some racist sundae,” Smollett said in his interview with Roberts on Thursday, February 14.
So once rumors began to surface suggesting that Smollett manufactured his attack, conservative media and pundits quickly pointed to his story as evidence of a broad conspiracy aimed at vilifying Trump supporters.
As conservative CNN commentator S.E. Cupp noted, Trump backers were “giddy” in their reaction to reports speculating about a hoax. And it’s clear from the responses to Cupp’s tweet that Smollett’s critics saw the new developments as validation that Trump supporters — not minorities, LGBTQ individuals, or other disadvantaged groups — are the people who are actually being persecuted.
The giddiness among Trumpsters over the Smollett news is gross. This story is awful. He allegedly abused police resources, exploited raw divisions in this country, and made it harder for every victim of a hate crime to report. This is sad no matter your politics.
— S.E. Cupp (@secupp) February 17, 2019
It’s very similar to the “validation” seen last month after the Covington Catholic School teens were dragged online for seeming to harass Native American elders. Once it became clear there was more to the story, conservative media quickly coalesced behind the students, saying they were the real victims in this case: victims of liberals’ instinctive dismissal of anyone wearing a MAGA cap.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote at the time, the Covington drama became something of a Rorschach test, with “each side seeing what it wants to in a way that’s more revealing about their own worldviews than the actual incident.” For the right, it revealed several of their “core animating assumptions”:
From their point of view, the liberal reaction to the video, and not the footage itself, was the biggest problem. It reveals a culture where white men are acceptable targets of hate who deserve no sympathy and no due process, and where the left-wing mob wields tremendous power through its command of the public sphere.
That view connects to a broader assumption shared by many conservatives: that white Christian men are a persecuted minority in modern America.
Then, as now, the ensuing backlash to the initial news reports also ignited anti-media sentiment among conservatives. Even though most coverage of the actor’s attack directly reflected police statements, and it was clear the investigation was ongoing, the developing narrative is being taken as a sign that journalists blindly accept any stories with a careless disregard for the facts — particularly those stories that support liberal ideals.
In both the Covington and Smollett cases, liberals were quick to condemn what was, at first glance, unacceptable behavior. In the Smollett’s case, even Trump, who is often criticized for taking his time before commenting on cases where the victims are minorities or from disadvantaged groups, denounced Smollet’s alleged attack as “horrible.”
“It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned,” he said from the Oval Office days after news broke.
No matter how the facts shake out, the case now hits at the core identity that Trump shares with his supporters, perpetuating a dangerous worldview that the media is corrupt and the stories of racism and bigotry are better off not being believed.