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Conspiracy in Search of a Theory (Part 3): Epstein/Trump/Deutsche Bank/Russia

August 7, 2020
epstein island

Epstein’s private island

The Friends of Jeffrey Epstein

Jeffrey Epstein’s 2019 re-arrest may finally have made him socially radioactive, but his 2008 conviction in Florida did not seem to have damaged his social acceptability too much. His plea deal made the front pages in the Palm Beach Post and the New York Post, but only rated placement on page 1 of the Business Section of the New York Times. It was all pretty discreet, considering, and most people probably just figured he had gotten caught with a couple of young hookers, so not that big a deal.

Most important, the deal kept his fortune (aside from legal fees), property, and business ventures intact. Even if he had to sleep in a special wing of the Palm Beach County jail for 13 months, six days a week he was out and about to his West Palm office and elsewhere and could visit freely with business associates and personal friends who came calling. Five months of his sentence was dropped, so by August 2009 he was able to go to his Manhattan mansion or to his private island in the Virgin Islands whenever he pleased.

Quite quickly, Epstein was again mingling in New York society. Consider this item from  gossipy Page Six from August 24, 2010 recounting Epstein’s appearance at a special screening of the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in Southampton:

“Guests included hedge funder Jeffrey Epstein, who was ‘greeted warmly by guests’ after he completed a prison sentence in June. ‘It was the first time he has been out in two years, but nobody blinked he was there,’ a witness reports. ‘He was chatting to Jonathan FarkasWilbur Ross and Leon Black. He was sitting right near Rudy Giuliani.'”

[Farkas is an heir to the Alexander’s Department Store fortune, Wilber Ross became Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, and Leon Black is a billionaire owner of a private equity firm who, according to the NY Times, once employed Epstein and had various connections to him dating to the late 90s.]

Or this, from The Daily Beast:

“On the evening of December 2nd, 2010, a handful of America’s media and entertainment elite—including TV anchors Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos, comedienne Chelsea Handler, and director Woody Allen—convened around the dinner table of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It wasn’t just any dining room, but part of a sprawling nine-story townhouse that once housed an entire preparatory school. And it wasn’t just any sex offender, but an enigmatic billionaire who had once flown the likes of former President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak around the world on his own Boeing 727. Last spring, Epstein completed a 13-month sentence for soliciting prostitution from a minor in Palm Beach. Now he was hosting a party for his close friend, Britain’s Prince Andrew, fourth in line to the throne.”

Epstein had hired publicist Peggy Siegal to ease his re-entry, but the one who really greased the tracks was Ghislaine Maxwell, who had emerged unscathed from the Florida scandal. According to the Daily Beast story, “The conventional wisdom among his friends was that Epstein has been victimized by greedy, morally dubious teenage girls and unscrupulous lawyers.”

Or this, from The Hollywood Reporter:

“Even in the post-#MeToo era, Epstein, 66, frequently attended industry events, like the Gotham Awards in November 2017. Amid a climate where figures including Harvey Weinstein and CBS’ Leslie Moonves had instantly become persona non grata for alleged misconduct, Epstein had been convicted and still enjoyed film-world access. As he traveled behind the velvet rope with ease, his alleged co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell was also embraced…Despite well-publicized claims that she wrangled teen girls for Epstein and partook in sexual abuse, Maxwell in recent years has been spotted at top-tier awards-season parties in New York and Los Angeles, where she hobnobbed with a pre-scandal Weinstein, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. She even attended the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar bash, posing with the magazine’s editor, Graydon Carter.”

Epstein also cultivated friends in the scientific and academic community with large donations. According to the NY Times, Epstein launched a PR campaign around 2013, placing self-generated articles describing himself as “a selfless and forward-thinking philanthropist with an interest in science” on websites like Forbes, National Review and HuffPost. He gave money to MIT and to Harvard, which had accepted over $9 million from him before his 2008 conviction. But other donors who Epstein introduced to Harvard faculty members gave $9.5 million between 2010 and 2015, and Epstein frequently visited an office given him on campus at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, a research center created in 2003 with $6.5 million from Epstein. It wasn’t until after Epstein’s 2019 re-arrest that the universities again started looking closely at their ties with him, especially after journalist Ronan Farrow published details in The New Yorker. Epstein also was still a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations until 2009 when his membership lapsed for “nonpayment of dues”.

