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The political commentariat went into overdrive on Wednesday evening, floating stories of faceless teenaged girls who had their blood harvested, a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to infiltrate the highest levels of the American government, a hit job ordered against a jailed millionaire with an enviable Rolodex, and a Hollywood cabal of sexcapades. The catalyst: almost 1,000 pages of still-semi-redacted documents a federal judge ordered to be released in a civil case related to Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender whose decades of proximity to the rich and powerful has provided easy way for bad-faith actors to paint their preferred targets as accessories or co-conspirators in his horrifying misdeeds, even when the evidence behind such claims is embarrassingly thin.
The highly anticipated document dump did not include any so-called “client list” from Epstein, whose death in a Manhattan jail cell in 2019 while waiting trial on other sex-trafficking charges was ruled a suicide. But that didn’t stop the blatantly partisan, choose-your-own-adventure response.
While the documents detail some horrifying anecdotes of abuse and exploitation, those details were by and large already public knowledge. The nuggets of new information involve few actual provable accusations about anyone beyond Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s co-conspirator who was sentenced to federal prison for her role in helping Epstein sexually exploit and abuse multiple underage girls. Maxwell was also the target of a civil lawsuit in 2015 that the latest documents stem from. The plaintiff in that suit said she had to work as Epstein’s “sex slave.” They settled in 2017.
The initial batch of documents have a bevy of bold-faced names: Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Prince Andrew, Michael Jackson, Stephen Hawking, and David Copperfeld. But the docs don’t level any criminal accusations at any of them and, in the case of Trump, seem to exonerate him.
These are the types of work-product files that are generally passed back and forth among lawyers without sending social media platforms into a tailspin. Another tranche of documents is expected to dribble out over coming days, likely with more names of people who spoke to lawyers about the civil suit or who were mentioned in passing in depositions.
In short, there’s a lot of sizzle here, but so far little new substance. In an ideal world, that would silence some of the more bizarre theories that have gained ground in recent years. Instead, it shows the limits of partial transparency.
To be clear: as a journalist, I am all for transparency and disclosure. They’re the backbone of a credible system where the governed believe they can trust those atop the system, where those with power are invested in the system, too, and all can agree to a common set of facts and norms, such as children shouldn’t be sex workers and victims have a right to privacy. Journalists have stood at the ready to reveal what our leaders don’t. But in an age in which online communication has made everyone with a smartphone into a sleuth, things can quickly snowball into absurdity at best and danger at the more likely.
As evidenced by the Epstein disclosures, partial transparency comes with inherent dangers and is a threat to the strongest arguments inherent to the case for disclosure. It reveals all too well our bias toward buzz, regardless of the facts. And, the main reason these documents should be read with a careful eye is that they are vastly incomplete, despite their bulk.
Yes, the depositions are full of salacious details. For instance, one victim said former President Bill Clinton “likes them young,” referring to women. He is not accused of any wrongdoing in the documents.
No jury heard these witnesses in this civil case, and a fight over opening up these interviews has gone on for years. Some of the worst claims are based on memories of conversations with Epstein, who is no longer around to corroborate his side of the story. A judge might have treated other aspects of the tales as hearsay and block jurors from hearing any of this at all.
The docs, though, offer up a perfect proof point for critics to say that the system is rigged. It allows those so inclined to point a klieg light at the us-versus-them dynamic that colors so much of our politics, magnifying every ugly cranny and mean-spirited flaw. Here we have private jets, private islands, alleged sexual abuse, and bottomless pockets for plugged-in individuals to rub elbows with other fancy names.
This is the problem when guilt-by-association becomes the M.O. of the masses. Politically and in factual investigations, it’s a useful tool. As a shortcut to declarative judgments, it’s generally garbage, and without real evidence, patently unfair. That’s why the ongoing release of these documents is a move in the right direction toward understanding the cases in the Epstein orbit but hardly sufficient to start rendering verdicts.
But there’s a more consequential reality on display in these documents: it feeds notions of conspiracy theories centered on absurd, discredited, and not-so-vaguely racist tropes.
Down one classic rabbit hole, Hillary Clinton and her loyal adviser Huma Abedin were running a child sex-trafficking ring from the basement of a D.C. pizza shop—one that lacks a basement and already has been the scene of vigilante efforts at justice. In another, the whole system ended in a jail-cell hit job to silence Epstein from naming names, and that then-Attorney General Bill Barr signed off on it to protect his boss, Trump.
Now, before you think this exists only in far-flung corners of America, consider this finding in the latest Washington Post poll released Thursday: a full quarter of this country thinks the FBI was behind the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, including more than 3-in-10 Republicans and 44% of Trump voters. As the country glides toward the three-year anniversary, the widely televised attempt to keep Trump in power through political violence has become yet the latest example of how facts are irrelevant to reality.
All of this still comes back to a bigger central problem: there have been relatively few consequences for powerful men and women who took advantage of young women and girls, creating a social vacuum from which many see as proof of a justice system so fully rigged and corrupt that it casts people like Epstein as nearly super-human in their reach and influence. To focus on the wild, discredited, and partisan notions that are dominating most of this conversation is to disrespect all those victims. But in an environment that treats everything like a partisan contest, even tales of sexual exploitation can fall to gamification.
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