How Jeffrey Epstein’s death triggered a conspiracy-theory perfect storm

The multi-millionaire financier died in federal custody while awaiting trial on charges of operating a child sex-trafficking ring. Then the internet lost its mind.

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When Jeffrey Epstein, the multi-millionaire financier awaiting what seemed set to be the trial of the century on charges of operating a vast child-sex-trafficking ring, died in his cell in a high-security prison in Manhattan on Saturday, it set in motion a near-perfect storm of competing conspiracy theories. Many speculated that he had been murdered by president Trump; others that his death had been orchestrated by the Clintons.

Epstein’s case already had it all. He had moved at the very highest echelons of the elite, with powerful friends across the political spectrum, as well as in literary, academic and Wall Street high finance circles. The list of public figures with whom Epstein had been linked with included former president Bill Clinton, president Donald Trump – who called Epstein a “terrific guy” in a 2002 interview – and the UK’s Prince Andrew, among others. 

Over the prospect of a public trial loomed the question of who, exactly, might end up being caught in the flames. Speculation about what new information might come out during the trial was already rampant, and expectations climbed sky-high.

So when Epstein died in his maximum-security cell on Saturday, the build-up of public tension needed to be released somehow. Both the left and the right ends of the political spectrum vigorously projected their flavour of conspiracy onto the event. Within hours of the news breaking both #TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount were trending on Twitter. Trump himself fanned the flames, of course. On Saturday, the president retweeted a post that said: “Epstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead I see #TrumpBodyCount trending but we know who did this!”

Paedophilia is already a common and widespread trope in conspiracy theories. The “Pizzagate” theory, for example, which bubbled up from sites like 4chan and 8chan during the 2016 presidential election, held that Hillary Clinton was involved in the operation of a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington restaurant. “QAnon,” the sprawling conspiracy worldview that is the spiritual successor to pizzagate, also held that top Democrats were about to be exposed for involvment in a child sex ring. 

But the trope isn’t limited to right-wing conspiracists; there have been those on both the far left and far right who have long alleged the existence of a paedophile cult among the rich and powerful.

Even before he died, the problem with the Epstein case was that it seemed to prove the conspiracy theorists all, well, basically kinda correct. “So was QAnon… right?” a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) headline in New York magazine wondered.

And there was something to it. Here was this financier who had moved in the most powerful circles, and who had been running a literal child sex ring – and was protected by the elites. Alex Acosta, Trump’s secretary of labor, resigned in July when facing scrutiny for giving Epstein what was described as a “sweetheart” deal to avoid prosecution back in 2008. 

Acosta had been a prosecutor in Miami assigned to Epstein’s case following an investigation by police in Florida, separate to the one in New York which led to Epstein’s arrest in July. A bombshell Miami Herald investigation into the case late last year – which is worth reading in full – raised new questions about exactly how the financier had gotten off so lightly when the evidence against him seemed so overwhelming and damning.

When information is scarce, as was the case with the news of Epstein’s death, social media – especially Twitter – becomes a particularly febrile environment for speculation and the spread of rumours and conspiracy theories. Accounts of how he had come to take his own life only spurred more questions. 

Many of those questions were, and remain, legitimate. Epstein had previously been on suicide-watch after a previous attempt, but had been taken off at the request of his own attorneys 11 days before his death. Nonetheless, guards were supposed to check on him every half-hour but did not do so, the New York Times reported. The reasons for the lapse remain unclear. “Why he was taken off suicide watch is beyond me,” Bob Hood, a former chief of internal affairs for the Bureau of Prisons, told the Times, adding: “A man is dead. The Bureau of Prisons dropped the ball. Period.”

That overall lack of clarity produced an information vacuum – and many, including those who should have known better, were powerfully compelled to fill it with their favoured flavour of political projection. 

For some, the implication was that Trump had leant on the Department of Justice to kill Epstein. “A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives ends up dead in his jail cell,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted, adding: “How predictably… Russian.” 

Scarborough’s tweet has since been deleted, but he was far from the only mainstream media or political figure dabbling in such wild speculation. “Something stinks to high heaven,” Claire McCaskill, a former Democratic senator for Missouri, tweeted.

For others, the implication was that the Clintons had engineered the death. Referring to Bill Clinton – who was governor of Arkansas before becoming president – Fox Business host Lou Dobbs tweeted that Epstein “should have been at least on Arkanside Watch”.

Let’s attempt to unpick the various aspects of this case. First: it will now not be presented in court, but the indictment against Epstein certainly paints a horrifying picture of a paedophile sex-trafficking ring operating by someone at the very pinnacle of society’s elite. That much, which scans to the old conspiracy trope, does indeed appear to be true.

The leap from that to the conclusion that various members of those powerful elites would murder Epstein while in federal custody, however, must be treated with maximum skepticism. Deaths in the chaotic American prison system are all-too common. Whether his trial would have exposed Trump or Clinton as direct participants in sex trafficking activity will now remain moot – though the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York has said it will continue its investigation regardless. 

Nonetheless, there is more than a little political hopefulness at play on both sides in the assumption that dramatic new evidence would come out during the process of the trial – new, that is, on top of the already detailed indictment the SDNY filed – and would prove to be overwhelming enough to truly imperil either Trump or Clinton.

Blaming the Clintons for murder, even when they are out of politics and not running for anything, is a comfortable trope for the right-wing media and political sphere. There is already a nasty conspiracy theory that Hillary orchestrated the death of a young DNC staffer, Seth Rich, that often does the rounds on Fox News. It is no more plausible that the Clintons could somehow engineer Epstein’s death in federal custody.

Trump, we know, has a history of strong-arm tactics, such as using his then-lawyer Michael Cohen to pay off porn stars like Stormy Daniels to prevent his affair coming to light during the campaign. But to assume Trump capable – not just morally capable, but also in the literal sense of his intellectual and organisational ability – of orchestrating a clandestine murder in a federal facility via the Department of Justice is pretty solidly implausible, too.

The difference between a conspiracy theory and a real conspiracy is demonstrable evidence. That the paedophile ring trope rang true in what we now know about Epstein’s criminal behaviour is deeply disturbing. It is indicative of a colossal rot at the heart of the American and even the global elite, and it is a travesty that the case against Epstein will now not come to trial. 

But it does not follow that the rest of the wild conspiracy theories that circulate on the internet are vindicated. A stopped clock is right twice a day. In an age when reliable information and truth are often drowned out by the constant social media noise of unsubstantiated rumours, outright lies, and wild conspiracy theories, it is more important than ever to slow down and focus on what we know for sure to be true.

In the UK, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available on 1-800-273-8255.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.