But it wasn’t quite like the good old days. After his release from detention, Epstein was fighting lawsuits for damages brought by his alleged victims, and tantalizing details about his ties with the rich and famous were continuing to spill out. In January 2015,  the on-line blog Gawker published the flight logs for Epstein’s private 727, revealing that lots of bold face names had flown on the so-called “Lolita Express” back in the day, including Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, and Prince Andrew. That same month, Gawker published Epstein’s “little black book” containing the phone numbers and emails (redacted) of scores of famous and semi-famous people with whom he may or may not have had ties. After his 2019 arrest, New York magazine published an annotated list of people included in the “black book”, observing that:

“Collectively, these documents constitute just a glance at the way society opened itself to Epstein in New York, Hollywood, and Palm Beach. ..Though some observers have likened Epstein’s enigmatic rise as a glamorous social magnet to that of Jay Gatsby, a more appropriate archetype may be the fixer, sexual hedonist, and (ultimately disbarred) lawyer Roy Cohn.”

The sex offender label did make some people reluctant to do business deals with him. According to the Miami Herald, when Epstein decided to buy a large parcel of land on Great St. James Island (just across the water from his home on Little St. James in the Virgin Islands) he had to set up a shell company because the owner, a wealthy Dane, was unwilling to sell to him. The company was set up in the name of a wealthy Dubai businessman, who confirmed that Epstein had asked to use his name in an unspecified deal, but he said no. Epstein apparently did it anyway, and the purchase was completed in January 2016.

Donald Trump was among those important people who had been in Epstein’s orbit. So many photos and videos have emerged of Epstein and Trump together that there is no doubt that they knew each other a lot more than just casually from at least the early 90s until around 2007–i.e., during Epstein’s heyday. A video tape shows them partying at Mar-a-Lago in 1992, and other videos show them together and engaged in bro-style banter about women on other occasions. As the Washington Post reported, “Here they are, Epstein and longtime girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell, Trump and his then-girlfriend, Melania Knauss, double dating at a celebrity tennis tournament at Mar-a-Lago. Partying with Britain’s Prince Andrew. Hanging out with National Football League cheerleaders. Dancing, laughing, palling around at a party Trump threw to celebrate his “freedom” after he divorced his second wife, Marla Maples.”

A 2000 profile published in Maximum Golf magazine describes Trump impatiently waiting at La Guardia for Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who were hitching a ride on Trump’s plane to Palm Beach.   A 2002 profile of Epstein in Vanity Fair, quotes Trump as saying: “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.”

After Epstein’s 2019 arrest, Trump claimed that Epstein was never a member at Mar-a-Lago, but a new book titled “The Grifters’ Club” (authored by reporters from the Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal) has unearthed evidence that he actually was a member for more than a decade until October 2007. According to the book, Trump expelled Epstein from the club after he allegedly hit on a teenage daughter of another member. If that story is accurate, that would have been more than a year after Epstein was indicted in Palm Beach County, something that was well-known in Palm Beach society.

Another version has it that the split was over competition to acquire an expensive beach property in Palm Beach in a bankruptcy auction. According to the Washington Post, the rift began in 2004 when both Epstein and Trump were bidding on the “Maison de l’Amitie”, which had previously been owned by Leslie Wexner, the retail magnate who had been Epstein’s most important patron and the only known client for his wealth management firm. Epstein wanted to live in the house; Trump wanted to flip it. Epstein bid up to $38.6 million, but Trump got the property for $41.35 million.

[Digression: The property sat unoccupied until 2008, when Trump sold it for $95 million (through a shell company) to Russian oligarch (“the Fertilizer King”) Dmitry Rybolovlev. At the time, the price of the sale raised eyebrows, because the Florida real estate market was already slumping. Also at that time, Rybolovlev was going through a spectacularly expensive divorce and was looking for places to stash his money. The Russian owner never moved in, and in 2016 the existing house was torn down and the property was divided into 3 parcels, each put on the market for $35-40 million. End digression.]

Typically, after Epstein was arrested again in 2019, Trump insisted that he barely knew him. “I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you,” the president said from the Oval Office the day after the arrest. Well, relationships come and go.

There’s a scene in the 2016 movie version of Absolutely Fabulous, where Edina and Patsy go on the lam, believing they had accidentally killed supermodel Kate Moss. When they get to the French Riviera, Edina exults, “We’re free! In the South of France, everyone’s a criminal!”

Kind of like Palm Beach. Or Wall Street.

Was Epstein a Spy for Israel?

