Kamala Harris releases statement on Jussie Smollett charges

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," February 21, 2019. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


EDDIE JOHNSON, CHICAGO POLICE SUPERINTENDENT: This announcement today recognizes that "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career. My concern is that hate crimes will be publicly met with a level of skepticism that previously did not happen.

JUSSIE SMOLLETT, ACTOR: How can you doubt that. How do you not to believe that? It's the truth. And then it became a thing of like, oh, it's not necessarily that you don't believe that this is the truth. You don't even want to see the truth.

JOHNSON: To be quite honest, this is shameful.


BRET BAIER, HOST: An angry Chicago police superintendent today laying out the case that they have against Jussie Smollett, who is now charged with falsifying this alleged hate crime, planning a bogus hate crime, including mailing a letter to himself, as the assistant state attorney laid out in intricate detail.

When this first happened, and his explanation for it, everyone seemed to weigh in, including presidential candidates. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both calling it a modern-day lynching and tweets. Just moments ago, Senator Harris released a statement about this after being asked repeatedly on the trail about it. "Like most of you, I've seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I'm sad, frustrated, and disappointed. 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. At the same time, we must be at the truth. Hate crimes are on the rise in America. 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." Kamala Harris there from the trail.

Let's bring in our panel, Matthew Continetti, editor in chief of the "Washington Free Beacon," national security analyst Morgan Ortagus, and Jonathan Swan, national politics reporter for "Axios." Pretty well worded, Jonathan, in that response, but a sticky issue for these candidates who obviously went down the road when this first came out.

JONATHAN SWAN, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, "AXIOS": Right. The first statement was passionate and righteous. And she was asked about it, there was a piece of video where she was asked about it, and sort of had this strange moment where she turned to her staff looking quite irritated, and then turned back and clearly thought more about it and put out this statement. There been other portions. I think Nancy Pelosi deleted her tweet initially where she condemned this. So there was a whole lot of people who initially condemned us who are now in various ways trying to quietly walk it back.

BAIER: Morgan, the police superintendent in Chicago, I think a lot of people were riveted by Eddie Johnson. Here's another piece of it.


EDDIE JOHNSON, CHICAGO POLICE SUPERINTENDENT: How can an individual who has been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face? To make things worse, the accusations within this phony attack received national attention for weeks.

When you get the opportunity, the shooting victims and families in the city that are victims of those crimes, give them the same amount of attention.


BAIER: Morgan?

MORGAN ORTAGUS, NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I thought the police chief did an excellent job there. But what he did leave out of that press conference was the political element to this, and that's why this has gotten more coverage than all of the tragic murders that the police chief spoke about. And so I did think it was a missed opportunity to talk about that.

One thing that we have learned is that Jussie Smollett is a great actor, I've watched him on "Empire," but he is a terrible writer. When we see what he staged not only in this attack, but in the letter and of course the resources that were diverted.

One thing I would say just going back to Kamala Harris. One thing to remember is there are plenty of people who voted for President Trump in 2016 that also voted for Barack Obama. So I think while it might not help her in the primary, it's important to remember those voters and to keep those voters in the back of her mind, and to remember that those people could potentially be winnable. And whenever she addresses it fairly and shows that she is not biased to everyone who is supportive of Trump, there may be an opening there.

BAIER: The president did not stay out of this. Some said they thought he might, but he did not. "Jussie Smollett, what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments?" Hash-tag make America great again. Notably, he didn't tweet about the Coast Guard officer who was arrested by the FBI and his background of planning white nationalist killings, but your thoughts in the big picture here, Matthew as we look at kind of where we are in this culture moment.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "WASHINGTON FREE BEACON": We're nowhere good. The same people who rushed to embrace Smollett's faux story were the people who rushed to criticize the Covington Catholic boys when that snippet of viral video came out for the pro-life movement march in D.C. And what is the connective tissue, right? It's a willingness to believe the worst of Donald Trump and his supporters. And that's why people rushed to back Smollett. That's why they rushed to condemn the Covington Catholic boys. And now Republicans sometimes are always eager to embrace the worst critiques of Democrats. But we see time and time again that the mainstream media amplifies the liberal critique of Republicans to a far greater extent than it does the conservative critique of Democrats. This willingness to believe narratives no matter their truth is very dangerous to democracy which depends, Bret, as we know, on evidence and patience.

BAIER: You have seen the president and how he deals with Twitter, and obviously he saw this moment as a political, hey, this is the point. My people, my supporters are getting blamed for everything.

SWAN: To his defense, it wasn't to Trump who inserted himself in this moment. It was Jussie Smollett. He is the one who said that there are people who are walking around Chicago saying that this is MAGA country, lynching people, et cetera. So this was not something that Trump inserted himself in. He was explicitly inserted in the story by the hoaxer. So I will give Trump some defense there.

BAIER: There you go. Next up, should the Alabama woman who joined ISIS be allowed to come back into the U.S.? We'll be back.



HODA MUTHANA, FORMER ISIS MEMBER: We would see dead bodies in public. We would see kids seeing dead bodies in public. We'd see limbs splattered on the floor. And seeing it with your own eyes really made you wake up and change.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: She is a terrorist. She's not coming back. She is not a U.S. citizen. She is not entitled to U.S. citizenship. And she is not coming back to our country to pose a threat.

HASSAN SHIBLY, MUTHANA FAMILY ATTORNEY: She is willing to pay whatever debt she has to society. She's even willing to spend years behind bars if that's the debt she owes. And she wants to speak out to ensure that other young women are not brainwashed and manipulated into committing the same horrible mistakes that she has done.

