Democratic presidential candidates back off support for Jussie Smollett

'Empire' ator arrested on Thursday

By KATE SULLIVAN AND KYUNG LAH, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

Sen. Kamala Harris

(CNN) - Democratic presidential candidates backed off their statements of support for actor Jussie Smollett on Thursday after he was arrested on the suspicion of falsifying a police report, saying he's done a disservice to victims of hate crimes.

Several prominent Democratic politicians and 2020 presidential candidates had issued strong statements of support after Smollett, an actor on the TV show "Empire," went public in January with his claims that he had been attacked by two men. Smollett was arrested Thursday morning.

California Sen. Kamala Harris said Thursday that she is disappointed by Smollett's alleged actions, and said hate crimes are on the rise in the US and false claims make it harder for victims to come forward.

"Like most of you, I've seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I'm sad, frustrated, and disappointed," the Democratic presidential hopeful posted Thursday on Twitter. "When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward."

Smollett told authorities last month the men put a rope around his neck and poured an unknown chemical substance on him. He received an outpouring of support when he first made the report, including from the California Democrat, who said, "We must confront this hate."

".@JussieSmollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I'm praying for his quick recovery," Harris tweeted in January. "This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate."

In a statement released Thursday after Smollett's arrest, the senator wrote that "hate crimes are on the rise in America," and said, "Part of the tragedy of this situation is that it distracts from that truth, and has been seized by some who would like to dismiss and downplay the very real problems that we must address. We should not allow that."

"I will always condemn racism and homophobia. We must always confront hate directly, and we must always seek justice," Harris continued. "That is what I will keep fighting for."

Presidential hopeful Sen. Kristen Gillibrand said she hopes this incident doesn't diminish the voices of survivors of hate crimes.

"I don't know what happened. We will all soon know," the New York Democrat told reporters at an event in Texas on Thursday when asked about the case. "I'm hoping that this incident does not diminish the real crisis that people face when they are discriminated against for being gay or for communities of color that are, that are discriminated against for racism."

"It's really important that survivors do feel they can come forward and that this doesn't diminish their voices," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand had previously called the attack "sickening" and "outrageous," posting on Twitter last month that "it's the latest of too many hate crimes against LGBTQ people and people of color. We are all responsible for condemning this behavior and every person who enables or normalizes it. Praying for Jussie and his family."

When asked if she thought she jumped too soon to a conclusion, Gillibrand said, "You know, it just shows sometimes there's more to something and we just have to see what happens."

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is also running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, tweeted Thursday, "If it is proven that Smollett fabricated a hoax, then he will have done a terrible disservice to actual victims and future victims of hate crimes. It will be much less likely for future victims to be believed."

The Hawaii congresswoman had posted on Twitter at the time Smollett reported the incident, "This is so heartbreaking. @JussieSmollett, you are not alone - we are with you. We must stand up and condemn this hate, bigotry & violence wherever it rears its ugly head. No one should live in fear because of the color of their skin or who they love."

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a news conference on Thursday that Smollett paid two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack, taking "advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career."

Smollett appeared in court on Thursday, where prosecutors claimed the actor had directed the two men to utter a racial slur, make a reference to "Make America Great Again" and incorporate a noose into the allegedly staged attack. He is facing a felony charge of disorderly conduct, and was released on a $100,000 bond.

A statement from Smollett's camp Thursday evening emphasized that he maintains his innocence.

"Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system," the statement read. "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. 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."

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