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Mar-a-Lago connection fuels conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Jeffrey Epstein has been dead for three years, but his ghost still wanders the dark halls of the internet. In life, Epstein was arrested for a series of sexual crimes with underage girls. In death, speculation about his suicide in jail has spawned a series of conspiracy theories on the far right. The most recent iteration has drawn in the federal judge who signed the search warrant for former President Trump's home last month. NPR's Lisa Hagen joins us now to explain more. Welcome, Lisa.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Lisa, quickly remind us of who Jeffrey Epstein was. I think most people know he was pretty notorious. But why was that?

HAGEN: Yes, he was a wealthy sexual predator who supposedly managed other very rich people's money. Whose money or how those arrangements came about are still pretty much a mystery.

RASCOE: But why are we still talking about him? Like, what does he have to do with the judge who authorized the search of Mar-a-Lago last month?

HAGEN: Right. So within a day of that Mar-a-Lago search, right-wing publications and talking heads had realized that the federal magistrate judge, Bruce Reinhart, had previously represented some of Epstein's employees who had been accused of facilitating sex trafficking as well. The Miami Herald reported that any magistrate judge would have signed off on the warrant with probable cause from the FBI, but Reinhart just happened to be available that night. All of that got quickly boiled down into this guy was Epstein's lawyer, which he wasn't. That didn't, however, stop the antisemitic commentary about him online or having his home address posted. His synagogue was also threatened.

RASCOE: Lisa, you know, you spend a lot of time thinking about conspiracy theories. You know, how do these theories related to Jeffrey Epstein work? What's their function?

HAGEN: So experts I spoke with say so many of the details of Jeff Epstein's life and death fit into popular theories that are already out there. I talked to this professor from the University of Warwick, Quassim Cassam.

QUASSIM CASSAM: Well, it's effective because lots of these things that are said about Epstein's life are, in fact, true and actually do kind of plug into a preexisting kind of narrative about what the elites get up to.

HAGEN: And I've got to point out, like, these are valid concerns, right? You think about sex scandals in the Catholic Church, Hollywood, on and on. But Epstein's crimes fit so well into these existing narratives about powerful people running child sex trafficking rings. That's what he did. That, in turn, feeds into depictions of Trump as this mythic hero. He's unfairly maligned and cheated out of a second White House term while he alone takes on this sort of imaginary satanic network.

Also, just to say it, we know Epstein did like to hang out with rich and important people, right? So it is very easy to link him to almost anyone famous. He's in photographs with the Clintons, royalty, Bill Gates, and, yes, of course, Donald Trump. Conspiracy peddlers, however, tend to avoid mentioning that last fact.

RASCOE: So what's the importance of these online conspiracies? Like, do they affect life in the real world?

HAGEN: Well, one very dangerous corner of this imaginary extended universe is ugly antisemitic fictions about Jews. Here's Michael Hayden with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremism.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: And we're talking about explicit antisemites here who like to portray Jewish people as being sexually deviant or being predatory, particularly with young women and things like that. This is, you know, propaganda that goes back decades and decades.

HAGEN: And it's not that questioning what happened to Jeffrey Epstein or who he knew means you're on a one-way ticket to antisemitic conspiracy town, but you might be in, like, the same airport. And there are people who want to exploit that access and encourage physical violence.

RASCOE: NPR's Lisa Hagen, who covers conspiracies and extremism, thank you so very much.

HAGEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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