In December 2019, a “bombshell” book titled Epstein: Dead Man Tell No Tales hit the stores just in time for Christmas. Among the most sensational allegations in the book was that Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were working for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to blackmail powerful people. The book claimed that the ‘honey trap” operation set up underage girls with politicians to squeeze them for information or influence for Israel. The source for the claim was Ari Ben-Menashe, who purported to be a Mossad operative and the handler for Robert Maxwell (Ghislaine’s press mogul father) who he claimed had spied for Israel and also that he had introduced Epstein and Maxwell into Israeli intelligence.

Ben-Menashe is an Iranian-born Israeli, who claimed to have served in Israeli military intelligence from about 1977 to 1987, and reportedly was a source for information about Reagan administration arms shipments to Iran, known as Iran-Contra. He wrote a book published in 1992 called Profits of War: Inside the Secret US-Israeli Arms Network. He was arrested in the US in 1989 for trying to sell aircraft to Iran, but was acquitted and then moved to Canada where he became a citizen. He also reportedly was a source for Seymour Hersh’s 1991 book The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and US Foreign Policy that revealed Israel’s nuclear weapons program and claimed that Robert Maxwell was an Israeli intelligence asset. In October 1991, Maxwell and his Mirror Group newspapers sued Hersh and his publisher in the UK for libel, but Maxwell’s death under mysterious circumstances (see Part 1) in November 1991 effectively ended the legal action which formally terminated in 1994 when Hersh and his publisher were awarded “substantial damages and an apology”.

A purported interview with Ben-Menashe in which he made his claims re Epstein and Maxwell had been published in September 2019 on the website Narativ, run by a former CBS and Canadian TV producer Zev Shalev, whose podcasts often focus negatively on both Epstein and TrumpWorld. This seems to be the earliest appearance of the Ben-Menashe story.

The three co-authors of Epstein: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Dylan Howard, Melissa Cronin, and James Robertson are all alumni or current employees of American Media, Inc., the parent company of The National Enquirer. When the book came out, the Enquirer headlined the story. According to a fascinating plunge into the seamy world of scandal journalism in the Columbia Journalism Review,  the primary author Dylan Howard (who is Australian) “is best known as a scandal-ridden acolyte of Donald Trump. In the summer of 2016, he and [David] Pecker negotiated a $150,000 “catch and kill” payoff that buried the story of an affair between Trump and Karen McDougal, a Playboy Playmate. (Howard also helped arrange Trump’s 2015 payoff to Stormy Daniels, the porn star, even though it didn’t involve AMI.) After Trump’s election, Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that Howard had worked with Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer, to help him discredit Rose McGowan, an actress who was accusing him of abuse.”

AMI’s CEO David Pecker went way back with Trump and famously worked hand in glove with him to kill negative stories about him and to flog sensational tales about his adversaries. According to the CJR story, “after Trump declared for president, the Enquirer changed course. It began running a few kinds of stories: One, nonstop pathological content about how Hillary Clinton was on the verge of jail or death. Two, unprovable scoops about Trump’s primary-campaign rivals (e.g., Ben Carson left a sponge in someone’s skull). Three, uncomfortably gauzy first-person tell-alls from Trump.” But the Enquirer’s sales slumped, “And then, suddenly, in the spring of 2018, it stopped. No more Trump ass-kissing. No more Hillary deathwatch. Thanks to the Justice Department—or, …, because ‘sales of issues covering politics had a fatigue factor’—it was back to good old kidnapped Suri Cruise and emaciated Nicole Richie. Everything snapped into place, as if the Enquirer’s maga era had been nothing more than a wavy-lined dream sequence.”

So…what is the game here with regard to Epstein? Is there a game? Or is it just plain old-fashioned exploitation and sensationalism? Could it even be true? After all, once in a while an Enquirer story has turned out to be a real scoop.

Mainstream news outlets like the Times, Washington Post, and WSJ pretty much ignored the book and the Ben-Menashe allegations, but right-wing organs and websites and British tabloids were all over it. Russia’s semi-official organ RT hopped on it, as well as the left-leaning UK publication Middle East Monitor. So, belatedly, did Fox News. Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller focused on the book’s allegations by Steven Hoffenberg that Epstein had been a celebrity spy for Mossad and was killed because he had become a liability. Hoffenberg had been a business associate of Epstein in the 90s in the Towers Financial Group, a Ponzi scheme that collapsed in 1993 losing $475 million for its investors. Hoffenberg pleaded guilty to fraud and went to prison; Epstein skated free. Hoffenberg claimed that Epstein then evaded punishment because of his ties with intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Russia.

