She was First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. She’s the co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and chairs the Recording Academy’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. But in the past few weeks, Tina Tchen has become best known as the curious link between Jussie Smollett and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
On Tuesday, Foxx’s office unexpectedly dropped all 16 charges of disorderly conduct against Empire star Smollett, citing his 16 hours of “previous community service” and an agreement to forfeit his $10,000 bond to the city of Chicago. The ruling came as a shock to Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who blasted Foxx, labeling it “a whitewash of justice.”
It also turned the spotlight back on Tchen, who in early February emailed Foxx on behalf of the Smollett family with “concerns” about the investigation. Foxx responded that she convinced Superintendent Johnson “to reach out to the FBI to ask that they take over the investigation.” A member of the Smollett family then texted Foxx after Tchen sent them her phone number. This correspondence, presumably while Jussie was still considered a victim of a hate crime, ultimately led Foxx to publicly recuse herself from the investigation—except, as she revealed this week, she never legally stepped aside.
Amid the media hoopla, Tchen released a statement Wednesday that sought to minimize her involvement in the state’s attorney’s investigation. “My sole activity was to put the chief prosecutor in the case in touch with an alleged victim’s family who had concerns about how the investigation was being characterized in public,” the statement read.
This most recent twist in the unpredictable Smollett saga left many wondering who exactly is Tchen, a long-time power player in Washington D.C. and Chicago politics. It also prompted speculation as to whether other members of the Obama camp were working behind the scenes on Smollett’s behalf. “When you say that a bunch of Obama people are involved, the only person that we know of is Tina who made a connection, and that’s it,” Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Obama and a longtime friend of Tchen, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.” A source close to Tchen further claimed that she was not directed by anyone in the Obama camp to connect Foxx and the Smolletts.
Jarrett also denied any knowledge of why Tchen got involved. Though she campaigned alongside Jussie in November for then-Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, Jarrett says she’s not a family friend of the Smolletts, like Tchen. “I’m not privy to information pertaining to the case, so I don’t know anymore about it than anyone else,” she said. “But I’m not spending much of my time worrying either.”
On Thursday, the colleagues and pals of 30 years met up in Washington D.C. (they both split their time between the capital and Chicago). Jarrett and Tchen were joined by Jordan Brooks, a former Obama White House aide. She’s now the chief operating officer of The United State of Women, a women’s equality nonprofit. Jarrett and Tchen are co-chairs, having launched The United State of Women in 2016 as a White House summit.
“Her spirits were very good,” Jarrett said when asked about how Tchen was feeling on Thursday. Brooks added, “Tina’s always enthusiastic when we’re talking about gender equity.”
A native of Beachwood, Ohio, Tchen went to undergrad at Harvard before receiving her law degree at Northwestern University in 1984. She stayed in Chicago and became a partner at the law firm Skadden Arps, where she stayed for 23 years.
It’s during this period that she first met Jarrett and the Obamas. Michelle Obama was a senior vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where Jarrett served as chair of the board of trustees and Tchen had a seat. “She was a part of the Lakefront liberal progressive community,” Jarrett said, explaining that their fights for gender equity are rooted in being working single mothers. “She has an outstanding national reputation for being both an exceptional lawyer, an advocate for gender equity and a very decent human being,” Jarrett added.
Today, Tchen is one of the nation’s leading fixers. Uber’s general counsel Tony West brought her in to advise on sexual assault protocol following several scandals. “I’m grateful for her friendship and leadership,” West, a member of the Obama camp who served as Associate Attorney General of the United States, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. The Recording Academy also recruited Tchen to chair their Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. “She has an ability to build consensus among a wide variety of groups and agendas and give more voices an opportunity to be heard,” said Julie Swidler, task force member and EVP at Sony Music Entertainment.
Just last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center tapped her to investigate workplace cultures of sexual harassment and racism. “Tina Tchen’s extraordinary experience and qualifications will be indispensable in helping us build a more effective and just organization,” SPLC’s chair of the board of directors Bryan Fair said last week.
However, Tchen is best known post-White House as the co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. She and Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center have raised more than $25 million in donations since launching the fund on January 1, 2018. Though she did not attend the 2018 Golden Globes, where celebrities wore all black to raise awareness for Time’s Up (she was with a client in San Francisco), Tchen has become a Hollywood fixture.
It’s a change of pace for Tchen, who previously took a media back seat to the Obamas. “She speaks in ways that people can hear,” Goss Graves said.
But with the front-facing work has come ever more scrutiny. TMZ trailed Tchen Friday in Washington D.C.—though they didn’t get much out of her. “No comments. No interviews,” she said. Later that same day, Tchen declined to be interviewed by The Daily Beast for this article.
Per her word, Tchen has remained silent in the past few weeks aside from her statement. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, on the other hand, has issued multiple statements through her office and agreed to several interviews. She even told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, “is there regret that I engaged with the family member? Absolutely.”
It’s unclear if Tchen wishes she hadn’t said anything, but her close confidante Jarrett does have thoughts: “I have every confidence that Tina did exactly what she thought was right.”