Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, how far the Jeffrey Epstein prosecution might be able to reach.
In the wake of Jeffrey Epstein’s indictment in New York, a number of powerful people formerly in Epstein’s orbit — Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Bill Clinton, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and Donald Trump — have been scrambling in the face of renewed scrutiny. What will Acosta’s exit and the new Epstein prosecution shake up, and what might they not be able to change?
Perhaps at long last a serial rapist and pedophile may be brought to justice, more than a dozen years after he was first charged with crimes that have brutalized countless girls and women. But what won’t change is this: the bipartisan cesspool of elites, many of them in New York, that allowed Epstein to flourish with impunity all these years. It’s the same transactional favor network that facilitated Trump’s rise in the 1970s and 1980s and that I wrote about last year in my piece on his mentor Roy Cohn. Indeed, some of the same bold-faced names that swarmed around Trump, Cohn, or both back then, whether at Studio 54 or Trump Tower, can be found in Epstein’s notorious black book.
Compared to the Manhattan heavy hitters who went to Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire, the now-departed Alex Acosta was a mere flunky to be muscled (easily) by Epstein’s attorneys in the Southern District of Florida. But if Acosta is transparently a fool, a patsy, and a liar, how do we explain the others who looked the other way or kissed Epstein’s ass even as they noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it be a free ride on that airborne “Lolita express” or some other form of monetary largesse, or entrée to the extravagant celebrity soirees he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh.
If you watch Fox News, you will believe that Bill Clinton was Epstein’s No. 1 pal and enabler. If you watch MSNBC, this scandal is usually all about Trump. In fact both presidents are guilty (at the very least) of giving Epstein cover and credibility, though the full extent of their respective exposure, moral and legal, won’t be known unless and until we get many more facts. Certainly the circumstantial evidence is creepy. Unsurprisingly Trump now asserts that he’s “not a fan” of Epstein even though their years-long friendship is profusely documented as far back as the early 1990s, when they were the sole men present at a 1992 “calendar girl competition” that Trump instigated at Mar-a-Lago and where more than two dozen “girls” were flown in. Clinton also appears to be trying to rewrite history. This week he released a statement saying that he had taken just four “trips” on Epstein’s jet even though FAA-mandated flight logs reportedly show that he was present on more than two dozen. In a letter written to prosecutors by two Epstein lawyers, Gerald Lefcourt and the inevitable Alan Dershowitz, in 2007, Epstein was named as a founding donor to the Clinton Global Initiative even though, as Marc Fisher reported in the Washington Post, “his name does not appear in public documents detailing the initiative’s leadership.” That same letter said that Clinton and Epstein spent a month on an African trip “to boost AIDS awareness.” A month? Clinton’s explanation at the time — he described Epstein as “a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science” — is not borne out by reality. Among other problems with this story, no one can find any evidence that Epstein was a significant trader in markets, global or otherwise, since his brief early stint at Bear Stearns in the 1970s.
As for philanthropy, Epstein did give $6.5 million to Harvard, which Harvard, recently famous for disciplining a law professor on Harvey Weinstein’s defense team, decided to keep even after Epstein was first charged on sex offenses in 2006. (Harvard’s president from 2001–2006, Lawrence Summers, hosted Epstein during his frequent visits to Cambridge.) And Harvard is far from the only elite institution that has questions to address. Back in New York, there’s the Council on Foreign Relations, which harbored Epstein as a member, and the Dalton School, which hired Epstein to teach math in the 1970s even though he did not have a college degree. The Dalton headmaster at the time was William Barr’s father, Donald Barr, who would soon be pushed out. Did Epstein prey on students at Dalton? If so, did Donald Barr look the other way, like his counterparts at a rival elite New York school, Horace Mann, when its students were sexually victimized by staff in that same period? If so, that would be consistent with his son who, as Trump’s attorney general, tried to protect Acosta.
Both Republicans and Democrats, each locked in their own echo chambers, are pursuing this scandal as a partisan issue, on the apparent misapprehension that only the other party will be found guilty of harboring allies of a serial rapist. A rare exception among Democrats in D.C. is the DNC official Christine Pelosi (the Speaker’s daughter), who warned this week that “some of our faves” could go down with Epstein; nonetheless, the House Democrats have called for Acosta hearings likely to blow up in their faces. On the GOP side, only a single senator, Ben Sasse, questioned Acosta’s behavior this week, and even he (with characteristic cowardice) stopped short of calling for the Labor secretary’s resignation. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, meanwhile, portrayed Acosta as a political victim — a stand that, if nothing else, is in keeping with the ethos of its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, who did nothing as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly carried out their reign of sexual terror at Fox News.
There are so many unanswered questions about the Epstein affair. One umbrella question is whether the bipartisan crowd that cleared a path for him will cover its tracks before we can get answers — not just Clinton and Trump and all the New York elites who drank at Epstein’s trough, but also (among others) lawyers like the New York prosecutor Cy Vance Jr., whose office tried to downgrade Epstein’s sex-offender status; Ken Starr, who tried to pressure Republican Justice Department officials to kill the Epstein case; and Dershowitz, who tried to pressure the Pulitzer Prizes to shut out the Miami Herald for its epic investigative reporting that cracked opened the Epstein case anew.
While so many of the big fish in this vast sewer remain at large, we must meanwhile hope that Acosta, like Kirstjen Nielsen and any other Trump official who enabled the brutalization of children, is shunned by the private sector and polite society as Epstein, with tragic consequences, was not.