Leave it to Donald Trump to take the fun out of even conspiracy theories.
The life and death of Jeffrey Epstein was filled with enough lurid intrigue to stock a library full of John Grisham–style thrillers. By the available evidence, Epstein was both a child molester and a procurer who provided wealthy associates with the opportunity to rape minors. He was an erstwhile associate of many powerful and famous men, including Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Prince Andrew of the United Kingdom. He had murky ties with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which might have been a factor in the ridiculously lenient agreement he was offered in 2008 by then–US Attorney Alexander Acosta, who later had his position as secretary of labor torpedoed by revelations about the Epstein sweetheart deal. Finally, Epstein was, by Saturday morning, a dead man, a prisoner who apparently killed himself while in the custody of New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, a mysterious denouement to a sordid life that raised even more questions.
Given Epstein’s crimes and the still cloudy facts of his death, the immediate outpouring of conspiracy theories on social media was predictable. To this widespread speculation, Trump added his particular stamp, by elevating a tweet that accused Bill and Hillary Clinton of killing Epstein. The tweet contained the hashtags #ClintonBodyCount and #ClintonCrimeFamily, both of which encapsulate demented far-right theories that the Clintons are personally responsible for orchestrating countless murders. This fever-swamp fantasia now has the presidential stamp of approval.
Yet, even by Trumpian standards, the claims the president is making are bizarre. After all, Epstein was killed in a federal institution under Trump’s authority. Is Trump suggesting that he’s too incompetent or weak to stop the Clinton murder machine? This goes against the fantasy of a wily and omni-competent Trump promoted by his most glint-eyed supporters, the proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Trump has done us all a favor by once again spewing forth from his bottomless reservoir of spite, cruelty, and mendacity. By so efficiently showing how unmoored speculations can only serve the agenda of moving discussion away from evidence and rationality into the realm of partisan malice and smears, Trump reminds us why we should eschew conspiracy theories. This is true even when, as in the Epstein case, conspiracy theories are hard to resist.
The opposite of conspiracy theories is investigation, whether carried out by journalists, law enforcement, or Congress. If conspiracy theories are an intellectual fog, properly conducted investigations return us to the clarity of daylight. Even with Epstein dead and the criminal case against him effectively over, there is still plenty to investigate.
Congressional Democrats can take a leading role in these investigations, although it’s unclear whether they have the political fortitude to do so.
Epstein’s death demands answers. According to The New York Times, “Epstein was supposed to have been checked by the two guards in the protective housing unit every 30 minutes, but that procedure was not followed that night [of the apparent suicide], a law-enforcement official with knowledge of his detention said.” Epstein’s last days under incarceration are filled with riddles. Did he make an earlier suicide attempt? We don’t know: Epstein claimed he was attacked, and the prison has made no final determination whether his earlier near-death experience was a suicide attempt or an attack. In either case, Epstein should have been under closer watch than he was.
The Associated Press reports that Metropolitan Correctional Center was understaffed and that guards had been working overtime in the days before Epstein was found dead. We need an investigation into whether the apparent suicide was caused by poor staffing or by other factors.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings have both called for FBI and attorney general investigations into the circumstances of Epstein’s death. But neither prominent Democrat has promised congressional investigations. They should do so immediately.
Congress should also push ahead to investigate the deal Alexander Acosta made. Before Acosta’s resignation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted moves to impeach Acosta even as she called for his resignation. It’s time for Congress to revisit the 2008 deal Acosta made with Epstein, including whether Epstein got off easy because he was an informant for either intelligence agencies or federal law enforcement.
Federal prosecutor Geoffrey S. Berman emphasized his commitment to the Epstein case even after Epstein’s death. In a statement on Saturday, Berman wrote, “To those brave young women who have already come forward and to the many others who have yet to do so let me reiterate that we remain committed to standing for you, and our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment—which included a conspiracy count—remains ongoing.” In some ways, Berman has a freer hand. In terms of inspecting Epstein’s properties, which contain video and other records of his activities, law enforcement can now proceed without warrants.
An article by Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald, who has been at the forefront of reviving the Epstein case and breaking news about it, clarified who these possible co-conspirators might be: “With his death, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York will likely refocus their probe on [Ghislaine] Maxwell, Sarah Kellen Vickers, Adriana Ross and Lesley Groff—all of whom allegedly helped run Epstein’s operation in the mid- to late-2000s. Another woman, Nadia Marcinkova, who is now a commercial pilot, was accused of sexually abusing some of the underage girls.”
In an interview, Brown made the intriguing observation that with Epstein’s death, Epstein employees who signed non-disclosure agreements with him are no longer legally forbidden from talking about what they saw. This creates an opportunity not just for law enforcement but also for journalists. Finally, Epstein’s victims can still carry forward civil litigation to receive compensation from his estate.
Jeffrey Epstein may be dead, but there are still avenues to pursue justice: to uncover the extent of his crimes, to locate possible accomplices, and to put the spotlight on institutions that allowed him to flourish and also, in the end, to evade a final courtroom reckoning.