Overview

Smollett faces jail time; Trump gets off scot-free.

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Actor Jussie Smollett was convicted on December 9 of five counts of “disturbing the peace,” technically speaking, in a bizarre case in which the gay Black actor falsely claimed two Donald Trump-supporting men attacked him on a Chicago street while yelling homophobic and racial slurs in January 2019.

What he was actually convicted of was lying. And he could face from one to three years in prison for it.

Each of the five counts against Smollett—misdemeanor “disturbing the peace” citations, in legal-speak—involved his statements about the “attack” on five occasions to police, which the jury decided were fabrications. Indeed, the prosecution proved Smollett had orchestrated the faux hate crime to get media attention, paying his “assailants” $3,500 to carry it out.

Smollett told police that during the supposed attack white MAGA “men in ski masks beat him up, put a noose around his neck, and shouted racist and anti-gay slurs at him before fleeing.”

“We may have the greatest theme in the history of politics: It’s called Make America Great Again. MAGA. It’s called MAGA country. You know, I didn’t hear that term until that third-rate actor in Chicago went out and he said, ‘I was beaten up by MAGA Country.’ Can you believe that?”

Then-president donald trump speaking to supporters in Green bay, wisconsin, in 2019.

Smollett also took the stand in his own defense — and lied some more.

Turns out the two faux attackers were Black brothers, and Smollett said that he had had a sexual relationship with the younger brother, Bola Osundairo, who also worked on “Empire,” CNN reported. But Osundairo denied that.

So, my question is this: If lying is considered so terribly awful in American culture that a beloved celebrity actor faces potential jail time for doing it, then what about, say, Trump, who spewed more than 30,500 fact-checked falsehoods or objectively misleading claims during his four-year term as U.S. president, including 503 on the day before the 2020 election as he raced around the country in a frantic effort to win re-election with a blizzard of disinformation?

Why give Trump a pass for lying?

The difference is that the now-former president and still-serial deceiver has yet to be held even minimally accountable, even though the consequences of his voluminous mendacity—let’s not forget the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol he himself incited—have been far more catastrophic for American values, institutions, and reputation on the world stage. And a lot of people have died due to his dishonesty, including many, many coronavirus victims who needlessly perished due to his willful slow-walking of federal government response to the pandemic for personal political reasons, not critical public health imperatives.

American elected officials are supposed to be servants of the people, not kings above reproach, so why did we give the flagrantly immoral and dishonest ex-president a pass that Jussie Smollett didn’t ultimately get (although police initially were told by the state attorney general not to charge the actor)?

In the spring of 2019, Cook County District Attorney Kim Foxx dropped all charges against Smollett (in exchange for community service) after he had been charged with filing a false police report about a phony hate crime against him and a county grand jury returned a 16-count indictment. Then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted Foxx’s decision as a “whitewash of justice.”

But justice ultimately prevailed in Smollett’s case.

When, I ask, will it prevail for our former commander-in-chief?

Why don’t the same laws against deceiving law enforcement officials apply to elected politicians purposefully deceiving government officials and the electorate?

Presidents aren’t demigods

One problem is that U.S. presidents often tend to be viewed as demigods whose behavior and decisions are considered by adherents to be infallible and nearly sacred, no matter how full of clay their feet are. That’s certainly true for “The Donald,” as Trump is sometimes known.

The law is extremely deferential toward presidents, who remain enormously difficult to hold accountable for crimes against the Constitution, abuse of power, and dereliction of duty in carrying out their oaths of office. Two formal impeachments against Trump fizzled because accountability was thwarted by political allies based on self-protection, not facts. For other charges of criminality and malfeasance, Trump simply stalled in court or ignored or blocked subpoenas of him or his minions, and there seemed to be nothing the law or “guardrail” norms of governance could do about it.

So I ask again, why is a lying, gay, black actor facing jail time for his criminal fabrications, while the former “leader of the free world” remains free to cheat at golf (as he is also wont to do) and lie at will.

Why should it be so hard to hold awful powerful people accountable?

Do we need new laws or just the gumption to more aggressively use the ones we have?

This may already be a moot point. Trump and his legions of crafty minions are already setting the stage for a 2024 coup—bloodless or otherwise—by putting extremist GOP partisans in control of local and state elections and purposefully destroying voters’ faith in the electoral process nationwide, but especially in swing states.

Why is this not slow-motion insurrection or treason?

A giant shrug among actual American patriots is no way to combat this stuff—by figuratively lamenting, “What can we do?”

In a perfect world, Trump, like Smollett, should be facing serious jail time for his dangerous, metastasizing mendacity. And such a penalty should seem like the most natural and rational response in any country whose values are still noble and intact.

I’m not sure that’s true in America’s current unhinged culture war.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...