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The Act that Did Not Play Well; Jussie Smollett Embarrassed Himself; Chicago Police Laid Out Their Case Against Actor Jussie Smollett. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired February 21, 2019 - 22:00   ET


[22:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: Unless this is the biggest fabrication, not just in Chicago but in the nation's history of policing, this guy has got big problems.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Chicago police, the department has a long history of doing some things right but a lot of things wrong.

This case is so high profile. There appears to be from this so much evidence that it's hard to see how this would indeed be a setup. And I'm going to explain why.

Again, you have to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. There is a justice system, a legal system in our country. When you look at this, I -- it just floors me.

CUOMO: If you just start with the basic idea of two Nigerian brothers putting on MAGA hats and beating the guy up, that was always a little far-fetched.

LEMON: Well, it wasn't -- again, it wasn't MAGA hats. He never said MAGA hats. He said MAGA country.


CUOMO: Right. But that was the implication. They said MAGA country.

LEMON: Well, white guys.

CUOMO You know. So, look, unless --


LEMON: A lot of coincidences.

CUOMO: Unless -- I can't even qualify it. To be honest, look, if I wind up being wrong on this, I'm wrong. But I've never read a more damning proffer on something than this is. So, look, if he made it up, he's going to have to justify it.

Dale (ph) had good advice for him, you know. If you screwed up and did this, own it. You want to say why you did it this way, do that. But you're not helping the cause, I'll tell you that right now. There's a lot of truth --


CUOMO: -- that's going to get covered up by one untruth.

LEMON: My -- I'm similar to Dale (Ph), I say if it is true, confess, throw yourself on the mercy of the court, and of the people, and then see where that leads you. Thank you, Chris. Feel better, my friend.

CUOMO: Listen, I want to hear your opening.

LEMON: OK. I'm going to do it now. I'll see you in just -- I'll see you tomorrow. But I want you to feel better.

OK. So here we go. We're going to talk a little bit about this.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon. Thank you for joining us.

And I want to talk more now about Jussie Smollett tonight. Free on bail after his appearance, his court appearance this afternoon. Look at that. Just look at that. Imagine that being your life right now.

In the latest shocking detail in a story that is full of them, police allege that he paid two brothers $3,500 to stage an attack on him last month, an attack that he claimed included racist and homophobic slurs and a noose around his neck.

Police say the whole thing was a hoax.

But a statement released tonight on behalf of the "Empire" actor says in part "Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing."

As I said last night, innocent until proven guilty. Innocent until proven guilty. It bears repeating. Jussie Smollett has not been proven guilty, that is true. He's not been proven guilty. He's just as entitled to the presumption of innocence than anything else. But there is no disputing this fact, and it is a fact.

This whole sordid story takes attention away from real victims. It takes attention away from people who have suffered, people who have died from gun violence in Chicago. As the Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, he said it best today, right at the beginning of his press conference.


EDDIE JOHNSON, SUPERINTENDENT, CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT: Good morning, everyone. Before I get started on why we're here, you know, as I look out into the crowd, I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention, because that's who really deserves the amount of attention that we're giving to this particular incident.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: Mr. Superintendent, you are exactly right. The families whose

children, whose parents, whose brothers, sisters, whose nearest and dearest have been taken away from them by gun violence, they deserve attention.

Chicago Sun Times reports 2,948 people were shot in Chicago last year. Nineteen-year-old Damonte Johnson (ph) was part of a group working to stop gun violence in the city called God -- good kids in that city.

It formed in the wake of the Parkland shooting. And then last September Damonte (ph) was shot to death as he walked along a south side street.

Seventeen-year-old Jenea Patterson dreamed of being a nurse after graduation. She was shot to death at a block party in August.

[22:05:00] And 88-year-old Valoria Taylor was shot to death in October in her apartment in an apparent domestic-related shooting, and on and on and on and on. And there are more victims in all of this.

If things played out the way the police say, if Jussie Smollett actually concocted a fake attack because he was dissatisfied with his "Empire" salary, then that is disgraceful to say the least. It's disgraceful for anybody but especially for a person of color to exploit one of the vilest, racist symbols in our history for personal gain.

Superintendent Eddie Johnson.


JOHNSON: This morning I come to you not only as the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department but also as a black man who spent his entire life living in the city of Chicago. I know the racial divide that exists here. I know how hard it's been for our city and our nation to come together. I also know the disparities and I know the history.

