Jury selection has begun in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, friend of the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — a trial that some of us never expected to see. The former socialite has endured more than a year in the unfriendly confines of a Brooklyn jail, rather than arrive at a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Unquestionably, Maxwell is entitled to her day in court. In pretrial proceedings, her attorneys have suggested that the defense will challenge the veracity of witnesses who allege that she recruited and groomed adolescent girls to engage in sex acts with the mysterious Epstein.
The defense also laid the groundwork for an attack on the motives of prosecutors. Epstein’s death in jail, ruled a suicide, foreclosed a date with justice for the central figure in this appalling case. Maxwell evidently feels she is being hounded because he is beyond reach.
That’s her right. But the approach is discouraging to those who seek a clearer understanding of Epstein’s world, in which everyone appears to have noticed the endless stream of too-young women, yet hardly anyone raised an objection. We’ve had too much victim-shaming from Team Jeffrey, years of move-along-please, nothing-to-see-here.
What remains stubbornly elusive is how and why Epstein managed to pull so many people — prominent men with a lot to lose — into his creepy circle. Many details have been brought to light by the investigative reporter Julie K. Brown and others, but there is always something missing from the puzzle.
We hear that people were drawn to Epstein because of his money. But that can’t be the whole picture, because the billionaire clothing merchant Les Wexner was — by Wexner’s own vague account — caught in Epstein’s web long before the shaggy-haired former schoolteacher was rich. Indeed, as far as we know, Epstein’s money came primarily from Wexner, millions in cash and real estate.
What’s more, Epstein’s money can’t explain why Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spent time in the man’s company. The Epstein fortune, however much it was, could not have been more than pennies on Gates’s dollars. What is a private jet to a man who could buy his own air force? Yet Gates socialized with Epstein frequently enough that Melinda French Gates, the billionaire’s wife at the time in question, was moved to protest.
We hear that people found Epstein fascinating, full of brilliant insights on matters of science, medicine and the future. He went toe-to-toe with technologists at MIT and Harvard, talked through issues of global development with former president Bill Clinton, and kept the noted defense attorney Alan Dershowitz coming back for more. Peggy Siegal, a former Epstein publicist, has said: “His unique mind is what attracts the world’s smartest people to his home.”
We’ll have to take her word for it, because one can read reams of reporting about Epstein without encountering a single interesting word from his mouth.
If it wasn’t money that made Epstein’s web so sticky, and if it wasn’t brilliance, what are we left with? Sex? A principal witness against Epstein and Maxwell, Virginia Giuffre, has said that she performed sexual acts on separate occasions with Dershowitz and with Prince Andrew, on Epstein’s orders. (She has leveled the same charge against former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D) and others.) All the men have denied her allegations — although in the prince’s case, a televised denial went so poorly that he was stripped of his official duties after the interview aired.
The public has been left to make sense of a story that doesn’t quite add up. Some theorize that Epstein turned his own predatory behavior into a blackmail business; others speculate that he trafficked young women as an amenity for the famous men whose companionship he coveted; still others theorize that the sex offender and the celebrity collector were separate aspects of the same complicated man.
Maxwell could clear up a lot of questions, starting with the biggest: Why were so many so tolerant for so long? She knew Epstein as well as anyone. And, prosecutors say, she befriended some of Epstein’s underage victims and coached them sexually. As the daughter of a British media mogul, she moved as an equal in Epstein’s world.
She could sum everything up, but instead, by all indications, Maxwell plans to tell the same old story of misunderstood glitterati beset by gold-digging harlots and press-hungry prosecutors. Maybe she actually believes that she’s the real victim. But there are more than 100 women — some who say they were as young as 14 when they were assaulted — too trusting, too naive, who beg to differ.