Television actor Jussie Smollett was recently convicted of five felonies. A jury found him guilty for making false reports to police in January 2019 that he was a victim of a hate crime. His penalty for the convictions will be decided in early 2022. Who exactly is Jussie Smollett, and why does his case matter?
Celebrities that are criminally charged and tried in the American justice system have long gotten an oversized share of media attention, but using the word “celebrity” to describe Smollett may be cheapening the term. He is certainly no Michael Jackson or Bill Cosby, nor were Smollett’s crimes anywhere near the caliber of the allegations against those two entertainment legends. Smollett is an actor whose primary claim to fame was appearing on the Fox drama EMPIRE. He wasn’t exactly a household name.
However, the fact that Smollett was tried and convicted is of enormous importance.
Smollett, who is Black and gay, claimed he was the victim of a hate crime. Chicago Police were suspicious of his story almost immediately because the alleged incident happened in late January at 2 AM while the temperature outside was about twenty below zero. Smollett told authorities two white men used racial and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck and poured an “unknown substance” that he feared was bleach on him. The attackers allegedly yelled he was in “MAGA country,” conveniently tying Donald Trump into the story.
We now know Smollett lied. He lied to the police. He lied to the public. Eventually, he lied under oath in court. In reality, Smollett hired two Nigerian men to help him stage the entire fabricated attack. It was his way of showing the threats faced by Black and gay men are real, except in Smollett’s case, it wasn’t real at all. The fact that he was tried and convicted for lying is of the utmost importance.
America has become a society where saying anything about anyone is fair game. Celebrities, athletes and politicians all make wild claims, often knowing they aren’t true. Accusations are made. Reputations are destroyed. News agencies often report, or worse yet, simply repeat allegations before doing even a hint of investigative work to determine the claim’s veracity.
There may be no better example of this than Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings when he was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. Multiple accusers came forward making various claims of drunken and lewd behavior, much of it criminal and all of it, if true, would have indeed disqualified him from the high court.
Julie Swetnick claimed she had seen Kavanaugh and his friends spike the punch at multiple parties, allegedly rendering young women helpless from sexual assault. She claimed that she had been gang-raped at one such party, yet inexplicably also claimed she kept attending the parties thereafter. The holes in her story were like Swiss cheese, and the credibility of her attorney, later sentenced to prison for trying to extort Nike, didn’t help. Senators were so sure Swetnick was lying that she was later referred to federal officials for criminal investigation regarding a potential “conspiracy” to provide false statements to Congress and obstruct its investigation.
Judy Munro-Leighton claimed to have written an anonymous letter alleging Kavanaugh and a friend “raped her ‘several times’ each in the backseat of a car.” When questioned by Committee investigators, Ms. Munro-Leighton admitted that Kavanaugh had not sexually assaulted her, nor was she the author of the original ‘Jane Doe’ letter” making the claims. She literally made her testimony up.
Jeffrey Catalan, a Rhode Island man, claimed the U.S. Supreme Court nominee sexually assaulted a woman aboard a boat in Rhode Island more than 30 years prior. Catalan had called Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s office and said that in 1985 his “close acquaintance was sexually assaulted by two heavily inebriated men she referred to at the time as Brett and Mark.” As it turned out, a youthful Kavanaugh not only hadn’t been on a boat in Newport, he had never even been to Newport. Catalan recanted his story and apologized.
Bold intentional lies nearly changed the face of the Supreme Court.
The intentional lies and efforts to promote or prohibit a political agenda were shameful. Yet, the media and much of the public repeated it, bought into it or seemingly enjoyed the entertainment factor. The truth be damned.
Another searing example would be that of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Reid made an outrageous allegation that the remarkably wealthy GOP nominee Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for 10 years. Reid made this claim directly from the Senate floor, “If a person coming before this body wanted to be a Cabinet officer, he couldn’t be if he had the same refusal Mitt Romney does about tax returns,” he said. “So the word is out that he has not paid any taxes for 10 years. Let him prove he has paid taxes, because he has not.”
Tax records are not open to the public, not even to powerful Senators. Admitting he had seen tax records would be admitting potentially criminal activity, but Reid repeated the bold claim repeatedly. He was sure that Romney had paid no taxes for 10 years. As it turned out, Romney had indeed paid taxes. Reid was shown to be a liar but says he has no regrets. Three years after the election, when asked about it, Reid said,” I don’t regret that at all.” He told CNN’s Dana Bash, “Romney didn’t win, did he?” It was a tacit admission that he’d lied for political gain. In his mind, the end justified the means.
Bold, intentional lies may have changed the outcome of a Presidential election.
One of the most high profile of great lies was the 2016 presidential campaign FBI investigation of the “dossier” alleging scandalous activity with prostitutes by Donald Trump while visiting Russia. The since-debunked file was paid for and created at the behest of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC. It was then planted in the FBI via the late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s office, via an FBI employee’s wife and by other means. Though the fictional stories all traced back to the same Clinton paid operative, the Justice Department and Special Counsel Robert Mueller spent two years essentially holding the Trump administration hostage while they conducted an investigation.
John Brennan, the former CIA director and current CNN intelligence expert, inferred over and over throughout those two years that he had special knowledge, we were to assume through his intelligence clearance that Trump was indeed in trouble when it came to colluding with Russia. When the Mueller report came out, and the wild claims were shown to be untrue, Brennan simply said, “Oops.” He joked that his sources were apparently wrong — the end of the story. Two years of claims were forever washed away with just two sentences. No accountability.
Bold, intentional lies irreparably changed the efficacy of a presidential administration.
The Jussie Smollett case is a reminder that the truth matters. Making bold, intentional lies to harm others or promote your own beliefs is simply unacceptable. There have seldom been consequences for most who exercised this option until now. Though Smollett is unlikely to be remembered with acting legends Lon Chaney, John Wayne or Al Pacino, perhaps he will be remembered for inadvertently forcing people to be honest and accountable. Even if Jussie Smollett still can’t tell the truth himself, maybe, just maybe, his case will pave the way for holding others accountable and ultimately a return to what was once commonly known as truth, justice and the American way.
• Tim Constantine is a columnist for The Washington Times and hosts “The Capitol Hill Show” podcast every week from Washington, D.C.
Correction: In a previous version of this column, Jussie Smollett‘s name was misspelled.