This announcement today recognizes that "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career. I'm left hanging my head and asking why.

Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? How can an individual who has been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?


LEMON: The Superintendent Johnson didn't even try to hide his disgust. He was right that exploiting racism is shameful. There's no excuse for it. And you could hear the superintendent's outrage in his voice. I have to be honest, his tone really took me back. I could imagine my dad and my uncle or grandpa chastising me if I had done something really terrible or stupid.

Boy, what's wrong with you? What is wrong with you? Why the hell would you do something like that? Telling me not only was what I did wrong, son, boy, what are you doing, this is reprehensible and you need to think about your actions. This whole story hurts the LGBT community too.


JOHNSON: Chicago holds one of the largest pride parades in the world and we're proud of that. As a police department and also as a city, we do not nor will we ever tolerate hate in our city, whether that hate is based on an individual's sexual orientation, race, or anything else.

I'm offended by what's happened and I'm also angry. I love the city of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department, warts and all. But this publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn't earn and certainly didn't deserve.


LEMON: I also think my dad would have said, have you lost your damn mind?

For LGBT people to be dragged through the mud for the sake of a publicity stunt, if that's truly what it was, the superintendent is right. Nobody deserves that.

And remember, this is an America where hate groups, hate crimes are on the rise. You've got to wonder, the next time there's a hate crime and we all know there will be a next time, will people believe the victims?


JOHNSON: Our city has problems. We know that. We have problems that have affected people from all walks of life. And we know that. But to put the national spotlight on Chicago for something that is both egregious and untrue is simply shameful. I'm also concerned about what this means moving forward for hate crimes.

Now, of course, the Chicago Police Department will continue to investigate all reports of these types of incidents with the same amount of vigor that we did with this one. My concern is that hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn't happen.


LEMON: Men, women, people of color, LGBT people, have suffered and died as a result of hate crimes that were all too real. And America can't afford to go backward to disrespect those victims because of this single case.

[22:10:03] Now we all know that hate crimes are real. Racism is real. And we all know that the Chicago Police Department has its own troubling history of abuse. After all, it was just last month that Jason Van Dyke, a white former Chicago police officer, was sentenced to more than six years in prison for second-degree murder in the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager. We can't afford to close our eyes to that.

But what we heard from Eddie Johnson today could be a way forward.


JOHNSON: I'll continue to pray for this troubled young man who resorted to both drastic and illegal tactics to gain attention. I'll also continue to pray for our city, asking that we can move forward from this and begin to heal.


LEMON: So, I just have a word for people who I see on TV just spinning it, twisting themselves in pretzels trying to figure out a way, how do I -- just a word, please, to the folks who are saying, well, we all know the Chicago police can't be trusted, this is a setup. Just stop it. I want you to stop and think about it this way, OK?

Let's just stop and think about it this way. The police did not pull Smollett over in traffic. They didn't stop and frisk him. They were called in for his defense. What reason would they have to set him up? He brought the police to him, not the other way around. Read the bond proffer. Take a look at the evidence, which is exactly what we'll do right after this.


LEMON: So, tonight, Jussie Smollett is defiant. The "Empire" actor says his right to be presumed innocent was trampled on today. Yes, Smollett is right. You're innocent until proven guilty in this country.

And while Jussie Smollett was given the benefit of the doubt for weeks, some question whether the Chicago Police Department was telling us everything. Critics suggested there were unanswered questions or they were hiding things.

Well, today the Chicago P.D. answered all the questions. All of them. They did their job. Through surveillance video, taxi camera video, credit card and bank records, investigators followed the facts.

And today, Prosecutor Risa Lanier of the Cook County state attorney's office laid out step by step how Jussie Smollett allegedly staged a racial and homophobic attack against himself. She started on January 22nd when Smollett received a letter at the studio where the "Empire" television show is filmed.


RISA LANIER, ASSISTANT STATE'S ATTORNEY, COOK COUNTY STATE ATTORNEY'S OFFICE: This letter contained written threats directed towards defendant Smollett and contained a then-unknown white powdery substance.

The letter also contained cut-out letters pieced together which stated "Smollett, Jussie, you will die black f." And the word MAGA was handwritten on the envelope where the return address typically is located.

