Lawmakers and media retreat amid Jussie Smollett case plot twist

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," Februay 20, 2019. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


JUSSIE SMOLLETT, ACTOR: At first it was a thing of, listen, if I tell the truth then that's it, because it's the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On Tuesday, police officers were saying his accounts were consistent.

SMOLLETT: Then it became a thing of, oh, how can you doubt that?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: I was frankly surprised at how many people jumped on board to side with Jussie Smollett.

SMOLLETT: And then it became a thing of, oh, it's not necessarily that you don't believe that this is the truth. You don't even want to see the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So if you did this, we need to know, are you crazy? Did you literally lose it, because nothing is adding up about why he would do this?


BRET BAIER, HOST: Nothing is adding up about why. Now Chicago police say that Jussie Smollett is the suspect in a crime, falsifying a report about a criminal act. And now his lawyers met with investigators today. The two men who were associated with him meeting with a grand jury tonight. What about this story? Let's bring our panel, "Washington Post" columnist Marc Thiessen, Amy Walter, national editor for the "Cook Political Report," and Ben Domenech, publisher of "The Federalist." Marc, this story obviously has evolved through the week, and it has been quite something to watch.

MARC THIESSEN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: It has been. And look, there's a pattern here. First, it was the Covington kids that everyone jumped to believe that because they were wearing MAGA hats and they were some sort of racists, and now they're suing some of the news organizations who reported, falsely reported this story.

Now there was this rush to believe Jussie Smollett because he says he was attacked in Chicago by people yelling this is MAGA country because we all know that Chicago is MAGA country. You had Cory Booker and Kamala Harris who both said this was a modern day lynching. Pelosi who said it was an attack on humanity. These people jumped to believe him.

And why is that? Because it exposes the fact that the political left in Washington has contempt not just for Donald Trump, but for Donald Trump's supporters. They assume that Donald Trump's supporter are racist even though seven to eight million Trump voters voted twice for Barack Obama.

What happened in the 2016 election is that millions of Americans who are not being listened to by the establishments of either party asserted themselves through the democratic process, and instead of listening to them and taking them seriously, they continue to believe that these people are racists and bigots and have to be shunned. And that's what we've seen in both of these cases.

BAIER: The media who cover media said that this was just celebrity media that made the mistake of jumping. That's not the case. We have a lot of example of that. But TMZ's Harvey Levin was on America's Newsroom today.


HARRY LEVIN, TMZ MANAGING EDITOR: I didn't say I believed it. What we said was, this is what Jussie sad. I never said I believed it. We reported what Jussie said happened. I can tell you that from the beginning, police had suspicions. We knew about the suspicions, but they on the record were saying we consider him a victim.


BAIER: We are going to let this play out, Amy, and see where it goes. But it's clearly going one direction.

AMY WALTER, NATIONAL EDITOR, "COOK POLITICAL REPORT": Right, which is the opposite of where it started. Honestly, one this -- I saw this story sort of bubble up on Twitter. And once I saw it kind of going the way that we saw the Covington story where it was the left and the right yelling at each other about this and who was responsible and what it says about our culture, I literally just blocked it out. And I've spent zero minutes on this story in part because that's true. We are doing whatever we see something that's going to basically reinforce our own political views, we decide to attach to it. When it doesn't reinforce our own political views, we decide to call it out as being -- somebody is being hypocritical for being this. So I just choose to not engage in any of it --


BAIER: Of the back-and-forth?

THIESSEN: And you are much happier.

WALTER: I'm a much happier, much better person for all of it.

BAIER: And we threw you in this panel. And I apologize.


WALTER: No, no, but I do think, but it just goes to the broader -- I think Marc is right, which is, it's just become very easy. There is a shorthand now in our political culture for what the left, right, Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez, people want to believe any rumor about her -- or if something comes up about her people on the right are going to believe even if it's a rumor that ends up being debunked. People on the left are going to want to believe anything about somebody in a MAGA hat who does something.

