The sting in the Epstein tale

The sting in the Epstein tale

Were life a Hollywood movie, Jeffrey Epstein’s death would be the moral finale. The bad guy gets what he deserves and his scores (hundreds?) of victims can finally exhale. In reality, Epstein’s apparent suicide opens several new storylines. None lend themselves to a natural ending. 

The first is about justice — and recompense — for his victims. That could take years and may never happen. Epstein’s absence also damages the chances of opening new criminal cases against his alleged co-conspirators, notably his former friend, Ghislaine Maxwell, whose whereabouts remain a mystery. The same applies to the many others alleged to have had sex with one of Epstein’s underage victims. Epstein’s survival could have resulted in a new plea bargain in which he agreed to testify against his friends. Such angles of inquiry may develop in the coming weeks. 

But what has most caught my attention is America’s reaction to his death. This comes in two parts. The first is the instinct to reach for the zaniest conspiracy theory. In this sense alone, the Epstein story is imitating Hollywood. The second is to filter Epstein’s life and death along crudely political lines. What is largely overlooked is the fact that Epstein managed to seduce the full breadth of America’s elites — Republican and Democrat, financial and educational, socialite and media.

Protesters outside the court in New York © Getty

The most absurd conspiracy theory of all was retweeted by Donald Trump — that the Clintons managed to have Epstein bumped off. The idea that the Clinton “mafia” could reach into the bureau of prisons and have someone killed is absurd. Coming from the US president it is grotesque. But the left was equally Pavlovian. I won’t mention names but my Twitter feed was clogged with otherwise empirically respectable figures tweeting, or retweeting, allegations that it was Trump who had Epstein killed. I confess it was dispiriting to read. Being educated ought to tell you to choose the probable explanations first — that a combination of Epstein’s shame and bureaucratic inefficiency led him to take his life. 

Educated elites often laugh at mainstream America’s weakness for conspiracy theory. There was nothing to differentiate their pet theories from Trump’s, or from sightings of Elvis on the Moon for that matter. People choose to believe in alien spacecraft, or that the Queen had Diana, Princess of Wales, killed, because it fills a psychological need: they want to believe it. Epstein’s death was no different. Right wingers blamed the Clintons. Leftwingers blamed Trump. We are all, it seems, increasingly vulnerable to magical thinking.

The fuller story appeals to a smaller audience: the general culpability of the elites. Epstein was friends with both the Clintons and the Trumps. He claimed to have introduced Melania to Donald. There is no corroboration for that but it is easy to imagine. He lent Bill Clinton his private jet on several occasions. Ghislaine Maxwell was invited to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Harvard also feted Epstein in spite of the fact that he had been convicted for soliciting prostitution (laughably, since it was so misleading).

Anyone who had done the mildest due diligence would have discovered Epstein took a plea bargain that shut down further investigation on dozens of paedophile allegations. Epstein donated $7.5m to Harvard. He is pictured socialising happily with many of that great university’s luminaries. He also managed to sweet talk Republican and Democratic federal attorneys, notably Alex Acosta, Trump’s former Labor Secretary, who was the Florida attorney who struck the inexplicably generous plea bargain back in 2008. Epstein was then somehow able to mesmerise Cyrus Vance Jnr, the US attorney for New York, when he transferred his light sentence from Florida to New York. Vance allowed Epstein to serve out his short sentence in his Manhattan residence. Young teenage girls continued to come and go.

What does this less dramatically-satisfying version of the story tell us? The conclusions are distressingly simple. Money gets you everywhere. Neither party, nor profession, nor ideology, is a helpful guide as to how individuals will behave. I wrote a few months ago about the Caligulan dimension to western culture nowadays. Well, here I go again . . . as a New Yorker, could you shed light on how Epstein managed to re-enter polite society? I imagine people have long since scrubbed any Epstein references from their social media.

Recommended reading

• My column this week looks at America’s failure to get behind Hong Kong’s brave protesters. It is not just about Trump, though he is stretching foreign policy amoralism to new limits. The liberal left, too, have been worryingly uninterested in the fate of Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

• Talking of which, Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, two of the most thoughtful of Democratic foreign policy wonks, have written their blueprint in Foreign Affairs on how the next president should handle China. This will be close to the consensus advice the next Democratic president will get. I don’t agree with all of it but it sounds a hell of a lot more thoughtful than Trump’s approach. 

The American Enterprise Institute’s Sadanand Dhume has written a bracing prognosis of Indian democracy following Narendra Modi’s abrupt move to rescind Kashmir’s autonomy — India’s only Muslim-majority state: “In the seven decades since it gained independence, India has done well to hold together a large, multilingual, multifaith nation with democratic principles. It’s too soon to say whether this will change, but if Kashmir is a portent for India’s future, we need to start worrying.”

Finally, I am late to Rana’s Monday column on the coming global downturn but I strongly commend it. Swampian readers with nothing to do on Sunday morning might catch up with me and Rana appearing together on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show in which we discuss recession fears, US-China trade and other subjects.

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, the only thing that it takes to get into New York society is money. That’s both the beauty and the horror of the place. Cities like Boston or New Orleans may still have their minuscule Brahmin class, but In the Big Apple, Mrs Astor’s ballroom is long gone. Anyone with enough chutzpah can climb the greasy pole here and put their name on a building. It’s an incredibly transactional place; perfect for both hardworking ambitious nobodies — and predators like Epstein.

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