This powdery substance has since been determined to be crushed ibuprofen tablets. The letter also contained a drawing of a stick figure which appears to have a rope around the neck and a gun pointed towards it.


LEMON: Well, the letter was turned over to the FBI for forensic analysis. Prosecutors say that after the letter was send, Smollett reached out to a man named Abel. They knew each other from the "Empire" set. They worked out together.

And prosecutors allege text messages show Smollett even bought drugs from Abel. At the end of January, Smollett asked Abel if they could meet.


LANIER: Smollett texted Abel stating, might need your help on the Loews, you around to meet up to talk face-to-face? Smollett indicated to Abel his displeasure that the "Empire" studios -- of the "Empire" studios handling of the racist and homophobic letter he received three days prior.

Defendant Smollett then stated that he wanted to stage an attack where Abel would appear to batter him. Defendant Smollett also suggested that Abel's older brother Ola assist him with the attack.

Smollett stated that he wanted them to appear to attack him on the evening of January 28th, 2019, near his apartment building in Streeterville. Defendant Smollett also stated he wanted the brothers to catch his attention by calling him an "Empire f, Empire n."

Defendant Smollett further detailed that he wanted Abel to attack him but not hurt him too badly and to give him a chance to appear to fight back. Defendant Smollett also included that he wanted Ola to place a rope around his neck, pour gasoline on him and yell "this is MAGA country."


LEMON: Prosecutors say Smollett met with Abel and Ola on January 27th to show them the scene where he wanted the staged attack to take place.


LANIER: Smollett directed the brothers' attention towards a surveillance camera on the corner which he believed would capture the incident. There was a change in the plan in that bleach was going to be used instead of gasoline during the simulated attack.

Smollett then drove the brothers home and provided them with a $3,500 personal check made payable to Abel which was backdated to January 23rd of 2019.


LEMON: Lanier adds Smollett gave the brothers $100 that, as this surveillance video shows, was used to purchase items including rope, ski masks, gasoline, and red baseball hats. The staged attack took place on January 29th. Just after 2 a.m. According to prosecutors, a witness was around the corner at that time.


[22:20:04] LANIER: This witness indicated that she heard nothing at the time of the staged attack despite the fact that defendant Smollett told CPD detectives that his attackers were yelling racial and homophobic slurs at him and he in turn was yelling back at them.


LEMON: There you have it. Chicago officials went into incredible detail, laying out their investigative work. They answered the questions. Now it is Jussie Smollett's turn to answer questions. Yes, everyone is innocent until proven guilty in this country. But now we have the facts from the investigators. And what Jussie Smollett has said so far doesn't match those facts.

So, he has some explaining to do. How will he defend himself? Will he be successful? Areva Martin, Mark O'Mara, will dig in, next.


LEMON: Jussie Smollett is defiant tonight after posting bail and being charged with a felony for filing a false police report.

Mark O'Mara is here to discuss, so is Areva Martin, author of "Make it Rain." Good evening to both of you. Mark, I'm going to start with you.


CLEMON: NN received this statement on behalf of Smollett. It says, "Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system. The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett and notably on the eve of a mayoral election.

[22:25:04] Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing." What's your reaction?

MARK O'MARA, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, like I said before, if he did what is alleged to have been done, then he set back the Civil Rights movement a decade or more because of the way he sort of, misused it. But we are far from that.

So, he is presumed innocent. And that presumption of innocence never goes away until a jury, when they hear all the facts, and we haven't heard any facts yet, quite honestly, and they apply the law properly and apply it to the proper standard, then the presumption goes away. And here is what it's important.

What I heard today after the prosecutor, after the charges were done, after he already has a bond, that prosecutor decided now is the time for what, my closing argument? Because that's what I heard, a closing argument from a prosecutor laying out everything.

Now, Don, you and I have had many cases, the first case we met was a prosecutor with a press conference that brought out facts that turned out not to be true. I agree that what was presented looks damning.

However, let me give you an example. Let's say that that first letter was truly a threat to Smollett. Let's just say it was an accurate threat, he presented it to the police, he cried wolf when a wolf was actually at the door, and seemingly was ignored.

Now, I'm not suggesting that that's the basis for doing anything else. But we don't know what happened with the first letter. We don't know if it's accurate. We don't know exactly what happened. I'm not particularly amazed by the fact that a personal trainer that trained him before and he had a financial relationship.

