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Yesterday Jeffrey Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested. Epstein was a super-shady socialite and convicted sex offender who had lots and lots of cash and hobnobbed with elites in the political and financial world. Maxwell was his socialite companion and is alleged to have procured and groomed young girls for Epstein and his friends. Epstein was arrested on July 6, 2019, on federal charges of sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York, but died in his jail cell on August 10, leading a judge to dismiss all criminal charges against him. Maxwell was arrested today at a 156-acre farm in New Hampshire where she was hiding out. She is charged with six federal crimes, including sex trafficking and perjury.
It appears there may be a political angle to Maxwell’s arrest. Epstein entertained important people at his parties, including a number of men in Trump’s circle, as well as Trump himself. In 2002, Trump told New York Magazine, “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it—Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” There is a video of Trump and Epstein partying together at Trump’s Florida property Mar-a-Lago in 1992, apparently discussing the women dancing around them, and after Maxwell’s arrest, a number of pictures of Trump and Maxwell together emerged on social media.
But while there have been allegations against Trump stemming from his association with Epstein, the only confirmed dealings with a member of the administration involve Trump’s first Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta. He had to resign when it turned out that as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2007-2008, he had cut Epstein a secret deal to avoid the gravity of accusations against him. The FBI had identified at least 34 confirmed minors who alleged that Epstein had abused them, and there was evidence to corroborate those accounts, but Acosta permitted Epstein to plead guilty to a single state charge of solicitation and granted Epstein– and any potential co-conspirators– immunity from federal charges. Epstein served 13 months in the county jail, from which he was allowed out 12 hours a day on “work release.” Acosta later maintained that the deal was the only way prosecutors could be sure Epstein went to jail, and he expressed dismay at the work release arrangement, which Acosta called “complete BS.”
After Acosta became Labor Secretary, an investigation by the Miami Herald brought to light both the agreement and that Acosta had kept it secret, thus apparently violating the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 that says victims must be kept informed of the progress of federal criminal cases. (In April of this year, a federal appeals court said this law did not apply because Epstein was never charged.) In July 2019, Epstein was again arrested for sex trafficking. When agents searched his townhouse, they found hundreds of photos of naked girls and women, as well as CDs labeled with the names of young girls, the “+” sign, and the names of men. Acosta was in the news right then for trying to cut 80% from the budget of the International Labor Affairs Bureau, the agency that combats the sex trafficking of children. Acosta resigned from the administration on July 19.
So there is a connection between the Epstein case and the Trump administration through Acosta. But there may be something else out there. The charges today against Maxwell come from the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which also handled the 2019 Epstein case. Like his, Maxwell’s case is staffed by lawyers from the Public Corruption Unit. According to CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, this unit does not generally do sex trafficking cases “unless there is some potential angle against a public official.”
There is yet another thread dangling over this case. Less than two weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr tried to fire the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman, and replace him with someone outside the normal line of succession. Berman refused to leave, noting that until the Senate confirmed a replacement for him, “our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this Office to pursue justice without fear or favor – and intend to ensure that this Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.” It sounded like he had a specific case in mind, and that both he and Barr knew what it was.
Barr had to back down, permitting the Deputy U.S. Attorney, Audrey Strauss, to take over for Berman, who stepped down once he had secured a normal succession for the position. It is Strauss’s name that is on the Maxwell indictment.
It was Barr’s father, Donald Barr, the headmaster of the prestigious Dalton School in New York City, who launched Epstein, hiring the 20-year-old math whiz and college dropout Epstein to teach high school calculus and physics. It was a student’s father who gave him a start in the more lucrative profession of options trading.
So perhaps we are looking at yet another scandal involving public officials; certainly there is plenty of such speculation on Twitter tonight. And yet, as damning as all this looks, I remain a skeptic about whether Barr’s attempt to take over the SDNY office is tied to the Maxwell case, and whether the case will ultimately involve members of Trump’s inner circle. To me this all looks a bit too neat, although there is no doubt that many important men are likely very nervous about what Maxwell could tell authorities.
It seems to me more likely that Barr’s attempts to take over the Justice Department with his own loyalists reflects a desire to control a number of cases that touch the president, not just this one. And Barr is definitely consolidating power in the DOJ. It largely flew under the radar, but in addition to his attempt to remove Berman from the Southern District of New York, over Memorial Day weekend Barr removed the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. Joseph Brown was a Trump appointee who wanted to bring criminal charges against Walmart for its role in the opioid crisis. Barr replaced Brown with Stephen J. Cox, who had stalled the Walmart case.
And today, news broke that Richard Donoghue, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, New York, who is close to Barr, has stepped down to move to Washington, where he will take a powerful position in the Justice Department, overseeing investigations around the country. Barr is considering candidates to replace him, including Seth DuCharme, another loyalist.
We may learn more about Barr’s politicization of the Department of Justice when Berman testifies before a closed session of the House Judiciary Committee next week.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your free subscription here