President Trump: Jussie Smollett case 'embarrassment' to the nation, FBI will investigate

David Jackson and Aamer Madhani

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Thursday he would have the FBI and the Justice Department review "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett's case, even as Chicago residents said the president should stay out of the racially charged incident.

"I think that case is an absolute embarrassment to our country, and somebody has to at least take a very good hard look at it," Trump told reporters at the White House, echoing a tweet he sent earlier in the day.

Trump did not explain what, if anything, federal authorities could do about Smollett after local prosecutors in Chicago decided to drop the case against him.

Later, while speaking to a crowd of thousands at a political rally in Michigan, Trump denounced the case and Smollett's claim he "was attacked by MAGA country." Trump called it an "embarrassment not only to Chicago, but to our entire country." 

He said the case marked the first time he could remember agreeing with the city's mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who has been blasting prosecutors for dropping the charges against Smollett.

Trump's critics said the president is playing racial politics with the Smollett case, seeking to undercut the victims of real racial violence that is on the rise.

"By claiming a false attack, Smollett tried to exploit the hate @realDonaldTrump has stirred," tweeted David Axelrod, former adviser to President Barack Obama. "Now, predictably, Trump is moving to exploit Smollett’s exploitation. Talk about a vicious circle!"

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, citing Trump's history of race relations, said the president should “sit this one out.”

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The FBI has been investigating at least one matter in the Smollett case for weeks.

The agency began probing whether Smollett had any role in sending a threatening letter that was mailed to the actor at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed a week before the alleged assault, a federal government official who has been briefed on the investigation told USA TODAY. FBI officials in Chicago declined to comment.

The letter, which was received on Jan. 22, contained a white substance that was later determined to be acetaminophen, or Tylenol.

Prosecutors in Chicago announced Tuesday they were dropping disorderly conduct charges against Smollett for filing a false police report. The decision came less than three weeks after the actor was indicted on charges that he paid two men to stage a hoax attack to make him look like the victim of a racist hate crime.

Smollett’s legal team objects to comments to the media made by Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office officials, saying prosecutors and police are "continuing their campaign" against the actor. Prosecutors said they’ve dropped the charges, but insist that doesn't mean Smollett was exonerated of wrongdoing.

News of the dropped charges outraged a variety of lawmakers, including Mayor Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

"This is a whitewash of justice," Emanuel declared. "It’s Mr. Smollett who committed this hoax. He’s still saying he's innocent, still running down the Chicago Police Department. How dare he? How dare he?"

A frequent critic of Trump, Emanuel said Thursday the president shouldn't get involved in the case.

Citing Trump’s comment that there were good people on "both sides" during a 2017 demonstration by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, Emanuel said the president has created a racially divisive environment that Smollett thought he could use to his advantage

“Jussie Smollett thinks that hate-filled environment that the president created, pinning one American against another because of their background ... he thought he could take advantage of and create a hoax (through) a hate crime” Emanuel said. “It’s a vicious toxic environment and cycle. I want to break it.”

The Emanuel administration also said Thursday that the city of Chicago would seek to recover $130,000 in overtime costs the police department spent on Smollett investigation. The mayor said that would bring a measure of justice for Chicagoans who feel offended that prosecutors treated the actor with leniency that wouldn’t have been afforded to others charged with such a crime.

“I want clarity, I want accountability I want responsibility for a hoax that was committed,” Emanuel said.

The president and his allies have frequently attacked Smollett, accusing him of trying to implicate Trump supporters in the alleged attack on him.

Last month, Trump invoked his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" in tweeting at Smollett: "What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA."

Police and prosecutors say Smollett paid two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, $3,500 to stage an attack on Smollett near his apartment building in Chicago’s swanky Streeterville neighborhood, in which he was made to look like the victim of a vicious hate crime.

Police identified Smollett as a victim of an attack for weeks after the incident. The case shifted gears after the Osundairo brothers, who were on the cusp of being charged by police, told investigators that they worked with Smollett to carry out the attack.

The brothers told detectives Smollett hoped to use the incident to raise his profile and salary, Johnson said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: President Trump: Jussie Smollett case 'embarrassment' to the nation, FBI will investigate