All I'm suggesting is for today, I didn't understand the reason for the closing argument already by a prosecutor, because that is another -- that's a 19 or 2019 perp walk before the court of public opinion, before we ever have any evidence, any discovery whatsoever.

Let us wait, let the process work the way it's supposed to work and let not only Smollett but every other person accused enjoy the benefits that we're supposed to give them and that presumption of innocence was in fact destroyed.

LEMON: Correct me if I'm wrong, didn't the superintendent say he sent the letter, that he believes he sent the letter to himself?

O'MARA: That's their presumption, yes. They have now decided that Smollett is absolutely guilty and everything he did was a setup from day one. All I'm suggesting is, here is what I didn't hear. I did not hear a result from the FBI saying it was his own saliva on the envelope or something.

LEMON: Got it. Got it.

O'MARA: So, let me throw out two other things, then I know Areva wants to talk. What was the purpose of bringing out that this person may have sold him recreational drugs in the past? What relevance does that have? I just would like to know why they decided to throw that into the mix today. If not, to try and sway public opinion against a person?

Now, again, if he did it, he should be held responsible for it, and he's really hurt the Civil Rights movement by being greedy and selfish, great. We are just way far away from that today.

LEMON: So, I want your take now, Areva, because his legal team says their client was betrayed by a system and that there are political motivations with an election coming soon. Do they have a point?

MARTIN: I don't think they have a point about the mayoral election. He's brought on Mark Geragos. Mark is our friend. We know mark is a great lawyer. I think Mark was brought on to help keep Jussie Smollett stay out of jail.

I agree with Mark O'Mara to an extent in terms of the prosecutors probably overreached in terms of reading and providing information that wasn't necessary at this stage. We already had this powerful press conference from the chief of police. He had already told us pretty much the questions I think that the public had, which is why would Jussie Smollett, who seemingly was so successful, why would he do this. He answered that question about him not being satisfied with his salary.

So, I don't think we needed to hear that information from the prosecuting attorney. But here's the deal. Jussie went on "Good Morning America." He brought his case into the court of public opinion. So, he made the decision to do that.

And now the police department is responding in kind. This case did not have to be litigated in the court of public opinion, but Jussie did that. Once you step into this arena, all bets are off.

So, I think Mark makes a good point. But there are many people in our community that wanted to know why did he do this. High profile people, people in the social justice community put their reputations their credibility on the line and I think they deserve to have some answers.

[22:29:55] And I know and we all know because there are legal proceedings that are happening, Jussie cannot speak out. He can't make a statement. He has to allow this process to play itself out. But I think people so betrayed, they want to hear from somebody. And they don't want to hear about this being about the mayoral election. They want to hear did he do this. And if he did, why did he do it, and if he didn't do it, we want to hear that he didn't do it, not that somebody is pursuing some political agenda.

LEMON: We want to -- everyone wants to hear from him, right? And they want to hear his side of the story. Areva, you made my point last night when I talked about the court of public opinion. He's lost in the court of public opinion. And doing the interview, you made a very good point. It did not have to play out this way.

That's why I wonder who was advising him to even do that interview. Because by doing that, he brings it upon himself that now the other side can use that interview and also bring things out in a manner that may not have been done if he hadn't done it. Thank you so much. I appreciate both of you. The mayor of Chicago weighs in on Jussie Smollett, the mayor of Chicago, and the impact of his allegations that they've had on the city. Rahm Emanuel is here next. Don't go away.


LEMON: Police and prosecutors in Chicago laid out their case today against Jussie Smollett, detailing their evidence, day by day, minute by minute, of what they allege was an orchestrated attack. Joining me now is Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Mayor Emanuel, I appreciate you joining us. I want to play this, the Superintendent Eddie Johnson today and then we'll discuss. Here it is.


EDDIE JOHNSON, SUPERINTENDENT, CHICAGO POLICE: The stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary. So he concocted a story about being attacked. Now, our city has problems. We know that. We have problems that have affected people from all walks of life. And we know that. But to put the national spotlight on Chicago for something that is both egregious and untrue is simply shameful.


LEMON: So Mayor, the superintendent was clearly disgusted and emotional, talking about this alleged hoax. How did you feel watching him talk about Chicago?

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, CHICAGO: Well, he's exactly right. And the Chicago I know, as I said earlier today, across our city, in 77 different neighborhoods, there are people that have signs in their front lawn, on their windows, that say hate has no home here. And to use Chicago in that way is not true to who we are as a city, whether because of sexual orientation, race, faith.

