The arrest of “Empire” star Jussie Smollett — who police say faked a hate crime against himself — is igniting more real-life controversy than is seen on his weekly Fox drama.

The case has political consequences, after Smollett last month claimed he'd been attacked by two men yelling racist and homophobic slurs as well as shouting, “this is MAGA country,” referring to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE and several 2020 candidates had almost immediately condemned the alleged attack.

Days later, actress Ellen Page suggested that Vice President Pence and other political leaders shouldered at least some of the blame because of anti-LGBT rhetoric.


“If you are in a position of power, and you hate people, and you want to cause suffering to them, and you go through the trouble. You spend your career trying to cause suffering — what do you think is going to happen?” the Academy Award nominee said in a viral interview with Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show."

But authorities said Thursday it was all a lie and "publicity stunt" — that the 36-year-old actor paid the men $3,500 to orchestrate the attack against him in an attempt to gain notoriety and boost his “Empire” paycheck. Smollett maintains his innocence, according to his lawyers.

Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV critic and the author of “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation," told The Hill if it’s true that Smollett coordinated a hoax attack, it could be used as fresh fuel against Trump critics by the president and his supporters.

“I’m sure that there'll be an attempt to perhaps turn Jussie Smollett’s name into a brand, the same way Trump says ‘fake news,’” Deggans said.

Trump already weighed in on developments in the case.

“What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” Trump demanded in a tweet directed at Smollett on Thursday.

Ann Coulter took to Twitter after Smollett’s arrest to declare there was no such thing as hate crimes. “Alright, this particular hate crime turned out to be a hoax, but let's remember, ALL OF THEM are hoaxes,” the conservative firebrand wrote.

“These are people who would be advocating against the idea of hate crimes anyway, regardless of what incidents actually happen,” Deggans said of Coulter and other likely conservative responses.

“What it does is it creates a media moment that allows people who want to argue against this notion. It gives them some oxygen in the same way that you might have a smoking ember, and if a gust of wind comes along, it blazes up," he continued.

But Rob Smith, a GOP strategist, told The Hill that the response to the controversy is clear evidence of a biased press.

“This hoax gives ammunition to Trump and his supporters only in that we’re very critical of the media environment we’re living in," he said.

“I think when you look at how giddily people hopped onto the details of this case,” said Smith, “people wanted to believe it so badly that they ran with it.”

2020 White House hopefuls Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSpeculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Conway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments Democratic rivals sharpen attacks as Bloomberg rises MORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisConway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Beleaguered Biden turns to must-win South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.) on Jan. 29, the same day of the alleged attack, called it a "modern-day lynching."

Many voices are now warning that Smollett's case could have repercussions for true victims of hate crimes.

“He has absolutely no space, none whatsoever, to reassert himself in any of these conversations that he’s inserted himself with if this is indeed, has been a hoax," former actor and commentator LZ Granderson said of Smollett on Thursday in an interview with CNN.

“I, for one, as an openly gay black man in the media, I am incredibly frustrated, angry, upset that someone would use their platform in this way to promote only themselves," Granderson said, blasting Smollett for positioning "himself as a leader of a cause while also doing this sort of thing."


Harris on Thursday said she was "sad, frustrated, and disappointed" by the developments in Smollett's case and warned that despite the allegedly false report, "hate crimes are on the rise in America."

“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," she said.

Meghan McCain told “The View” audience that a phony attack story from Smollett would have a lasting impact on real victims.

“There has done really long-term damage for real people who are victims of hate crimes,” the daytime TV co-host said. “Every hate crime coming forth.”

Along with roiling Washington, the Smollett case — which has been a burning hot topic on countless cable news shows and in the rest of the media — comes just days ahead of Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. The 91st annual Academy Awards will be held in Los Angeles on Sunday, and the show has not shied away from political controversy in the past.

But with the awards show without a host for the first time in three decades, the Smollett saga might not be addressed from the Oscars stage.

“I would hope that if it does come up,” said Deggans, “it comes up in the context of encouraging people who’ve been victimized to speak out, even in the face of what’s happening here.”