A Chicago TV station reported Thursday that police believe two Nigerian men and Jussie Smollett conspired to fake an attack on the “Empire” actor in an effort to keep him on the show, a claim that both the Chicago PD and Fox Entertainment swiftly denied.
According to ABC affiliate WLS, the two “persons of interest” arrested late Wednesday and Mr. Smollett have been questioned along those lines all day Thursday by the police about the politically charged attack, which supposedly involved racist and homophobic slurs.
“Multiple sources tell @ABC7Chicago Eyewitness News Jussie Smollet and the 2 men who are being questioned by police staged the attack - allegedly because his character was being written out of the show Empire,” WLS reporter Rob Elgas tweeted.
But Chicago police pushed back on those reports, calling them premature and WLS sources uninformed.
“Media reports about the Empire incident being a hoax are unconfirmed by case detectives. Supt. Eddie Johnson has contacted @ABC7Chicago to state on the record that we have no evidence to support their reporting and their supposed CPD sources are uninformed and inaccurate,” Anthony Guglielmi, the Chicago PD chief communications officer, wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Elgas also later reported that the superintendent said police are treating Mr. Smollett as “a victim” not a co-conspirator.
Multiple Chicago media outlets had reported earlier Thursday that the two “persons of interest” whom the actor said beat him up last month both have been extras on the program.
Police raided the home of the two Nigerian “persons of interest” Wednesday night and seized computer records and forensic evidence. Chicago police had previously been critical of Mr. Smollett’s cooperation with them on turning over his own phone records, saying that what he turned over did not meet the standards of a criminal investigation.
But 20th Century Fox and Fox Entertainment poured cold water on the purported motive, saying in a statement that “the idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written off of EMPIRE is patently ridiculous. He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him.”
According to Mr. Elgas, citing a person “familiar with the investigation,” the openly gay actor “was a no-show for an interview earlier today with detectives. All of this coming hours after Smollett spoke to [‘Good Morning America’] speaking out in his first media interview taking aim at those who doubted his story.”
Mr. Smollett’s representatives also rebutted that report, saying he “did answer routine followup questions for Chicago Police Department and continues to cooperate.”
The Smollett case has become a political subject and the object of widespread condemnation from nearly every top national Democratic politician — former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
“The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching,” Mr. Booker said, and Mr. Sanders called it “a horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country.”
Some even explicitly blamed President Trump, buoyed by the detail Mr. Smollett claimed that his attackers told him the area was “MAGA country.”
Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, said about the Smollett case, “why all of a sudden do we have people unable to study while black, unable to mow a lawn while black, unable to have a picnic while black and being attacked It’s coming from the president of the United States. He’s dog whistling every day.”
Presidential son Donald Trump Jr. accused the media of jumping to conclusions out of will to believe anything bad about his father.
“Does this mean the outraged plea today on [‘Good Morning America’] was just acting??? Of course media and celebs jumped to conclusions despite obvious holes because they do badly needed it to be true. Sick!!!” he wrote.