ZUHDI JASSER, AMERICAN ISLAMIC FORUM DEMOCRACY: If she did believe in the citizenship oath, she abandoned it and actually violated it and became an enemy combatant.


BAIER: They are actually two cases, one here in the U.S. with this woman from Alabama, Hoda Muthana, and the other woman from the U.K., and the U.K. is saying you can't come back either, Shamima Begum. Both of them tied to ISIS, leaving their homeland to go to ISIS, to be with ISIS fighters, and to post online urging ISIS to attack Americans and Europeans.

The president tweeting "The United States is asking Britain, France, German, and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one, in that we will be forced to release them." Yesterday tweeting "I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and he fully agrees not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the country," specifically on this case. Morgan, thoughts?

ORTAGUS: I think it speaks volumes that she would rather rot in an American jail then eat grass in these ISIS camps, so that is a masterful defeat of the Caliphate at least from a P.R. perspective.

We've got a couple of issues going on there. We've got the factual and leading basis of was she ever an American citizen or not, was she born on the diplomatic blue list when her father was at the U.N. So that is one issue that clearly the State Department will have to deal with from a legal perspective.

The other issue is, of course, what do we do with enemy combatants in general? This is still 17 years, 18 years after 9/11 we are still dealing with this. The Europeans of course hate Gitmo, but at the same time they don't have a real process for enemy combatants. They are trying to try them as criminals. So I think what we likely need here, and some senators have talked about this, is perhaps some sort of international regime to try these enemy combatants, because we can't take all of these people and put them in Gitmo, and no one clearly wants them in their country, so we're going to have to come up with another legal mechanism to deal with these fighters.

BAIER: It is a big issue, Matthew.

CONTINETTI: We have room in Gitmo, and if she is not an American citizen, that is where she should go. If she is a citizen, we can indict her. That's what Andy McCarthy recommends, and I agree with him. So the choice is relatively simple. I feel like we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope here. Why are we feeling any sympathy for this woman when ISIS is a genocidal former regime, thank goodness, that murdered women, murdered children, devastated Christians and other religious minorities? So the choice is a simple one -- citizen, indict, noncitizen, Gitmo.

BAIER: I think Secretary of State Pompeo was pretty clear. He's pretty cut and dry.

SWAN: I don't think he was clear enough, because I would like to hear from them their rationale for why she is not a citizen. I have heard the birthright argument, but she got a passport, and there is some debate about whether he was a diplomat because he ended his diplomatic service.

BAIER: A month before.

SWAN: Sure. But she got a passport. So then the other part of it is you join a foreign -- they're not a state. It's a terrorist organization. She pretty clearly in my estimation committed treason, which is one of the ways you lose your citizenship. But again, you have to go through a court process. So I just want to know, I just want to hear them clearly state their case for why she is not a citizen, why she can't come into the country. Because if she is a citizen, the law is the law, you have to go through the process.

BAIER: What do we think happens if these foreign countries don't take the fighters back? What happens to these 800 plus that are in northeastern Syria?

ORTAGUS: This is why we have to come one with some sort of legal resolution with the Europeans. It makes no sense that we would take an American citizen like Anwar al-Awlaki and kill him via a drone strike, kill his son two weeks later via a drone strike during the Obama administration. So that you can kill American citizens without due process in the middle of a warzone, but you don't have a legal mechanism for what to do with them? This is one of those instances in which the Europeans really like to push stuff under the rug. And as we get near the end of this war in Syria, we're going to have to deal with it.

CONTINETTI: Ted Cruz had a bill, the ex-patriot terrorist act, that he submitted in a previous Congress that would strip them of citizenship as soon as they leave for enemy territory. He should resubmit the bill, and Congress should pass it and the president sign it.

BAIER: Is there a sense inside the White House that the Syria part is coming to an end, that the president is going to get those troops back?

SWAN: Well, Trump wants to. There has been a rearguard action for people like Lindsey Graham trying to get him to commit to some kind of skeletal U.S. presence there in a stabilization force, or something in a buffer zone. There is another zone where they are wanting to keep people more long term. Trump wants them out. So I think it is going to happen. I don't think that there is going to be a long-term, substantial presence there under the Trump administration. But there is a lot of wiggle room there, and TBD.

BAIER: And the request that maybe other European countries fill the void of U.S. troops coming out didn't seem like it was met with a lot of happiness over in Germany.

ORTAGUS: I was there at the Munich Security Conference. I think that there is a lot of issues, mainly Merkel giving her probably final speech, and quite angry at the administration over a few things. But saying that, from a political perspective, I'd love to know what do the 2020 Democratic candidates think about this? What do they want to do with these fighters? Do they want to send them to Gitmo? This is the real world stuff that these guys need to start answering. And I think we don't want this stuff to be political, but it is. And if the president is forcing 2020 Democrats to defend these actions or defend what to do with these terrorists it is just a winner for him every day.

BAIER: Panel, thank you. When we come back, a little forecast to Vietnam.


BAIER: Finally tonight, cutting it close, a barber in Hanoi is now offering free haircuts to anyone who wants to copy the look of either President Trump or North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.


BAIER: The free haircuts are in honor of the upcoming summit there between the world leaders next week in Vietnam. The barber says he is actually surprised how many people have responded and they are actually going to for the look, either Trump or Un. We'll be there next week, too.

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