BAIER: I will say he brought politics into it, Jussie Smollett, so it changed the dynamic.

BEN DOMENECH, "THE FEDERALIST": First of all, I have to say that Amy has the right attitude towards this.


DOMENECH: Which is let's not pay attention to this. Let's not overreact. Let's not feel the need to jump in and let every opinion that we have just flow on social media, which is what I think we have going on every day.

But this is just another disturbing sign of this bubbling up of victimhood chic which John McWhorter, an esteemed professor has identified, of people who tell these stories that are designed to make them look like either the tragic victims or in Smollett's case, he was making the argument I fought back. I was fighting them in the street, depicting himself as a brave actor in this scenario.

And what this really should tell us is that we should take a step back, not just jump to the idea that every recent story that comes out in the news is representative of this whole narrative that we have about the country and where it's going. That's the problem that I think we have in this situation. Everybody jumped past the question of whether this happened or not the way that he said, and they were jumping to what does this says about the country that we live in, the times that we live in. And maybe every event is not something that should be extrapolated.

BAIER: To your point, we have this story also breaking today about a Coast Guard officer arrested by the FBI espousing white nationalist views, saying that he wants to kill x numbers of politicians and TV personalities to cleanse the world, essentially. So that person is not -- through the prism of all Trump supporters, just, maybe as your point?

THIESSEN: And at some point someone will make that point, that he did this because of Donald Trump. That's going to happen, if it ends up being true that he was a white nationalist and he was planning all of this.

I just think we have a problem in our culture, we have a culture of contempt in Washington that has gripped both the left in the right. And I think we need to stop assuming the bad motives on people we disagree with, whether you're conservative or you're a liberal. Liberals have bad ideas in my view, but they want to help make the country a better place in their own way, even it's through something as idiotic as the Green New Deal.

Conservatives have good ideas and good intentions. You might not like their solutions. You might think a wall is a good idea. You might not think a national emergency is a good idea. But let's just stop assuming that everybody's motives are racist and bigoted and horrible, because everybody loves this country and we are trying to make it a better place in our own way.

WALTER: Or we are taking whatever is happening in Washington so everything here is poisonous and then we have to assume, if it's as bad as it is here, it must be like that everywhere else, right.


WALTER: We represent exactly what's going on in the country and we don't see it reflected badly.

THIESSEN: Normal Americans aren't like us.


BAIER: So we've solved it all here on the panel. Next up, we'll talk about something a little bit bigger, Vladimir Putin threatening the U.S. over missiles in Europe.



VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT, (through translator): We are not interested in confrontation and we do not want it, let alone confrontation with such a global power like the United States of America. But it looks like our partners do not see how and at what pace the world is changing. Russia will be forced to create and deploy new types of weapons that could be used not only against the territories where a direct threat to us comes from, but also against the territories where decision-making centers directing the use of missile systems threatening us are located.

DANIEL HOFFMAN, FORMER CIA STATION CHIEF: I think we do need to be worried about Russian missiles. Remember, it was Vladimir Putin who in 2007 talked about withdrawing from the INF treaty. Putin has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in violation of the treaty as well. So we've been living with Russia's violations for years. I think what we are doing now is exposing the hypocrisy.


BAIER: New threats from Vladimir Putin in his annual address to the nation today, threatening to target Europe if the U.S. puts missiles in Europe. We're back with the panel. Ben, more bluster from Vladimir Putin?

DOMENECH: This is bluster, it's propaganda. And frankly, they were already doing this stuff anyway. And look, there is a bipartisan and international consensus that Russia has been in violation of the INF treaty for a long time now. It is well overdue for the United States to withdraw from it.

