A couple of years ago, I was interviewing a former senior White House official when the name Jeffrey Epstein came up.
Unaware of my personal history with Epstein, this person assured me that the New York financier was no serious harm to anyone. He was a good guy. A charming guy. Useful, too. He knew a lot of rich Arabs, including the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and, further, he had clever ideas about creating bond issues for them. “OK, so he has a girl problem,” this person threw on, almost as an afterthought.
Epstein’s name, I was told, had been raised by the Trump transition team when Alexander Acosta, the former U.S. attorney in Miami who’d infamously cut Epstein a non-prosecution plea deal back in 2007, was being interviewed for the job of labor secretary. The plea deal put a hard stop to a separate federal investigation of alleged sex crimes with minors and trafficking.
“Is the Epstein case going to cause a problem [for confirmation hearings]?” Acosta had been asked. Acosta had explained, breezily, apparently, that back in the day he’d had just one meeting on the Epstein case. He’d cut the non-prosecution deal with one of Epstein’s attorneys because he had “been told” to back off, that Epstein was above his pay grade. “I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone,” he told his interviewers in the Trump transition, who evidently thought that was a sufficient answer and went ahead and hired Acosta. (The Labor Department had no comment when asked about this.)
And so, it seemed—until the news of Epstein’s arrest on Saturday for allegedly trafficking minors—thus continuing a pattern of blatant exceptionalism that surrounded him, and his social and business nexus.
For almost two decades, for some nebulous reason, whether to do with ties to foreign intelligence, his billions of dollars, or his social connections, Epstein, whose alleged sexual sickness and horrific assaults on women without means or ability to protect themselves is well-known in his circle, remained untouchable.
I spent many months on his trail in 2002 for Vanity Fair and discovered not only that he was not who he claimed to be professionally, but also that he had allegedly assaulted two young sisters, one of whom had been underage at the time. Very bravely, they were prepared to go on the record. They were afraid he’d use all his influence to discredit them—and their fear turned out to be legitimate.
As the article was being readied for publication, Epstein made a visit to the office of Vanity Fair’s then-editor, Graydon Carter, and suddenly the women and their allegations were removed from the article. “He’s sensitive about the young women,” Carter told me at the time. (Editor’s Note: Carter has previously denied this allegation.) He also mentioned he’d finagled a photograph of Epstein in a swimsuit out of the encounter. And there was also some feeble excuse about the article “being stronger as a business story.” (Epstein had also leaned heavily on my ex-husband’s uncle, Conrad Black, to try to exert his influence on me, which was particularly unwelcome, given that Black happened to be my ex-husband’s boss at the time.)
But much worse was to come from Epstein’s army of willfully blind lobbyists. In 2007 and 2008, as the FBI prepared a 53-page indictment that would charge Epstein with sex crimes, Epstein’s powerful legal team played the influence card.
After the one meeting with then-U.S. Attorney Acosta, where presumably “intelligence” was mentioned, the indictment was shelved and, instead, Epstein signed a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors, pleading guilty to one count of solicitation of prostitution and one count of procurement of minors for prostitution, which earned him a cushy 13 months in county jail, from where he was allowed to leave to work at his office and go for walks.
The deal granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators.” Most significantly, federal prosecutors agreed to keep the deal secret from Epstein’s victims, which meant they would not know to challenge it in court. As it turned out, this actually broke the law, because victims have a right to know of such developments, under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.
We, the public, had access to all this information as it played out over the years in plain sight. And yet the outrage just was not there. After his absurdly soft jail time, Epstein carried on as before. He shamelessly wandered the streets of New York accompanied by startlingly young looking foreign women. People in his social set still tell me how “brilliant” he is and phone him for financial advice. A few years ago the journalist Michael Wolff wrote a profile of him for New York magazine that was meant to “rehabilitate” Epstein’s image and would tell of all the billionaires who still, secretly, hung out with Epstein. The piece had “fact-checking” issues and never ran. Even so, the notion that it was considered is mind-boggling.
So kudos, then, to the Miami Herald journalist Julie K. Brown, who many years after the fact went back and interviewed some of Epstein’s alleged victims in her brilliant three-part series “Perversion of Justice.” It was Brown who told the stories of teenagers in trailer parks outside Palm Beach who needed money for shoes or just to live, who went to give Epstein massages and so much more. Brown and her editors actually took the women seriously.
It was that heart-wrenching series that caught the attention of Congress. Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, joined with his Democratic colleagues and demanded to know how justice had been so miscarried.
Given the political sentiment, it’s unsurprising that the FBI should feel newly emboldened to investigate Epstein—basing some of their work on Brown’s excellent reporting.
The story in the indictment that was unsealed earlier Monday was eerily familiar to all of us who have been paying attention to Epstein’s sick story. What is different, finally, after 16 years, is the reaction, which is, at last, appropriate.
One of the young women who spoke to me 16 years ago emailed Monday evening. “Shocked and elated,” she said. “Fingers crossed they all finally go down.” Amen to that.