09 Jul

Jeffrey Epstein Is the Ultimate Symbol of Plutocratic Rot

Powerful elites enabled the financier accused of trafficking underage girls.

By Michelle Goldberg Opinion Columnist

Protesters demonstrated with signs bearing the image of Jeffrey Epstein outside Federal District Court in New York on Monday.

CreditCreditStephanie Keith/Getty Images

In 2003, the journalist Vicky Ward profiled Jeffrey Epstein, the financier indicted Monday on charges of sexually abusing and trafficking underage girls, for Vanity Fair. Her piece painted him as an enigmatic Jay Gatsby type, a boy from a middle-class family in Brooklyn who had scaled the rungs of the plutocracy, though no one could quite figure out how he made his money. It detailed dubious business dealings and mentioned that Epstein often had lots of beautiful young women around. But it left out Ward’s most important finding.

Twelve years later, in The Daily Beast, Ward wrote about how, in the course of her reporting, two sisters allegedly preyed upon by Epstein, as well as their mother, had spoken to her on the record. But shortly before the story went to press, Ward wrote, the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter cut that section, saying, of Epstein, “He’s sensitive about the young women.” (In a statement on Monday, Carter said Ward’s reporting hadn’t been solid enough.)

Over the last couple of months, Ward told me, she’s started going through transcripts of the interviews about Epstein she did more than 16 years ago. “What is so amazing to me is how his entire social circle knew about this and just blithely overlooked it,” she said of his penchant for adolescents. While praising his charm, brilliance and generous donations to Harvard, those she spoke to, she said, “all mentioned the girls, as an aside.”

On Saturday evening, more than a decade after receiving a sweetheart plea deal in an earlier sex crime case, Epstein was arrested after getting off a private flight from Paris. He has been accused of exploiting and abusing “dozens” of minor girls, some as young as 14, and conspiring with others to traffic them. Epstein’s arrest was the rare event that gratified right and left alike, both because it seemed that justice might finally be done, and because each side has reason to believe that if Epstein goes down, he could bring some of its enemies with him.

Both sides are likely right. The Epstein case is first and foremost about the casual victimization of vulnerable girls. But it is also a political scandal, if not a partisan one. It reveals a deep corruption among mostly male elites across parties, and the way the very rich can often purchase impunity for even the most loathsome of crimes. If it were fiction, it would be both too sordid and too on-the-nose to be believable, like a season of “True Detective” penned by a doctrinaire Marxist.

Epstein socialized with Donald Trump, who in 2002 described him to New York Magazine as a “terrific guy” whom he’d known for 15 years. “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side,” said the future president. In 2000, a porter who worked next door to Epstein’s Manhattan home told a British newspaper, admiringly, “I often see Donald Trump and there are loads of models coming and going, mostly at night. It’s amazing.”

Jeffrey Epstein with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 1997.

CreditDavidoff Studios/Getty Images

Epstein also hung out with Bill Clinton, who rode on his jet several times. Ghislaine Maxwell, a close companion of Epstein who has been accused of working as his procurer, attended Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in 2010, long after Epstein’s exposure. Following his arrest on Saturday, Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tweeted, “It is quite likely that some of our faves are implicated but we must follow the facts and let the chips fall where they may.”

Among the mysteries of the Epstein case are why powerful prosecutors of both parties treated him with such leniency. Alexander Acosta, now Trump’s labor secretary, was the federal attorney who oversaw the deal Epstein received in 2008. Though facing potential federal charges that could have put him away for life, Epstein was allowed to plead to minor state charges instead, an arrangement that was kept secret from his victims. He served 13 months in a county jail, where he got to spend six days a week in his office on work-release. In February, a judge ruled that Acosta’s team’s handling of the case violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. (Naturally, Acosta still has his job.)

After Epstein served his time, he had to register as a sex offender. Inexplicably, the Manhattan district attorney’s office, under Democrat Cyrus Vance Jr., asked a judge to downgrade Epstein’s sex offender status from Level 3, the most serious, to Level 1, the least. The judge, stunned, refused. “I am a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” she said.

In a detention memo submitted on Monday, federal prosecutors outlined some of the evidence seized from a search of Epstein’s house on Saturday night. It included hundreds — possibly thousands — of sexually suggestive photographs of girls who appear underage, as well as hand-labeled compact discs with titles like “Girl pics nude,” and, with the names redacted, “Young [Name] + [Name].”

It seems, at first, astonishingly reckless for Epstein not just to allegedly keep such material, but to keep it in Manhattan, instead of, say, on his private Caribbean island. Maybe, however, it’s simply a sign of how protected he felt. “In my mind there has always been this huge question mark: What is Jeffrey Epstein’s leverage?” Ward said. If we find out, we’ll know just how rotten our rulers really are.

More from Opinion on Jeffrey Epstein:


VOX: The lawsuit accusing Trump of raping a 13-year-old girl, explained

The anonymous plaintiff dropped her lawsuit against Trump, the circumstances around which have been bizarre.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fifteen women have now gone on record to say that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them. Out of all of their stories, one is the most explosive and bizarre — a woman who says Trump violently raped her at an orgy when she was just 13 years old. But the horrific details of her accusation have gotten the least attention.

