The Morning Jolt

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Jussie Smollett and the Hard Lessons about Facts and Assumptions

Jussie Smollett poses on the red carpet before the 47th Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony in New York, June 9, 2016. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The tale of actor Jussie Smollett enters its third act with Chicago law enforcement moving quickly and unnamed police sources contradicting the actor’s account; President Trump declares an emergency, and why this isn’t likely to work; and when it comes to the border barrier near El Paso, Beto O’Rourke wants to tear down this wall.

In an Actor’s Tale, Some Saw This Plot Twist Coming

We will see if the police source talking to the CBS affiliate in Chicago is accurate. If so, the revelations would vindicate the skepticism that many have expressed since the first reports emerged of actor Jussie Smollett being attacked.

Investigators believe Jussie Smollett and the non-cooperating witnesses in last month’s alleged attack of the Empire actor “potentially staged the attack,” a source with intimate knowledge of the investigation tells CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards.

Chicago police raided the home of two “persons of interest” Wednesday night, a relative of those men says.

Police took bleach, shoes, electronics, receipts and other items from the home.

The men, who are both of Nigerian descent, have appeared as extras on the show and their attorney, Gloria Schmidt, says they do both know Smollett.

“They do know Jussie,” she said. “They have worked with him on Empire. My preliminary investigations show that on set it’s very tight. They’re all very cordial with each other, so they’re baffled why they are people of interest.”

CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says media reports about “the Empire incident being a hoax are unconfirmed by case detectives.” He says the “supposed CPD sources are uninformed and inaccurate.”

From the beginning, Smollett’s claim that he was attacked by two men yelling “MAGA country” included many details that seemed odd. He said he was walking back to an apartment after a meal at a Subway restaurant around 2 a.m., during the most intensely cold weather in Chicago in three decades. One can fairly wonder how many virulent, racist homophobes would be out wandering Chicago looking for a victim in that weather, and how many in that demographic watch Empire and would recognize him. Smollett claimed that the assailants punched him, kicked him, poured bleach on him, and put a rope around his neck, but he never lost his cell phone and never lost his sandwich. According to surveillance videos, all of this had to occur in a 60-second window. As our Kyle Smith noted, Smollett’s story changed several times as he retold the story. He waited 40 minutes before calling the police.

Then there’s this fascinating detail of the investigation from the site CWB Chicago:

Smollett this week turned over “heavily redacted” phone records from the night of the alleged attack. [Chicago Police Department chief spokesperson Anthony] Guglielmi said the submitted documents did not meet the burden of a criminal investigation. Investigators already received Smollett’s complete phone records via a subpoena served on his service provider, according to a source quoted by CWBChicago on Feb. 4.

A source familiar with the records provided by the Empire star states that Smollett downloaded his phone activity into a spreadsheet and then deleted certain phone calls before handing over the records. “He did the [detectives’] job for them because then they only had to focus on the numbers he deleted.”

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t lie to cops.

Stephen Miller — the Twitter user, not the White House official — offers a long list of celebrities, Democratic presidential candidates, columnists, and activists who not only believed Smollett, but who insisted that his version of events revealed some sort of widespread malevolence in American life, directly tied to the administration and the Republican party.

There’s nothing wrong with being sympathetic to someone who comes to a hospital with a facial injury and describes being attacked; in fact, we ought to have compassion and sympathy for victims of assault. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe the account of an actor that you like. Not every claim of a hate crime is a hoax (although the number that are would surprise a lot of people). But once you step beyond compassion for victims and start citing an event as an indictment of large groups of people, you had better make sure your understanding of that event is accurate.

Highly touted free agent Cameron Gray collected politicians’ statements and columns about Smollett and his account, and my favorite was a column that declared that while “credible media outlets are professionally bound to use words like ‘allegedly’ when describing crimes, but those tentative references to ‘possible hate crimes’ are far more frequent, far more insidious, and deeply dangerous.”

This is so spectacularly wrong, it’s almost a work of art. Media organizations have rulebooks about these sorts of things called “stylebooks,” laying out how terms like “allegedly” and “accused” should be used. They aim for choosing the right word for both clarity to the reader and in part to protect themselves from libel suits. If a publication writes “John Smith punched Jane,” and John Smith did not punch Jane, then John Smith may sue the publication, and he has a better chance of winning. If the publication writes, “witnesses claimed John Smith punched Jane,” that little wiggle room gives the publication better odds at a trial.

One of the things they’re supposed to drill into your head in Journalism 101 is differentiating between what you know and what you think. What you know belongs on the news page, what you think belongs on the op-ed page.

