The Epstein case is a reminder of the depraved milieu from which our president sprang.
On Monday, Donald Trump disinvited the then-British ambassador, Kim Darroch, from an official administration dinner with the emir of Qatar, because he was mad about leaked cables in which Darroch assessed the president as “insecure” and “incompetent.”
There was room at the dinner, however, for Trump’s friend Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who was charged in a prostitution sting this year. Kraft was allegedly serviced at a massage parlor that had once been owned by Li Yang, known as Cindy, a regular at Trump’s club Mar-a-Lago. Yang is now the target of an F.B.I. inquiry into whether she funneled Chinese money into Trump’s political operation.
An ordinary president would not want to remind the world of the Kraft and Yang scandals at a time when Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest has hurled Trump’s other shady associations back into the limelight. Epstein, indicted on charges of abusing and trafficking underage girls, was a friend of Trump’s until the two had a falling out, reportedly over a failed business deal. The New York Times reported on a party Trump threw at Mar-a-Lago whose only guests were him, Epstein and around two dozen women “flown in to provide the entertainment.”
Epstein, of course, was also linked to the administration in another way. The president’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, was the United States attorney who oversaw a secret, obscenely lenient deal that let Epstein escape federal charges for sex crimes over a decade ago. On Friday, two days after a tendentious, self-serving news conference defending his handling of the Epstein case, Acosta finally resigned.
Even with Acosta gone, however, Epstein remains a living reminder of the depraved milieu from which the president sprang, and of the corruption and misogyny that continue to swirl around him. Trump has been only intermittently interested in distancing himself from that milieu. More often he has sought, whether through strategy or instinct, to normalize it.
This weekend, Trump National Doral, one of the president’s Florida clubs, planned to host a fund-raiser allowing golfers to bid on strippers to serve as their caddies. Though the event was canceled when it attracted too much attention, it’s at once astounding and not surprising at all that it was approved in the first place.
In truth, a stripper auction is tame by the standard of gross Trump stories, since at least the women were willing. Your eyes would glaze over if I tried to list every Trump associate implicated in the beating or sexual coercion of women. Still, it’s worth reviewing a few lowlights, because it’s astonishing how quickly the most lurid misdeeds fade from memory, supplanted by new degradations.
Acosta, you’ll remember, got his job because Trump’s previous pick, Andrew Puzder, withdrew following the revelation that his ex-wife, pseudonymous and in disguise, had appeared on an Oprah episode about “High Class Battered Women.” (She later retracted her accusations.)
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, was once charged with domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness. (The case was dropped when his former wife failed to appear in court.) After Bill Shine, a former co-president of Fox News, was forced from his job for his involvement in Fox’s sprawling sexual harassment scandals, Trump hired him.
The White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned last year after it was revealed that both of his ex-wives had accused him of abuse. The White House speechwriter David Sorensen resigned after his ex-wife came forward with stories of his violence toward her.
Elliott Broidy, a major Trump fund-raiser who became the Republican National Committee deputy finance chairman, resigned last year amid news that he’d paid $1.6 million as hush money to a former playboy model, Shera Bechard, who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant. (In a lawsuit, Bechard said Broidy had been violent.) The casino mogul Steve Wynn, whom Trump installed as the R.N.C.’s finance chairman, resigned amid accusations that he’d pressured his employees for sex. He remains a major Republican donor.
In 2017, Trump tapped the former chief executive of AccuWeather, Barry Myers, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Then The Washington Post discovered a report from a Department of Labor investigation into Myers’s company, which found a culture of “widespread sexual harassment” that was “severe and pervasive.” The Senate hasn’t yet voted on Myers’s nomination, but the administration hasn’t withdrawn it.
And just this week, a senior military officer came forward to accuse Gen. John Hyten, Trump’s nominee to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of derailing her career when she turned down his sexual advances. “My life was ruined by this,” she told The Associated Press. (The Air Force reportedly cleared him of misconduct.)
Trump will sometimes jettison men accused of abuse when they become a public relations liability. But his first instinct is empathy, a sentiment he seems otherwise unfamiliar with. In May, he urged Roy Moore, the theocratic Alabama Senate candidate accused of preying on teenage girls, not to run again because he would lose, but added, “I have NOTHING against Roy Moore, and unlike many other Republican leaders, wanted him to win.” The president has expressed no sympathy for victims in the Epstein case, but has said he felt bad for Acosta.