The Observer, owned by Jared Kushner, published an article in July 2019 that concluded: “It appears that Jeffrey Epstein was involved in intelligence work, of some kind, for someone—and it probably wasn’t American intelligence either.” It noted that Ghislaine Maxwell’s father, “a swindler and a spy”, was suspected by “British counterintelligence” of doing work for Russia’s KGB, “while pervasive allegations that he was working for Mossad too are equally plausible.” The piece focused on the remark attributed to former US Attorney Alex Acosta by Daily Beast reporter Vicki Ward (see Part 2) that he backed off on Epstein because he had been told that he “belonged to intelligence” and to leave it alone. 

The discovery in Epstein’s Manhattan home of a fake Austrian passport with his photo but a Saudi address and a different name (along with loose diamonds and lots of cash) also fed the espionage narrative. According to the prosecution filing, the passport had stamps from France, Spain, the UK, and Saudi Arabia.

Why exactly the Right found the spy theory so attractive isn’t exactly clear. It turns out that the Really Far Right had been pushing this idea well before Epstein was re-arrested in July 2019. In March of that year, The Daily Beast published a piece scoffing at a pretty blatantly anti-Semitic video from TruNews which alleged that Epstein was part of a Jewish cabal directed by Mossad that includes Ghislaine Maxwell, Monica Lewinsky, and Jared Kushner. [I have no idea how to parse that; watch the video yourself, if you dare.] Apparently, somehow this makes everything go back to the Bushes and the Clintons, which fits with TrumpWorld demonology and presumably deflects attention from Trump’s own connections with Epstein. Maybe?

Curiously, Epstein: Dead Men Tell No Tales author Dylan Howard played up this Jewish conspiracy angle in a piece he wrote to hype the book: “Epstein’s attorney Kenneth Starr at one point went over Acosta’s head to Republican appointees at the Department of Justice, demanding that they drop the case. The Attorney General in 2008, who likely would have received the request, was Michael Mukasey — an Orthodox Jew with such deep ties to Israel, he has been accused of having dual citizenship.” [Note: This is almost certainly untrue. Politifact investigated a similar accusation made against Bernie Sanders and other Jewish-American political figures, which concluded that this had probably sprung from a list, on which Mukasey was number 1, posted on line without evidence by the American Freedom Party, a right-wing white nationalist organization.]

The allegations of Epstein’s involvement in espionage have certainly been helped along by the mystery surrounding how he made so much money–something no one has yet successfully explained. At the time he was re-arrested in 2019, his assets were worth at least $500 million, including his properties in Manhattan, New Mexico, Paris, and the Virgin Islands, according to court filings.

The outline of his career trajectory from private school math and science teacher, to working at Bear Stearns, to his linkup with Leslie Wexner is clear enough, but then it all gets blurry. Epstein claimed that he left Bear Stearns to set up his own wealth management firm, dealing exclusively with clients with at least $1 billion in net worth, but the only named client discovered to date was Wexner. Epstein appears to have first hooked up with the above-mentioned Steven Hoffenberg in 1987, an association that crashed when Hoffenberg went to jail for fraud. Epstein was unscathed and rich and by then knew everyone who mattered. How did he do it? Donald Trump had his daddy to bail him out of his financial disasters, but the closest Epstein had to that was Wexner.

One thing that is clear is that the Epstein case has had political fallout in Israeli politics, because of Epstein’s past ties to Netanyahu’s political rival, former prime minister Ehud Barak. Netanyahu, who has been tightly aligned with Trump, quickly weaponized the connection last year to deflect from his own corruption issues, charging that the Wexner Foundation (where Epstein had been a board member) had given Barak $2.3 million for a phantom research program in 2004. The Jerusalem Post reported last year that Barak had been photographed entering Epstein’s New York mansion in January 2016 on the same day that a large group of young women were seen entering as well. Barak admitted he was there that day, but maintained that his visit had nothing to do with sex, and he also admitted that he had been to Epstein’s island in the Virgin Islands. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz also reported that Epstein was a major investor in a start-up security company Barak set up in 2015. Barak was also reportedly named in a sealed deposition as one of the men Virginia Giuffre was trafficked to and forced to have sex with. He denies the accusations.

So yes, there was definitely an Israeli connection, though not necessarily one with Mossad. Could Epstein have been feeding useful information and/or blackmailing powerful people to secure Israeli influence over them? Based on the publicly available information, the most one could say is that it’s a fairly plausible theory, but far from proven.

As they say, dead men tell no tales, but Ghislaine Maxwell is still alive in a Manhattan jail.

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 

 

 

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