Al Sharpton, on the sidelines of a meeting with Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, said Thursday that “Empire” star Jussie Smollett should face "accountability to the maximum" if the actor indeed staged an attack last month initially described as a hate crime.
“Whoever is wrong should pay the maximum. If Smollett is wrong, he ought to face accountability to the maximum,” the cable news host and activist told a throng of reporters on Thursday, after lunching with Sen. Harris at Sylvia’s, a landmark restaurant in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.
Harris, who initially called the incident a "modern day lynching," did not make any additional statement on the case in light of the recent developments.
Sharpton spoke hours after Smollett surrendered to authorities and was charged for filing a false police report, related to allegations he orchestrated the attack against himself. Police say the actor, who is black and gay, hired two brothers who are also black to stage what the actor reported was a racist and homophobic attack against him early on Jan. 29 in downtown Chicago.
When Smollett first claimed he was attacked, Sharpton came out in support of the actor.
But Sunday, after numerous reports that Smollett may have orchestrated the incident, Sharpton changed his tune.
“Let us get to the bottom of it, and let justice be done, no matter who is right or wrong,” he said on his MSNBC program "Politics Nation.”
Sharpton, a New York-based Baptist minister who unsuccessfully ran for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, first made headlines in the 1980s as the spokesperson for Tawana Brawley in what turned out to be false claims she was raped by four white men.
“There was no marches. There were no demonstrations here. We reacted to reports, including President Trump, who called it horrible. So I think this went across all lines, given the celebrity of Mr. Smollett,” Sharpton said on Thursday, as he defended his earlier comments.
Sharpton said he and Harris didn’t discuss the Smollett case during their half-hour lunch.
“We were talking about criminal justice reform. We were talking about economic inequality,” he explained.
“She clearly talked about how we’ve got to deal with the disparity in sentencing,” he said of his conversation with Harris. “We also talked a lot about voting rights. She’s very concerned about voter suppression.”
Yet when the attack first occurred, the senator from California and former state attorney general tweeted, “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.”
On Monday, campaigning in New Hampshire, the candidate was asked to address the shifting details in the case. She said, “I think that the facts are still unfolding, and, um, I’m very, um, concerned about obviously, the initial, um, allegation that he made about what might have happened.”
"And it’s something we should all take seriously whenever anyone, um, alleges that kind of behavior, but there should be an investigation," Harris added. "And I think that once the investigation has concluded then we can all comment, but I’m not going to comment until I know the outcome of the investigation."
Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker also initially condemned the perceived attack on Smollett, calling it “an attempted modern-day lynching. I'm glad he's safe. To those in Congress who don't feel the urgency to pass our Anti-Lynching bill designating lynching as a federal hate crime– I urge you to pay attention.”
As he campaigned in New Hampshire last weekend, Booker said: "I'm going to withhold [comment] until all the information actually comes out from on-the-record sources."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.