Trump seems to understand, at least on a limbic level, that the effect of this cavalcade of scandal isn’t cumulative. Instead, each one eclipses the last, creating a sense of weary cynicism that makes shock impossible to sustain.
It was just three weeks ago that E. Jean Carroll, a well-known writer, accused Trump of what amounted to a violent rape in the mid-1990s, and two friends of hers confirmed that she’d told them about it at the time. In response, Trump essentially said she was too unattractive to rape — “No. 1, she’s not my type” — and claimed that he’d never met her. That was a provable lie; there’s a photograph of them together. It didn’t matter. The story drifted from the headlines within a few days.
Since Epstein’s arrest, many people have wondered how he was able to get away with his alleged crimes for so long, given all that’s publicly known about him. But we also know that the president boasts about sexually assaulting women, that over a dozen have accused him of various sorts of sexual misconduct, and one of them has accused him of rape. We know it, and we know we can’t do anything about it, so we live with it and grow numb. Maybe someday justice will come and a new generation will wonder how we tolerated behavior that was always right out in the open.
A strange thing happened when Jeffrey Epstein came back to New York City after being branded a sex offender: His reputation appeared to rise.
In 2010, the year after he got out of a Florida prison, Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos dined at his Manhattan mansion with a British royal. The next year, Mr. Epstein was photographed at a “billionaire’s dinner” attended by tech titans like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. A page popped up on Harvard University’s website lauding his accomplishments, and superlative-filled news releases described his lofty ambitions as he dedicated $10 million to charitable causes.
Powerful female friends served as social guarantors: Peggy Siegal, a gatekeeper for A-list events, included him in movie screenings, and Dr. Eva Andersson-Dubin, a champion of women’s health, maintained a friendship that some felt gave him credibility. Mr. Epstein put up a website showing Stephen Hawking and other luminaries at a science gathering he had organized.
“If you looked up Jeffrey Epstein online in 2012, you would see what we all saw,” Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, said in an interview. He seemed “like an ex-con who had done well on Wall Street,” who was close to the Clintons and gave money to academic pursuits, Dr. Botstein said. That was why, he noted, Bard accepted an unsolicited $50,000 in 2011 for its high schools, followed later that year and in 2012 by another $75,000 in donations.
Over a decade ago, when Mr. Epstein was very publicly accused of sexually abusing girls as young as 14, he minimized the legal consequences with high-powered lawyers, monetary settlements that silenced complaints, and a plea deal that short-circuited an F.B.I. investigation and led to the resignation announcement on Friday of a Trump cabinet official who had overseen the case as a prosecutor. Socially, Mr. Epstein carried out a parallel effort, trying to preserve his reputation as a financier, philanthropist and thinker.
Some of the respect Mr. Epstein, 66, drew on was manufactured, the accomplishments recycled. The gathering with Dr. Hawking had taken place back in 2006. The positive online notices appeared to have been paid for by Mr. Epstein: A writer employed by his foundation churned out the news releases, and Drew Hendricks, the supposed author of a Forbes story calling Mr. Epstein “one of the largest backers of cutting edge science,” conceded in an interview that he was given $600 to post the pre-written article under his own name. (Forbes removed the piece after The New York Times published its article.)
Though some institutions and prominent people, including Donald J. Trump, said they shunned him, Mr. Epstein’s tactics largely worked. Over the past week, as the scope of his alleged offenses, involving dozens of victims in the early 2000s, became clearer after a new indictment in New York, the story of Mr. Epstein and his social circles shows how some people were willing to welcome back — or at least give a pass to — a handsome rich man who had been convicted of a crime involving a minor.
Mr. Epstein’s social strategy proceeded from his legal one. The lenient agreement he reached with prosecutors — his plea involved one girl, a 17-year-old, and the crime was prostitution, which made it look like the teenager was in part to blame — gave others a reason to dismiss his wrongdoing, decide he had already paid his penalty or not question what had happened.
At the top of New York society, plenty of people have “weird chitchat attached to their name,” said Candace Bushnell, the “Sex and the City” writer. She said in an interview that she looked into rumors about Mr. Epstein for The New York Observer in 1994 but stopped reporting after she was thrown out of his townhouse and threatened.
For years to come, people brushed such stories aside. “You’d think, ‘It couldn’t possibly be true,’” she said.
A Renaissance Man
In March 2006, a year after allegations of sexual misconduct were first reported to the police in Palm Beach, Fla., Mr. Epstein underwrote the kind of elite event he prized.Though Mr. Epstein never attended Harvard, it became a recurring theme in his self-styled image. He made donations and mingled with its faculty, including the law professor Alan Dershowitz, right.CreditRick Friedman/Corbis, via Getty Images
It was a five-day gathering in the Caribbean of some of the world’s top scientists, including Dr. Hawking, to share ideas about gravity and cosmology, with scuba and catamaran excursions on the side. One evening, the participants had dinner on the beach at Mr. Epstein’s private island.
Some of the scientists noticed that Mr. Epstein “was always followed by a group of something like three or four young women,” as Alan Guth, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it in an email to The Times, but they did not probe further.
Over a decade later, after Mr. Epstein was released from the Palm Beach County jail, he employed a similar strategy. He surrounded himself with prestige and counted on others to look past what he had done.
“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender,’ Mr. Epstein told The New York Post in 2011. “It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
Ms. Siegal recalled, “He said he’d served his time and assured me that he changed his ways.”
For someone purported to have vast resources at his disposal, Mr. Epstein’s early endeavors to improve his image were oddly unpolished. In 2010 he created the first of at least a half-dozen websites, with names like JeffreyEpsteinScience.com and JeffreyEpsteinEducation.com, dedicated to extolling his philanthropy and fashioning himself a patron of technology and medicine.
The websites looked amateurish, the photos of him meeting with top scientists dated to years before his time in prison, and the name of the Harvard professor who led a research center Mr. Epstein had funded, Martin A. Nowak, was often misspelled.
At the same time, Mr. Epstein launched a public-relations campaign composed of a blizzard of news releases, along with canned write-ups designed to resemble news stories. For the most part, the announcements, which circulated from 2012 to 2014, were recycled accounts of donations he had made in the early 2000s and did not reflect new charitable giving. The earliest releases listed Mr. Epstein’s personal contact information, though later ones had the name of a media consultant. Some of the ersatz news stories found their way onto sites like Forbes and The Huffington Post.
Of all the names Mr. Epstein dropped, perhaps the most frequent was Harvard’s.
Though Mr. Epstein never attended Harvard or even got a college degree, the university has been a recurring theme in his self-styled image as a Renaissance man of finance and science. He found Harvard’s doors open to him once he opened his wallet, with donations starting in the early 1990s that eventually totaled at least $7.5 million.
He took to wearing Harvard sweatshirts, gravitated to mingling with celebrity scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Pinker, and developed friendships with the former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers and the law professor Alan Dershowitz, who later helped defend him. (In civil suits, Mr. Dershowitz has been accused of having sex with two of Mr. Epstein’s accusers; he has denied the allegations and accused their lawyers of malfeasance.) Mr. Epstein, a former math teacher, even popped up for lunchtime discussions among scientists at a Harvard cafeteria, Dr. Pinker said in an interview, adding, “He weighted his own opinions as much as scholarly literature.”
By 2014, a page appeared on the website for Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, the initiative Mr. Epstein had financed 11 years earlier with a $6.5 million donation (and a pledge of $23.5 million more that never came), featuring a studio portrait, his résumé and links to his websites. “He is one of the largest supporters of individual scientists, including theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Marvin Minsky, Seth Lloyd and Nobel Laureates Gerard ’t Hooft, David Gross and Frank Wilczek,” the Harvard bio said, in what appears to be an exaggerated claim.
A Harvard spokesman said he did not know who was responsible for the page, which has since been removed
That same year, Mr. Epstein resurfaced at a prestigious science conference. Dr. Pinker, who sat at the same table as Mr. Epstein, said he was treated as an important donor to be wooed.
A Brand-New Start of It
Although he was often described as a billionaire, Mr. Epstein did not come close in his philanthropy to other superrich people. His charitable foundations rarely gave away more than $1 million a year during the 2000s, according to tax records, and much of it was money others had given him.