But one thing that I think we should keep in mind here is that our withdrawal is not necessarily about what Russia is doing alone. It's also about the capabilities that China has today. And frankly, I think that's something that we are going to be a lot more likely to be paying attention to in a conflict capacity versus Russia looking ahead. We need to have a greater capability in that area and have the ability to respond to China in ways that we do not currently have the capability under the INF treaty. And in this case, I think we shouldn't be suckered by what Putin has done in this case into thinking that this is some sort of new demonstrable threat. This was something they were already doing anyway.


WALTER: Yes, and that seems to be what he's done about Europe and the U.S. position. Any time we are talking about putting troops or weapon systems in Europe, he comes out with these same sort of statements about you test us, we're going to have to punch back. This is also, this was a focus for his domestic audience much more than for an international audience. This is basically his state of the union in Russia, and what he was saying about the Russians is don't worry, right. I'm a nationalist, I'm going to protect Russian interests. We're not going to let those western countries, especially the U.S., push us around. So this was as much directed there as it was to a threat to the U.S. or to the rest of the world.

I agree with Ben that the real issue here, because we've been fighting with Russia about the INF now for years, when Obama was president as well, is where does China fit into this where in a new deal theoretically a new deal gets cut, where does China come in with that and it has to be part of it?

BAIER: So senior defense officials pointing out today in the wake of all this, the Pentagon building your low yield nuclear weapons for submarines, space-based missile defense to counter Russian hypersonic missile request. The U.S. wants out of the INF treaty in part to field it's own land-based missiles to take on China. Interesting. And doing all this stuff in space at the same time.

THIESSEN: Absolutely. So look, this is a treaty that didn't bind China, Iran, or North Korea, three countries that are all building intermediate range missiles, and that Russia was violating the treaty. So the only country that was abiding by the treaty was the United States. So a treaty that binds one country is a joke. So there's no point in doing this.

He did this with the full support of the NATO allies who came out with a statement saying allies fully support this action and Russia is to blame for this decision. But I agree with ben and Amy that it's not just even primarily a Russia play. One, it's a China play, as they said, because China, 95 percent of China's missiles would violate the INF treaty if they were part of it. And so this allows us to build missiles and deploy them in Asia that can compete with the Chinese threat, because if China threatens one of our allies, our only response is a nuclear ICBM. This allows both convention and nuclear weapons.

But it's also a North Korea play, because North Korea, the message of this for North Korea is if you don't denuclearize, then we can surround you with short-range missiles that can destroy your regime overnight in minutes. They can send them in Guam, they can send them in Japan. So this is a subtle threat to North Korea as well.

BAIER: So quickly, ahead of this summit, we're heading to Hanoi. We'll bring you SPECIAL REPORT from Hanoi for that summit next week. Upside?

DOMENECH: I do think that this factors into this discussion that are going to happen in that situation, to Marc's point, and that's going to be something that is going to on the table. It's going to be discussed. But I also think that you're going to see just in the long term continued saber rattling like this from Putin and from the Russian regime. The fact is that they are trying to be a continental power with an economy that's the size of Italy's.

BAIER: We should also point out that we are hearing reports that the Mueller report make come out as early as next week. It would be interesting if the president was overseas when it happens.

WALTER: It's hard to believe that that would be the case. There is no need to rush this out while the president is overseas. They can wait another day. It's been quite some time we've been waiting. So I would be surprised.

BAIER: That he'd be on U.S. soil.


THIESSEN: That would be a mistake for Mueller.

BAIER: Yes. Panel, thank you very much. Some final thoughts after the break.


BAIER: Finally tonight, as I mentioned on the panel, "Special Report" heads to Vietnam next week for the president's summit with Kim Jong-un, his second. In the meantime, stick with Fox News Channel all night tonight for the latest on the Jussie Smollett hate crime story. Also this evening, former "CBS News" correspondent Lara Logan talks to Sean Hannity about her recent criticism of the liberal news media. And Martha will talk shortly with one of the lawyers for the Covington, Kentucky, high schooler who is suing "The Washington Post" over that viral video for $250 million. "The Post" is fighting back.

Thanks for inviting us into your home tonight.

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