Jeffrey Epstein — his perversions, and the perversions of justice swirling around his case — has lived for years on the margins of politics because of his association with two presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, among others in a long roster of people with respectable titles who spent time in his disreputable orbit.
Epstein’s death by what authorities called suicide in a Manhattan jail cell Saturday morning moved his case to the center of American politics.
One of the creepiest figures ever to vault to notoriety in modern culture is gone. But the convicted sex offender’s resonance as an emblem of the dark side of national character — a stimulant of suspicion, contempt, and paranoia, in addition to plain nausea — likely will last longer and with more intensity than if he had lived.
At a minimum, the Epstein death is now political even if one takes the details at face value: How was the person who at the moment was arguably the most prominent defendant awaiting trial in the world, who had already apparently attempted suicide a couple weeks earlier, able to take his life at a federal detention center? And who will be held accountable for the lapse?
More profoundly, the Epstein matter is now thoroughly political because many influential people are unable to take the details at face value. Indeed, they think it is simply naïve to do so.
The signature of American politics in the Trump era is a conviction — shared initially by many people who backed Trump but now embraced with similar fervor by many who loathe him — that things are not what they seem, that the official version of events is sustained by lies, that the institutions of American life are not on the level. Instead, by these lights, they are affected by personal or partisan interest at every turn.
This president’s political movement began with Trump’s disproven allegations that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and rose to power in an election that was manipulated by a Russian propaganda campaign, leading to an administration with near-daily denunciations of well-documented journalism as “fake news.” It is not an environment conducive to giving any official utterance by an authority figure the benefit of the doubt — especially when the facts are authentically murky, as they are so far in the Epstein death.
The furious reaction from mainstream public officials as well as a swelling chorus of prominent voices on social media — it wasn’t just from professional conspiracy theorists or guys at the bar — as soon as news of his death broke showed how pervasive this reaction is.
“If we were living in a paranoid fantasy universe,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman posted on Twitter, “I would be very suspicious about the Epstein suicide, even about whether it was really suicide. And you know what? The Epstein case itself shows that we *are* kind of living in a paranoid fantasy universe.”
“A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives ends up dead in his jail cell. How predictably….Russian,” tweeted MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
“Something stinks to high heaven,” agreed former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) “How does someone on suicide watch hang himself with no intervention? Impossible. Unless….”
Actually, Epstein had been on suicide watch after an earlier incident on July 23, but was no longer.
Why not is one of the “serious questions that must be answered,” according to a statement from William Barr, who said he was appalled to learn of the death at a facility overseen by his Justice Department and was ordering an investigation.
But it was immediately clear that many people would not regard an inquiry overseen by Barr as credible. His handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the president and Russian election interference left many people, including most congressional Democrats, convinced he see his role not as defending rule of law, or the executive branch broadly, but President Donald Trump’s personal interests.
“AG lied to us about the Mueller report in order to protect his boss, Trump. He was in charge of Epstein’s care. And we’re just supposed to trust him on this as news breaks that Mar-a-Lago was a site for trafficking,” wrote Neera Tanden, head of the liberal Center for American Progress, on Twitter.
“We have to ask who stood to gain from his permanent silence,” said Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe. “Who could he have incriminated in an effort to win favorable treatment from the Trump Justice Department?” He demanded that Barr recuse himself from “overseeing an inquiry that cuts this close to the bone.”
Trump has said he knew Epstein casually in New York and Palm Beach social circles — he was quoted years ago describing him as “a terrific guy” and joking about how he reputedly likes women “on the younger side” — but that he has had no contact for a decade or more.
Bill Clinton frequently used Epstein’s jet for foreign travel after leaving the White House but said he knew nothing about what has since been alleged to be Epstein’s serial predations of under-age girls and young women. To end a sex crimes case, Epstein in 2008 reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in Florida that was later excoriated as too lenient.
The reaction Saturday, including from people in prominent positions, was filled with frequently coarse innuendo about both men, with reactions split on familiar partisan lines. Trump himself Saturday evening was retweeting lurid Twitter posts asserting with no evidence a Clinton conspiracy connection to Epstein’s death, including an item from comedian Terrence K. Williams saying, “#Jeffrey Epstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead I see #TrumpBodyCount trending but we know who did this.”
Lynne Patton, a Trump appointee to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, posted on Instagram a picture of Epstein with a caption saying he’d been “Hillary’d!! P.S. Let me know when I’m supposed to feel badly about this.” Her post also invoked former Clinton White House lawyer Vincent Foster, who committed suicide in 1993, spawning years of official investigation and a generation of debunked conspiracy theories.
As ever, the rest of the world was watching — and evidently enjoying — the latest descent of U.S. politics into suspicion and disarray. Joe Uchill, who covers the national security dimension of technology for Axios, tweeted Saturday afternoon, “A Russian bot I keep tabs on is going in heavy on Epstein conspiracy theories.”
Christian Vasquez contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine