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A screenshot from NBC News archival footage, taken at a Mar-A-Lago party in 1992, which shows Donald Trump with Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade before Epstein pleaded guilty to felony prostitution charges in Florida. (Screenshot: NBC News)

When It Comes to Plutocrats Like Epstein and Trump, Always Assume the Worst

In the age of Trump, the wrongdoing has become so blatant, the attitude towards the rest of us so contemptuous, that a presumption of guilt may be the only realistic attitude

Mike Lofgren

By now, everyone not vacationing in a sensory-deprivation tank knows the outlines of the sordid tale of self-proclaimed hedge fund magnate Jeffrey Epstein. In the fallout from his July 6 arrest, the implications of the case, especially considering the plutocrats, politicians and other elites who knew him, cast doubt on one of the bedrock assumptions of American public life.

The whole tenor of Anglo-Saxon law, of the prestige media covering legal proceedings—the entire apparatus of the go-along-to-get along culture that pervades corporate business, the government, foundations and think tanks, celebrity entertainers, and the commanding heights of American society—says “innocent until proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt,” or maybe innocent even if proven guilty. After all, they say, Epstein’s one of us.

Naturally, this solicitous benefit of the doubt does not apply to lesser mortals who brush up against the legal system. For them, plea agreements, rather than sweetheart deals such as Epstein received, are sometimes coerced decrees that induce declarations of guilt by defendants who may be innocent but who wish to avoid the crushing expense of competent representation, or who otherwise would have to roll the dice and face a possible draconian sentence. The situation is not improved by cops who plant evidence.

In the rarified world at the intersection of oligarchy and celebrity, the rules are different. Trump’s presidency and Epstein’s arrest have pulled back the curtain—ever so slightly—on this twisted world. It is a black pit of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), codes of omerta, sending batteries of lawyers and sleazy detectives to harass people who saw things they shouldn’t have, lining up character witnesses, setting up fake charities both as attestation of beneficence and tax dodge.

The whole interconnected web of secrets, obligations, and guilty knowledge leads inevitably to a genteel kind of mutual blackmail within this charmed circle, even if Jeffrey Epstein doesn’t actually have your photo in his safe.

And more: the “work” these people do, for all their preening as being hard-driving moguls, isn’t work as most of us would recognize it. As we learned with Trump and are learning with Epstein, they put almost all their time into fabricating and maintaining fake personas that are smarter, richer, and even better connected than they really are. So much effort is spent in this enterprise (like Trump, pretending to be “John Barron” telling credulous journalists over the phone that The Donald walked on water), there’s virtually no time left to run a legitimate business.

Bizarre, but how could it be otherwise? These are people who on principle never fly commercial with the despised proles or drive themselves anywhere, much less change a light bulb or make themselves a sandwich. There is always hired help—who have signed the requisite NDAs, of course—available to freshen  drinks or discreetly supply cocaine, with no fingerprints. They are a species as much apart from us as gray wolves from grazing lambs.

But let us not insult canis lupus. Epstein and his well-connected legal team exhibited a vicious malevolence unknown in the animal world. Detectives investigating his case said in depositions that "their trash was stolen by private investigators and that people falsely claiming to be police officers approached victims’ families. Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who represented seven of the girls who accused Epstein, said private investigators hired by Epstein followed and intimidated the victims, who reported strange cars parked in front of their homes."

According to The Washington Post, it appears the legal team was enterprising enough to intimidate Alex Acosta, the U.S. attorney and later cabinet secretary whose head has now rolled over the affair, into granting Epstein his 2008 plea deal. That in itself boggles the mind: defense lawyers intimidating a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate? Was it a mafia trial in Sicily?

Or was it just more seemly for Acosta or those around him to say he was intimidated, as opposed to happily rolling over, especially in view of the fact that virtually every U.S. attorney itches to gain higher office in the Senate or the cabinet, and thus must remain in the good graces of “our crowd?” Or perhaps the defense team wasn’t only digging for dirt on the victims, and engaged in a little chantage against the prosecutor? In any case, Acosta granted a secret plea deal a court later declared illegal.

It is worth lingering over the legal support structure that keeps its exalted clients out of prison and on the A-list. One of Epstein’s lawyers was Ken Starr.

Yes, that Ken Starr, independent counsel of Bill Clinton-era fame, that half Eagle Scout, half Cotton Mather for whom, apparently, all sex was illicit.  Despite his ostentatious revulsion toward the White House malefaction that he investigated with merciless thoroughness, he managed to be much more broad-minded defending pedophilia and sex trafficking charges when, in 2007, Epstein offered him a big payday.

Starr’s subsequent presidency of Baylor (the largest Baptist university campus in the world), from which he was fired for doing nothing about reports of campus rape later sustained in court, shows a similar moral relativism. It appears our high-level criminal class needs a sanctimonious front man or two to keep the Bible thumpers in line.

Another member of the group was Alan Dershowitz, the greatest legal scholar since Blackstone. Just ask him. This storied civil libertarian’s career is noteworthy for his tenacious defense of the civil liberties of rich, entitled, well-connected misogynists, whether the accusation is harassment, rape, or pedophilia against women (Epstein, Harvey Weinstein), or murdering women or attempting to murder them (O.J. Simpson, Claus von Bülow,).

Thus it is not entirely surprising that in the political arena, Dershowitz is vociferously defending our sexual predator-in-chief. There must be something to explain his slavish support for Trump, to the point where this supposedly top-drawer Harvard law professor is making legal pronouncements that a first-year law student might laugh at: claiming impeachment in Trump’s case is somehow unconstitutional, despite being a provision of the Constitution, or that the Supreme Court could nullify a Senate conviction (the chief justice in fact presides over the Senate trial, but the court of which he is a member has declared it has no power of review in impeachments).

It will be seen that to all appearances we have put the worst possible construction on the events, eschewing the benefit of the doubt: after all, we are all flawed human beings and nobody has to prove their innocence to anybody else.

But in the age of Trump, the wrongdoing has become so blatant, the attitude towards the rest of us so contemptuous, that a presumption of guilt may be the only realistic attitude. Admittedly, there was never a golden age of probity, public spiritedness, and integrity in public life. But at least most of the time, our rulers sought to maintain an aw-shucks demeanor and uphold the pretense, however threadbare, that they were just like us and subject to the same laws.

The code of omerta and impunity has moved from the cocaine and sex parties of Greenwich, the Hamptons, and Palm Beach into the White House and cabinet. Not only is Dershowitz making claims of Trump’s impunity, but a squad of government lawyers, paid for by you, has argued before a federal court that there is virtually no conceivable circumstance in which Congress can legitimately even inquire into the president’s conduct in office.

Ordinary, law-abiding people do not coerce everyone in sight into signing NDAs, or harass them with lawsuits and injunctions, or send goons with law degrees to threaten them, or, in general, use the law like a fly swatter against the less powerful. Nor, as in Trump’s case, do they benefit from a battalion of overseas Internet trolls to drown out opposition, create misdirection, and plant rumors against his enemies. One is entitled to assume illicit intent underlies all these actions.

How deeply is Trump mixed up with Epstein, whom in 2002 he called a great guy he’d known for fifteen years? In light of the Stormy Daniels payoff, the Access Hollywood tape, and abundant other evidence—including this latest video footage from 1992—the suspicion cannot be stilled, especially in light of his coy observation that Epstein liked women “on the younger side.”

Put not your trust in princes, sayeth Scripture.

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Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted(2013).

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