In 2015, a new foundation Mr. Epstein created, Gratitude America, received a $10 million infusion and started making donations. The source of the money is something of a mystery. Like his earlier giving, which was financed largely by $21 million in donations to his foundation from a close friend and business associate, the retail magnate Leslie H. Wexner, the 2015 money did not appear to have come from Mr. Epstein.
Tax records show the $10 million donation came from a limited liability company located at a 22-story building on Park Avenue in Manhattan that also houses the family foundation of Leon Black, a billionaire investor and chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. He has known Mr. Epstein for years. In 1999, Mr. Black gave $166,000 to another of Mr. Epstein’s charities, and Mr. Epstein once served on the board of Mr. Black’s own foundation. The two men also appear in photos at a 2007 meeting with scientists at Harvard.
It could not be determined whether Mr. Black was responsible for the $10 million donation. His representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Dr. Eva Andersson-Dubin, founder of the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai, gave Mr. Epstein another form of currency.
The physician, who served for many years as an in-house doctor of NBC, is a breast cancer survivor who used her experience as inspiration for a holistic treatment approach. A former model and Miss Sweden, she is the wife of Glenn Dubin, a founder of Highbridge Capital Management who is No. 1168 on the Forbes billionaires list. The two are known for their philanthropy, and in 2006 they bought Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s former apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue, a symbol of their standing in the city.
Dr. Andersson-Dubin also has a long history with Mr. Epstein, and has remained loyal to him since the 1980s.
At that time, she was putting herself through medical school. She became his girlfriend and, with his encouragement, put modeling aside to focus on her studies. They remained close after she married in 1994. After Mr. Epstein’s release from jail, she continued to socialize with him; those in her circle were aware of their continued friendship.
Despite longstanding news reports about Mr. Epstein’s behavior, Dr. Andersson-Dubin said through a spokeswoman that she was shocked by the recent news. “She’s a very loyal friend and didn’t abandon him after 2008, but the frequency of their contact was less,” the spokeswoman said. The new allegations “are completely counter to the person she is familiar with.”
Their relationship went a long way toward dispersing the cloud around him, according to some observers. If Mr. Epstein had Dr. Andersson-Dubin’s friendship, it suggested to others that perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.The publicist Peggy Siegal, left, and Dr. Eva Andersson-Dubin supported Mr. Epstein after his release from prison. Leon Black, the chairman of MoMA, donated to his foundation in 1999.CreditPresley Ann Slack/Patrick McMullan; Rob Kim/FilmMagic; Dimitrios Kambouris/Museum of Modern Art via Getty Images
Ms. Siegal, perhaps the city’s most prominent professional hostess, took a more active role, using her gate-keeping powers to usher Mr. Epstein, a friend, into screenings and events.
In an interview, she said that her relationship with Mr. Epstein was not a paid one: They had developed a rapport over the years, with him often quizzing her about films and other topics. “I was a kind of plugged-in girl around town who knew a lot of people,” she said. “And I think that’s what he wanted from me, a kind of social goings-on about New York.”
After he left prison, she had no trouble continuing the friendship. She knew other people who had served time and then resurrected their lives, she said. “The culture before #MeToo was — ‘You’ve done your time, now you’re forgiven.’”
At screenings, Mr. Epstein would shuffle in at the last minute, sit in the back, speak to no one and leave before the party, Ms. Siegal said. He had no ambitions for New York’s party circuit, she and others said, and preferred to entertain people in his own space.
But her invitations helped. In 2010, just after Mr. Epstein left prison, he attended a screening of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Soon a flattering blind item appeared in The New York Post about how he was “greeted warmly by guests.”
“It was the first time he has been out in two years, but nobody blinked he was there,” an anonymous source told the newspaper.
A few months later, Ms. Siegal threw the dinner party at Mr. Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion for Prince Andrew, giving Ms. Couric, Mr. Stephanopoulos, Chelsea Handler and others a chance to speak to a member of the royal family a few months before the much-anticipated wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
“It was just one of those strange nights,” Ms. Handler said in an interview. Ms. Siegal had not emphasized who was hosting, several guests recalled. “The invitation was positioned as, ‘Do you want to have dinner with Prince Andrew?’” Ms. Siegal said. Mr. Epstein did not speak much. Dr. Andersson-Dubin was there, but others said they barely knew who Mr. Epstein was or what he had been convicted of.