We have 140 languages spoken in our public schools. We are a welcoming city of all types of people. And I am upset about what he said about the city and the way he used the city. But more importantly -- and every city has challenges to work on. Let me say something about our city. That is our police officers took this as a very serious hate crime.

And they dedicated the resources to deal with it as a hate crime. But then you literally put doubt, not only about the city but -- and also in addition, what about the person in the workplace facing discrimination and race discrimination. What about the young man who is dealing with his own sexual orientation and is attacked for it in high school or in some school, who is now going to doubt whether people believe him.

You have put all those real stories at risk for your fake story. That is not right. That is not right for Chicago. That is not right for what kind of city we are, because I know this city. I'm going to tell you an example of it. About three months ago, we were talking about our free community college program. And the young man at a breakfast that introduced me is the son of a

Syrian immigrant who fled the violence of Syria to introduce a Jewish mayor who is the grandson of an individual that came to Chicago fleeing the violence of Eastern Europe 100 years ago. In no other city can you have an immigrant child who is now going to college because of the same aspirations introduced of a different faith, a Muslim, introduce a Jewish mayor who is a grandson of an immigrant.

That is the city I know. That is the city that actually loves people, because they love the city. They care in our common humanity. And he put that all at risk for himself.

LEMON: Mayor --

EMANUEL: He put the idea of somebody facing -- yes?

LEMON: I don't normally see you get this emotional. Why is that?

EMANUEL: Well, because it's -- look. I was -- you know, my mother started her career and started us in politics working on (Inaudible) racial equality in Chicago. I am the son and a grandson of an immigrant. I saw when Pittsburgh had a synagogue and people died. People of all faiths in my city came together, Muslim, Christian, and Jew.

Because an attack on one faith is an attack on all faiths and all people of all faith, that is the Chicago I know. If you wanted to get paid more, get an agent. But don't use your sexual orientation. Don't use your race and have everybody's sympathies come to you and it turns out none of that was true. And some young man in school is going to be attacked.

Somebody at work is going to face discrimination. And everybody now is going to have two doubts about whether that is true.

LEMON: You mentioned the police department. And I just want to go through what the superintendent and others laid out in painstaking detail of the police work that went into piecing together everything that happened. Listen to this and then we'll discuss.


[22:40:01] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We interviewed over 100 individuals in a canvas of the area and a follow-up canvass as our investigation expanded.

RISA LANIER, ASSISTANT STATE'S ATTORNEY: Defendant Smollett further detailed that he wanted Abel to attack him but not hurt him too badly and to give him a chance to appear to fight back. Defendant Smollett also included that he wanted Ola to place a rope around his neck, pour gasoline on him, and yell this is MAGA country.

JOHNSON: I believe that Mr. Smollett wanted it on camera, but unfortunately that particular camera wasn't pointed in that direction.

LANIER: The staged attack lasted 45 seconds, and it was just outside the view of the desired nearby camera that Smollett had pointed out to the brothers approximately 15 hours earlier.

JOHNSON: We have the check that he used to pay them. So the $3,500 was for the two of them in total and then $500 upon return.


LEMON: Mayor, there's no mistaking it. They did an amazing job. I don't think Smollett -- I wonder how you feel about this. If he knew what he was up against, if he knew -- and you know I worked there. Chicago is one of the most surveilled cities in the nation, really started the trend with the cams all over the city and so on. They do an amazing job. Did he know what he was up against?

EMANUEL: That's a question you've got to ask him and his attorneys. But our police department and all the businesses did a fabulous job. They worked tirelessly to get to the bottom and get the facts that happened here. And what he knows or did know, that's something only he can answer. I do want to do one other thing. I am proud of the police department. I am proud of the city.

I also know the true character of the city. And what he said happened is not the character of our city or the people that make it up. Now that said, we have our problems. We're going to work on solving them. I would just say one other cautionary note, Don. I think the national media, I think national politicians, they need to take a step back, and they need to think about this moment.

They need to think about other moments and think about how we approach stories going forward. Because you and I know that the moment this was set, everybody rushed to judgment about the veracity of it. And my --- it didn't add up to a lot of us that live in Chicago. Our officers pursued it as if it was truth and came to the truth or the facts as they were laid out.