It seemed like that was all going to change Wednesday, when the woman, who has gone by the pseudonyms “Katie Johnson” and “Jane Doe,” was set to appear at a press conference at the law offices of Lisa Bloom, a high-profile civil rights attorney and TV commentator. But the woman didn’t come to the press conference. Bloom told a room full of waiting reporters that Johnson was afraid to show her face after receiving multiple death threats, and that they would have to reschedule.

Then on Friday, Bloom announced that Johnson had dropped her lawsuit:

It’s not uncommon for victims of sexual assault to want to preserve their anonymity, and dropping a lawsuit doesn’t mean admitting that the case had no merit. Jill Harth, who sued Trump for sexual assault in 1997, still stands by her claims even though she dropped the lawsuit. And it would indeed have been an intense couple of days for Johnson — Bloom said that her firm’s website was hacked, that Anonymous had claimed responsibility, and that death threats and a bomb threat came in afterwards.

It was the end of an incredibly strange case that featured an anonymous plaintiff who had refused almost all requests for interviews, two anonymous corroborating witnesses whom no one in the press had spoken to, and a couple of seriously shady characters — with an anti-Trump agenda and a penchant for drama — who had aggressively shopped the story around to media outlets for over a year.

Those shady characters — a former reality TV producer who calls himself “Al Taylor” and a “Never Trump” conservative activist named Steve Baer — had been mostly unsuccessful in getting the media to bite. There are a few very good reasons for that, which the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim succinctly summed up: Taylor and Baer have been really sketchy about the whole thing, and since the accuser is anonymous, journalists can’t do anything to verify her claims. The only journalist who has actually interviewed Johnson, Emily Shugerman at Revelist, came away confused and even doubting whether Johnson really exists.

Since a tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault came out in early October, a dozen named women have come forward with credible, similar-sounding allegations of Trump forcibly kissing or groping them in exactly the way he described on that tape. Johnson’s case was an outlier, with far more salacious allegations from a source that seems far less credible.

But Trump was still scheduled to answer those allegations in front of a judge on December 16. Now that’s not going to happen. And we may never learn anything more about the matter, unless and until Johnson decides to break her silence.

The lawsuit made horrifying allegations against both Trump and celebrity pedophile Jeffrey Epstein

Donald Trump Campaigns In Jacksonville, Florida

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Johnson claimed that Trump violently raped her when she was 13 at a 1994 orgy hosted by Jeffrey Epstein — the billionaire who was convicted in 2008 of soliciting an underage girl for prostitution and has been accused of having sex with more than 30 underage girls.

Johnson’s lawsuit mentioned Trump’s friendship with Epstein, and a comment Trump made in 2002 about their respective tastes in women: “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

The lawsuit alleged a number of charges against both Trump and Epstein, including rape, sexual abuse, assault and battery, and false imprisonment. Johnson said that when she was 13, Epstein lured her to parties at his apartment by promising “money and a modeling career.”

Johnson said Trump had sexual contact with her at four of those parties, including tying her to a bed and violently raping her in a “savage sexual attack.” The lawsuit said Johnson “loudly pleaded” with Trump to stop, but that he responded by “violently striking Plaintiff in the face with his open hand and screaming that he would do whatever he wanted.”

After that, Trump allegedly threatened to harm or kill Johnson and her family if she ever told anyone. Johnson said Trump told her he could make them “disappear” like Maria — a 12-year-old girl Johnson says Trump also forced her to have sexual contact with, and whom Johnson hadn’t seen since that encounter.

Johnson also accused Epstein of raping her “anally and vaginally despite her loud pleas to stop,” and that he “attempted to strike Plaintiff about the head with his closed fists while he angrily screamed that he, Defendant Epstein, rather than Defendant Trump, should have been the one who took Plaintiff’s virginity.”

The court filings also included a statement from “Tiffany Doe,” another anonymous woman, who said that she witnessed the rapes and procured the young girls for the parties, and “Joan Doe,” a classmate of the victim who said she was told about the rapes during the following school year. Tiffany Doe said that Epstein and Trump knew that Johnson was 13.

An earlier lawsuit Johnson filed against Trump was somewhat fishy

The lawsuit Johnson filed in New York was actually her second attempt to sue Trump and Epstein. The first was in California in April of this year, a claim Johnson filed herself that got thrown out on technical grounds — she’d filed a civil rights suit, but failed to actually state an applicable civil rights claim.

There were a couple of odd things about that lawsuit. The address listed on court documents as Johnson’s was actually a foreclosed, abandoned home, and the phone number was disconnected. Maybe Johnson was just using a fake address because she was homeless; she was, after all, also described as being indigent. But it’s fishy.

The lawsuit also described details that were so lurid — “almost cinematic in their depravity,” as Jezebel’s Anna Merlan put it — that they’re almost hard to believe. Some of those details were omitted from the second lawsuit, the New York Daily News reported:

Gone from the new lawsuit is an allegation that Trump threw money at the plaintiff for an abortion when she expressed fear about getting pregnant after being raped. Gone, too, is the allegation that Trump called co-defendant and accused pedophile and sex party host Jeffrey Epstein a “Jew bastard,” and her request for $100 million in damages.

But the details that remain in the second lawsuit — filed with the help of New Jersey patent attorney Thomas Meagher, who says he volunteered to take the case after reading about it — are still shocking.

“The allegations are not only categorically false, but disgusting at the highest level and clearly framed to solicit media attention or, perhaps, are simply politically motivated,” Trump told RadarOnline in April, after the first lawsuit was filed. “There is absolutely no merit to these allegations. Period.”

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