Two of the other guests have also been accused of sexual misconduct, then or since: the television host Charlie Rose and Woody Allen, who attended along with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn. (“So how did the two of you meet?” Ms. Handler recalled asking the couple.) Soon after, outraged headlines appeared about Prince Andrew’s associating with Mr. Epstein, a sex offender.
In a recent email, Mr. Stephanopoulos said he regretted attending. “That dinner was the first and last time I’ve seen him,” he said, referring to Mr. Epstein. “I should have done more due diligence. It was a mistake to go.”
After the #MeToo era dawned in 2017, others were starting to feel less comfortable with Mr. Epstein. The Miami Herald published an investigation that spurred new interest in the case. Ms. Siegal began to distance herself. It was obvious that he was going to face renewed scrutiny, she said, but “he was in complete denial.”
Others echoed that description. Just three months ago, as federal prosecutors were closing in with new charges, Mr. Epstein had a conversation with R. Couri Hay, a publicist, about continuing to improve his reputation. Mr. Epstein asserted that what he was convicted of did not constitute pedophilia, said Mr. Hay, who declined to represent him.
The girls he had sex with were “tweens and teens,” Mr. Epstein told him.
There’s no shortage, I realize, of ways of detecting falsity in contemporary politicians, but I’ve come upon one that I find most helpful. The more politicians use the phrase “the American people,” I believe, the less they are to be trusted.
The phrase has been cropping up with an impressive regularity in recent months. From the Democrats we hear that “the American people” want to have an unredacted version of the Mueller report, that “the American people” need the past six (or is it 10?) years of Donald Trump’s tax returns made public, that “the American people” deserve to have former White House counsel Don McGahn, former special counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General William Barr testify before Congress.
Across the aisle, the Republicans confidently inform us that “the American people” aren’t interested in any of these things, that instead “the American people” are interested in health care, the economy and immigration—the bread and butter, the really serious issues of the day.
As an American person, I have a difficult time believing that Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy have their fingers on my, so to say, American pulse. None speak for me, and I find it hard to believe they speak for the vast congeries of my confreres who go by the name of “the American people.” I feel confident that as far as this American person and most of the rest of us are concerned, the politicians in both parties could not give a flying you-know-what about what we want, need, deserve or are really interested in.
What each of our two parties is chiefly concerned about, and has been over the past two years, is putting down, degrading and humiliating the other party. Since Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election, the Democrats have been seeking a way to nullify Mr. Trump’s victory. He and the Republicans, meanwhile, have done all they can to ensure that the Democrats are never viewed as anything other than pettifogging, obstructionist, malignant—to use one of our president’s favorite words—creeps.
Politics, which Aristotle defined as the practical science for making citizens happy, just now are about little more than intramural squabbling, and appeals to “the American people” are little more than a cover, a shield, a phony justification blithely used by both parties to keep this dreary game going.
With sanctimony having replaced humor, the only thing left to laugh at is the farce of politics itself.
.. watching on YouTube the comedian Bill Maher talk about Donald Trump’s marriage. If you don’t share Mr. Maher’s politics, you are likely to find him an odious, even loathsome character, for he doesn’t really exist outside politics. His standard tone is mockery, his modus operandi to lacerate his targets with obscenities, flash a nervous smile, and then bask in applause from his audience.
.. Yet to have taken what I think of as the Trumpian option in their comedy has rendered these comedians charmless while strikingly limiting their audiences to those who share their politics.
.. I asked a great many people to name five persons in public life they thought charming. No one could do it.
.. That the late-night talk-show hosts are ready to give up a large share of the audience to indulge their politics is something new in American comedy.
.. when Bob Hope found himself, because of his support for the Vietnam War, aligned with Richard Nixon, many of his most steadfast fans deserted him.
.. Enough people must share the views of these hosts to keep the careers of Maher, Colbert, Kimmel & Co. afloat, which is to say to keep their ratings high enough to be commercially viable. Yet these insufficiently funny comedians, with their crude political humor, do little more than add to the sad divisiveness that is rending the country. Something, surely, has been lost if one can no longer turn to comedy as a relief from the general woes of life and the greater farce that has for some years now been playing out in our everyday politics.