The charges against Epstein are the most prominent in a string of new prosecutions targeting alleged long-running crimes by wealthy men. They include Paul Manafort, who as my colleague Franklin Foer reported engaged in decades of misconduct, but was only convicted in 2018. They include Michael Cohen, who ran a years-long series of bank and tax frauds but was also only convicted in 2018. Other potential cases lie ahead: On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Elliott Broidy, a top GOP fundraiser, is being investigated for corruption. The question is why prosecutors have only now gone after these men, whose misconduct was hardly hidden.
Ken White: The Jeffrey Epstein case is like nothing I’ve seen before
What unites the cases is their connection to Trump, who was a friend of Epstein’s, employed Manafort as a campaign manager and Cohen as a fixer, and relied on Broidy to help finance his campaign. In each case, their crimes—real or alleged—existed without Trump’s assistance (though in Cohen’s case, the government also asserted that Trump put him up to a campaign-finance violation). Nor was Trump the only prominent person who knew and interacted with them. Epstein had many famous friends, Bill Clinton most prominent among them.
Proximity to Trump, however, has been an important catalyst in these prosecutions. Manafort had been in law enforcement’s sights, but friends told Foer he made a grievous error by volunteering to work on Trump’s campaign, which drew further scrutiny. Cohen had escaped scrutiny for years, too, but was caught up in investigations related to Trump’s business in Russia. The Herald’s reporting was centered in large part on the role of Alex Acosta, who as a U.S. attorney in Florida helped craft Epstein’s sweetheart deal, and who is now Trump’s labor secretary. (Acosta, facing calls for his resignation, issued a statement on Twitter, saying in part, “The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.”)
There is a parallel with the #MeToo movement. Despite some 22 allegations of sexual harassment and worse against Trump—most recently, the journalist E. Jean Carroll’s account of being raped in a department-store dressing room in 1995 or 1996—the president has so far escaped relatively unscathed. But frustration at his impunity helped create a drive for accountability for other powerful men who had abused women. Trump didn’t make Harvey Weinstein into a moral monster, and Weinstein’s conduct was not a secret among the powerful, but without Trump, Weinstein might still be at it. The same is now true of Epstein.
This is not to say that Trump is innocent. Beyond the various sexual-abuse allegations he faces, he boasted on tape about sexually assaulting women. Throughout his business career, Trump has been repeatedly caught breaking the law, and managed to get off with slaps on the wrist, civil fines, and the like. And there’s more bad behavior that long escaped law-enforcement scrutiny. As The New York Times has reported, Trump engaged in “outright fraud” related to taxes. Though his tax chicanery is not new, it has only come under legal investigation since the Times’ reporting.