I hope one of the things that we all come out of this is learning that before we rush to judgment, we should take a pause, get the facts, and that's not just on the media, but that's a part of it. That's also on national politicians that jumped to a conclusion about what was true and not true at the time, which is also why I am upset.

Because at some point, somebody in the future who is a victim of an attack because of their sexual orientation or a victim of attack because of their faith or a victim because of their race will not be believed, but when they should be heard and trusted for what has happened to them. And this puts that at risk. And that to me is what is also upsetting.

LEMON: Here -- this is what the president tweeted about this. He said Jussie Smollett, what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments, and then he did a hashtag MAGA. Listen, you talked about national politicians. He is the biggest national politician, the leader of the free world, really. The country is incredibly divided right now.

We're debating blackface scandals, protests by black football players, Nazis marching in Charlottesville. Emotions are really raw right now. Was he taking advantage -- Jussie Smollett meaning of the divides in our society, making matters worse?

EMANUEL: Well, let me say one thing about president Trump. You know, for all of us who are battling bigotry, its consequences, this is also a president that drew a moral equivalency of what happened in Virginia between bigots and those fighting bigotry. And there is not the same moral equivalency. So when it comes to having a lecture, I just like to remind the president of what he said when things were happening in Virginia, which really drew a moral equivalency and there isn't.

There is a real difference, because those who advocate and promote bigotry and those who confront it head-on.

LEMON: So before I let go, what's your message to the people of Chicago right now? You spoke and you said you'd have to bite your tongue when it comes to Jussie Smollett. What do you say to the citizens of Chicago?

EMANUEL: We -- well, first of all, a lot of people through this last three weeks in Chicago, they said this didn't add up. The facts that they know it literally in the middle of the night at 2:30 in the morning, on (Inaudible), somebody going out at 2:30 in the morning when it's basically almost the arctic freeze, you could have done (Inaudible) if you wanted. And you're going to go there. They're waiting for you and you did this in the middle of downtown.

[22:45:04] None of that makes sense. But on the bigger thing, Don, if you were in Chicago, you would see what I see when I drive all over the city. Literally in windows of all walks of life, in 77 different neighborhoods, on front lawns, hate has no home. That's the character of the people in the city of Chicago. That is who we are. We have our challenges. We work together to solve them and address them.

LEMON: Mayor Emanuel, thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

EMANUEL: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: If Jussie Smollett did make all of this up as police allege, the big question everybody wants answered is, why? We'll try to figure that out next.


LEMON: OK, so here we go. Tonight, a statement on behalf of Jussie Smollett, calling his arrest in court appearance a spectacle that trampled on Smollet's presumption of innocence. And I want to talk about this case now with John McWhorter. He's a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He's the author of Words on the Move. And I thank you for joining us. I read your article on this, and this is before you saw everything, right, that was laid out.


LEMON: Thank you so much for joining us by the way. It's called what the Jussie Smollett Story Reveals. It shows a peculiar aspect of 21st century America. You call it victimhood chic. What do you mean? MCWHORTER: Well, what I mean by that is that in a way this isn't

surprising, what he did. And so as culpable as he seems to be, and I am using seems only being very polite. As culpable -- you know I'm going to say, as he is, still he didn't get this out of nowhere. This is a young man who figured out that he could be more interesting as somebody who was jumped by MAGA-shouting white guys than he is as the very deft star of a really interesting TV show.

So what this means is that in a way all of us are culpable in that, if we're a part of this us. We look at, say, the Covington Kid, and we look at one millisecond of his smile and we decide that he symbolizes the racism of all America, when really it was just a millisecond of that kid walking by somebody and not smiling with his teeth showing.

And intelligent people think of themselves as being ahead of the curve, and seeing that as a summation of American social history. Now, somebody like Jussie Smollett looks at that and it's Zeitgeist, not that specific thing because that's a little late, but there's all sorts of examples of this over the past 15 years. And he realizes that if he's somebody who is slightly vain glorious and many of us are.

And he also happens to be black, as many of us are. He thinks that I could be really famous. I could be more important than I am being on this hit TV show, doing a really deft performance as a very interesting character that intersects in an interesting way with the person who I am. I could be even more important if I stage this attack. And you can imagine what he was thinking.