We know that Smollett described being the victim of a hate crime. We know that he transported himself to Chicago’s Northwestern Hospital, where he was treated and discharged the next morning. We know that the Chicago Police Department publicly declared that they were treating the incident as “a possible hate crime.” But we don’t know that the hate crime occurred, and even if we can definitively establish that an assault occurred, it is a separate step to determine if it was driven by “hate” or by some other motive (theft, a personal dispute, etc.).

The news is not always going to be the version of events that you wished it was. If you can’t handle that, you don’t belong in journalism.

Here Comes the National-Emergency Declaration

If you believe in the separation of powers as required by the Constitution, are you politically homeless right now?

I hear Trump administration defenders citing Obama’s “I have a pen and a phone” approach. What some people seem to forget is that in a lot of ways, Obama’s “I have a pen and a phone” approach didn’t work. After the 2014 midterms, Obama announced an expansion of DACA called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans; various state attorney generals sued and a federal district court issued an injunction preventing the program from being enacted while the courts determined if it was within the president’s authority. The injunction was fought all the way up to the Supreme Court . . . where a 4-4 split kept it in place.

The odds are pretty good you’ll see a similar outcome here. And if the court doesn’t block it, it becomes a horrible precedent allowing some future Democratic president to start making sweeping changes in policy without the consent of Congress.

The NR editors, back on January 20:

It’s a terrible idea. Even if it’s legal — which is unclear, at best — it would represent another unwelcome step in America’s long march toward unilateral government by the executive. The problem isn’t declaring an emergency. There is ample authority to do that and we live under a couple of dozen little-noticed declarations of emergency that have accumulated over the decades. The issue is redirecting military funds to the border fence. That would require a strained interpretation that treats the border fence as a military matter, among other legal gymnastics.

It’s an offense against the spirit of our system for a president to fail to get he wants from Congress — in a dispute involving a core congressional power, spending — and then turn around and exploit a tenuous reading of the law to try to get it anyway.

Plenty of Republican senators can grasp that this move is like playing with matches and gasoline near the Constitution. Senator John Cornyn, speaking to CNN, Feb 4: “The whole idea that presidents — whether it’s President Trump, President Warren or President Sanders — can declare an emergency and somehow usurp the separation of powers and get into the business of appropriating money for specific projects without Congress being involved, is a serious constitutional question.”

Missouri Senator Roy Blunt told Politico: “While I’m in favor of what this president wants to do [on the border wall], I think it sets a dangerous precedent and I hope he doesn’t do it.”

Senator Marco Rubio: “We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution:  Today’s national emergency is border security. But a future president may use this exact same tactic to impose the Green New Deal. I will wait to see what statutory or constitutional power the President relies on to justify such a declaration before making any definitive statement. But I am skeptical it will be something I can support.”

Rand Paul: “I, too, want stronger border security, including a wall in some areas. But how we do things matters. Over 1,000 pages dropped in the middle of the night and extraconstitutional executive actions are wrong, no matter which party does them.”

To be fair, there were a few Republican senators who didn’t see a Constitutional problem. Senator Mike Braun said, “This legislation did not sufficiently address the humanitarian and security crisis on our southern border and left President Trump with no other option than to declare a national emergency, which I support.”

Senator Kevin Cramer concurred: “From day one, President Trump has made it clear he’s ready to address the crisis at the southern border, whether or not Congress works with him. While Democratic leadership has refused to tackle this issue, I stand with President Trump in favor of funding border security as we head into budget talks for the upcoming fiscal year.

Beto O’Rourke: Mr. Trump, Tear Down This Wall

It appears that if Beto O’Rourke runs for president, he will run on a platform of removing existing border barriers. Asked by Chris Hayes, “If you could, would you take the wall down now here? Knock it down?” O’Rourke responded, “Yes, absolutely.” O’Rourke contends the existence of the wall pushes “migrants and asylum seekers and refugees” to “inhospitable” places that kill them and denies them the right to “legally petition for asylum, to cross in urban centers like El Paso.”

El Paso has four legal border crossing points, three of which operate 24 hours a day.

The New York Times, June 27, 2018: “President Trump has falsely claimed at least two dozen times since taking office that Democrats want to open American borders.”

What was I just saying about differentiating between what you know and what you think?

ADDENDA: I will be at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, speaking on a panel entitled “Conservative Podcasting 101” at 10 a.m. at the Gaylord Convention Center. Hope to see you there.

Wrapping up the week, I did a mild redesign of the work-focused Facebook page.

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