05:34 - Source: CNN
How Jeffrey Epstein's death became a political football
CNN —  

On Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump was asked whether he really believed – per a tweet he retweeted on Sunday – that the Clintons were somehow behind the death of billionaire financier and accused sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.

Here’s how he responded:

“I have no idea. I know he was on his plane 27 times, and he said he was on the plane four times. But when they checked the plane logs, Bill Clinton, who was a very good friend of Epstein, he was on the plane about 27 or 28 times, so why did he say four times? And then the question you have to ask is ‘Did Bill Clinton go to the island?’ because Epstein had an island that was not a good place as I understand it, and I was never there. So you have to ask, ‘Did Bill Clinton go to the island?’ If you find that out, you’re going to know a lot.”

Which amounts to the verbal equivalent of drenching a fire with lighter fluid.

You might be tempted to look away or ignore this. After all, we know that Trump crafted his political persona in large part on a debunked conspiracy theory (that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States) and that he has spent his presidency swimming in conspiracy theory waters joyfully. We also know that in promoting a conspiracy theory that ties Espstein’s death to his political enemies Bill and Hillary Clinton that Trump is actively trying to distract from the fact that he, too, had a relationship with Epstein and once even talked to New York Magazine about Epstein’s known proclivity for young women.

And yet! It’s important to not look away. It’s important to stare right at what Trump is saying, debunk it with facts and put it in the broader context of how he so often uses his perch as President of the United States to blur the lines between fact and fiction in support of his broader political goals.

Let’s start with some facts.

There is no question that Bill Clinton and Epstein knew each another. And that Clinton traveled on Epstein’s private jet on four occasions after he left the White House, according to a statement released by his office following Epstein’s arrest in July.

“In 2002 and 2003, President Clinton took a total of four trips on Jeffrey Epstein’s airplane: one to Europe, one to Asia, and two to Africa, which included stops in connection with the work of the Clinton Foundation,” said Clinton spokesman Angel Ureña.

Gawker in 2015 reported that it had obtained flight logs for Epstein’s private plane and according to its tally found that Clinton had taken more than a dozen flights on Epstein’s plane. Why the discrepancy? The most likely explanation is that Clinton’s office is counting an entire trip Clinton took on Epstein’s jet as one total trip while Gawker is counting each leg of the trip individually.

Now to the “island” that Trump mentioned. That’s a reference to Little St. James, an island Epstein owns in the broader US Virgin Islands that was his primary residence. (The Cut has a very good summary of everything we know about the island.) FBI agents were on the island on Monday.

And one last fact. According to law enforcement sources, Epstein died of an apparent suicide. There is no evidence at present that suggests he was murdered. None.

Which brings us back to what Trump is up to – and how. There are facts sprinkled into what Trump is saying – it’s true that Bill Clinton went on Epstein’s jet and there are conflicting reports about how often. It’s true that Epstein owned an island where, allegedly, he ran a sexual slavery operation. And it’s true that Epstein’s death came just days after he was taken off of suicide watch for a previous incident in which he was left with marks on his neck.

What Trump is doing then is, effectively, this: He is putting three notecards – each with one of these facts written on them – on a table in front of you. And then he is giving you a knowing look – or a wink – that says, “We smart people know there’s more going on here.” He’s inviting you to be part of the savvy crowd, the people who see through the “official” story and understand what’s “really” happening.

His ability to do so relies on a willing audience. And thanks to a series of high-profile failures and cover-ups by our elites and our institutions (political and otherwise) in the last few decades – think “weapons of mass destruction,” the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, the college admission scandal, etc. – he has it.

Gallup polling on how much trust the public has in major institutions reveals record lows almost across the board. TV shows – “Homeland,” “24,” Designated Survivor” (yes, there is a lot of Kiefer Sutherland in there) – propagate this idea that there’s some sort of big conspiracy lurking right below the surface of the government.

Some have become convinced that nothing should be taken at face value. That the only people who do that are rubes and suckers. That there’s always more to know – if only we ask the right question or get to the right person.

That’s the character weakness that Trump preys on. Go back and read his comments above. He’s not outright saying Clinton was closer to Epstein than people think or that Clinton had anything to do with Epstein’s demise. He’s just asking some questions! And he’s leaving it up to us to connect the dots.

The problem, of course, is that not all dots are connected or even related. Sometimes – most times – things are what they look like they are. Trump doesn’t care about any of that, though. He knows stoking doubt and distrust regarding institutions and establishment figures energizes his base. So he does it, and damn the consequences.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. There are – and none of them are good for our collective culture.