And I know I am getting a little bit creative, but you can imagine what he was thinking. He's been attacked. He becomes Jussie Christ, basically. And so he writes a book with somebody, then he gets to do the audio of the book, and in between the chapters of the book he would have songs that he wrote that he recorded. That audio book would become a big hit, and then he would get a talk show and he would become Jussie Oprah.

That's the sort of thing that he was waiting for. Because he knows that here in America, not only we know that racism and homophobia exists, and we should. But he knows that we've gotten to the point that we are so bent on demonizing people like that Covington Kid, demonizing somebody who voted for Donald Trump because they didn't prioritize racism as much as some of us do, that he actually thought that it would be a good idea to create something like this and become more famous than he was.

And the sad thing is that if it had worked, he's right. He would have that talk show. He would be Jussie Christ.

LEMON: So he apparently met with -- the reporting is that he met with the Empire cast and crew tonight. And here is -- I think in the third paragraph where it says after a lot of hugs and kisses of tender friendship, Jussie then expressed a personal message to everybody as a group. First, he apologized for any embarrassment they might have felt since his story began. Then to the shock and dismay of the person who attended the meeting,

Jussie defiantly stuck to his story of innocence, and for the most part paraphrased in his own words what was in the statement that his attorneys put out this afternoon, blaming the legal system and the media for his woes.

MCWHORTER: Oh, the humanity. We have to imagine what's in his head. There are very few evil people. And so we have to imagine how he is going to sleep at night. And where he gets this -- we go to his grave, rolling his eyes and sprinkling half sentences all over the place when this comes up, implying that there's something that we've all missed. Where's he's getting this is the idea that there's this larger narrative that we're supposed to keep in mind even in the place of facts.

And so Mike Brown, it's tragic that he died. But there is still an idea that Mike Brown died with his hands up. Now, the facts have made it quite plain that that's not what happened. There is -- nothing beyond any shadow of a doubt that that's not how that boy died. But there's a certain sense that we're supposed to believe it on some larger level.

[22:55:07] I have heard ordinary people talking about it. I've certainly read esteemed intellectuals writing about it as if that somehow happened. Jussie Smollett has grown up in that kind of environment where he watches the facts being skirted in that way, where say a Rachel Dolezal who's a write woman who walks around spray- tanned pretending that she's black, never says, OK, it was all just a big hoax.

And now I am going to be white, because that's who I am, but she kind of smirks to the cameras and kind of walks off into the sunset. Jussie Smollett has come of age within that. So as far as he's concerned, his relationship to these facts is about as oblique as those of a certain person with a certain amount of authority who you and I usually talk about. It's the same thing.

He drinks it in from the Zeitgeist. Now, I am not saying it's OK. He is clearly an extreme personality with a certain extreme self-regard, which you can smell from his Twitter feed, from interviews. It's funny. I read an interview with him from about three years ago where I had the guiltiest feeling. I am not talking about the hoax that has come out over the past few weeks.

Three years ago, I read a very nice interview with him, where I thought -- and I hated myself for thinking it, because I couldn't think of anything that was wrong with him. I thought there's something smug about him. It's like he wants to be a civil rights hero of the past, and he's a little uncomfortable that circumstances today don't quite allow it.

I swear I thought that. And I would have never written it, and I just went on with my life. But I thought that something about that guy and look how there is. That's what turned to happen.

LEMON: Listen. I am over. But I just have to ask you this. What does it mean, race issues as a whole in this country, when someone as you say -- this is a quote from your article, can be acting oppression rather than suffering it?

MCWHORTER: It's the funniest thing. You know that things have gotten better when somebody can actually feel comfortable pretending to be oppressed rather than really being oppressed. When people were really suffering, you've got the hoses in Birmingham, you've got people redlined. Nobody was going to act. That was very rare. Once things get better, you can start turning it into some sort of drama as if we were on Empire.

And so that means that as tragic and pathetic as what Jussie Smollett "allegedly did." As disgusting as it is, it's a sign that we've come further than we often like to admit. Because if things were really as bad as we're often told -- and that's not to say that there's no racism and there's no homophobia, if it really was 1960 except the window dressing had changed.

There could not be a Rachel Dolezal, and there could never a serious- minded, intelligent, brilliant performing person like Jussie Smollett who pulls something like this and comes out of it thinking that he's been wronged. We're doing better than we think.

LEMON: John McWhorter, thank you very much.

MCWHORTER: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: We'll be right back.