Ex-federal prosecutor warns Bill Barr could 'run interference' on the Epstein case if Trump is potentially involved

Ex-federal prosecutor warns Bill Barr could 'run interference' on the Epstein case if Trump is potentially involved
PBS NewsHour
News & Politics

UPDATE: Since the publication of this story, it has been widely reported that Attorney General Bill Barr is recusing from the Jeffrey Epstein case.

Former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah highlighted the troubling nature of Attorney General Bill Barr's position leading the Justice Department in a new op-ed reflecting on the arrest of billionaire and alleged sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

While it often seems that sexual abusers and high-status men guilty of criminal wrongdoing face little actual accountability, Rocah argued, Epstein's arrest indicates, at least in this instance, the justice might be served.

But she has serious concerns about the attorney general's potential involvement. Barr oversees all federal prosecutions, even the charges, such as those against Epstein, brought by the famously independent Southern District of New York. While Barr may have no interest in going easy on Epstein, Rocah warned he may be tempted to get involved if the president falls within the scope of the investigation:

He is the head of the whole Justice Department, even the “Sovereign” district, as SDNY is sometimes playfully called. And while it pains me to say this, given Barr’s conduct in the past acting more as a defense attorney for Trump than an overseer of justice, I am concerned that Barr might interfere if he thought that Epstein might implicate Trump, who was friends with Epstein. Barr did say in his confirmation hearings that he might recuse himself on overseeing matters with respect to Epstein because of his (Barr’s) affiliation with a law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, which was part of the Florida plea debacle. Now would be a good time to know if Barr followed through on that.

To be clear, there's no known evidence at this point that Trump had any direct involvement in the crimes for which Epstein has been charged. But there are vague indications that Trump might have had some idea what was going on. As has been widely noted, in 2002 — during the time when Epstein was believed to be trafficking dozens of young girls for sex — Trump was quoted in New York Magazine:

"I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” Trump booms from a speakerphone. “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."

It's possible, of course, that Trump believed at the time that all of Epstein's involvement with women was appropriate and legal. But in light of the public allegations against Epstein, Trump's remarks suggest he had some inkling of a darker truth. And given Trump's own treatment of women — which, allegedly, includes unwanted groping, rape, and walking in on young teenage girls in a dressing room — it's reasonable to believe that he might have been aware of and undisturbed by Epstein's conduct.

Of course, it's another step to assert that Trump had any criminal liability related to the charges against Epstein, and it's doesn't appear there's evidence that he did.

But what makes Barr's involvement disturbing is that we can have no confidence that he will treat the issue fairly and impartially. When a case this explosive comes forward about one of the president's friends, someone who has shown himself to be a partisan agent on behalf of Trump should clearly not be involved. That way, if the case concludes without providing anything that implicates Trump, the public can reasonably be assured that an unimpeded process was justly followed.

Barr himself, of course, is likely unaware of whether or not Trump was involved in Epstein's alleged crimes. But that ambiguity in his own mind could potentially incline him toward involving himself in the case in an effort to pre-emptively protect Trump from any potential embarrassment or exposure. This possibility should worry us all.

And if Trump does indeed have no involvement in the case, it would be much better for him if Barr steps aside and publicly recuses. It would help lift any cloud of suspicion created by Barr's clear intention to protect the president that he has repeatedly demonstrated — most notably in the handling of the release of the Mueller report. In that case, he distorted the nature of the report and inserted himself to exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice charges, even though Robert Mueller clearly intended Congress to make that judgment.

Epstein's case is already tarred by the effects of elite impunity. He received a remarkably lenient plea deal from the Justice Department in 2008 when he was facing similar charges. The prosecution team included, among others, Trump's Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, and the Miami Herald has reported that he played a key role in crafting the sweetheart deal. That deal broke the law, a judge has ruled, because the victims were not informed of the agreement.

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