How the media failed when Trump boosted a false conspiracy theory about the Clintons killing Jeffrey Epstein
On Saturday, Donald Trump accused his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, of murder, retweeting a video pushing a conspiracy theory that the Clintons had somehow managed to murder Jeffrey Epstein in jail. Epstein, as roughly everybody knows, was the former financial manager (and/or swindler) who seems to have committed suicide in his New York jail cell while awaiting trial for sex trafficking of minors. Trump's latest retweet came shortly after another one, claiming that Bill Clinton "took private trips to Jeffrey Epstein’s 'pedophilia island.'"
Both accusations were false, of course. Most of the things Trump says are false, and his rate of lies has ballooned to an average of 13 per day. But because of this explosion of falsehood, Trump's retweets received a collective shrug from much of the media.
"The news media did not treat this as a major story; the Sunday New York Times editors found a few inches for it on page 21," Jonathan Swan at Axios reported.
In fact, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat went on Twitter to mock anyone who took Trump seriously for lobbing false accusations of murder. Douthat joked, "Dear God, next thing you know the president will accuse a political rival’s family of being implicated in the JFK assassination!" That's a reference to Trump's 2016 attempts to float a similar conspiracy theory about the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, his onetime Republican primary opponent.
The posture of bored, above-it-all cynicism that infects the political press will, I suspect, be a major factor future historians point to when writing about the collapse of the American empire. Even if saying so doesn't impress the high school debate nerds who make up the majority of our political media, it is in fact a big deal that Trump is floating this conspiracy theory: The video he retweeted got more than 3 million views by Sunday morning.
Just a week before Epstein's suicide, we were all subjected to another vivid reminder that Trump's sadistic rhetoric is getting people killed. A young white man, hyped up on the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric being popularized by Trump, opened fire in an El Paso Walmart store, killing 22 people. After surrendering to the police, the suspected killer said that he was targeting"Mexicans", a group Trump has accused of being "rapists" and "bringing crime." The killer also posted a manifesto online painting Hispanic people as an "invasion," language that Trump and his allies at Fox News have frequently used when talking about the same people.
Despite this vivid reminder that Trump's lies are inciting violence, the media couldn't be moved to take seriously his false accusation that the Clintons are involved in Epstein's death. Let's remember that there has already been one attempted assassination of the Clintons by a Trump fan who has said he was inspired by the president's rhetoric.
Trump false accusations about the troubling circumstances of Epstein's death are even more disturbing considered in light of his long-standing habit of psychological projection. Simply put, Trump tends to accuse other people of doing what he himself is doing. In fact, Hillary Clinton is a favorite target of Trump's use of projection to deflect attention from himself. This was famously illustrated by the deeply bizarre moment in a 2016 debate when Trump erupted, "No puppet, no puppet, you're the puppet. You're the puppet," after Clinton, completely fairly, accused him of being a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the past few days, in fact, Trump has been on a projection bender. He has accused others of lying, of going "totally CRAZY," of running a "corrupt and disgusting business," of being desperate to be on TV, and being mentally unfit to be president in a "very big and complicated world" — all accusations that better describe Trump himself.
Trump has certainly made false accusations that aren't projections before — it's unlikely he was personally involved in the JFK assassination, which occurred when he was 17 years old — but those are relatively rare. Most of the time, when Trump accuses someone of something, it's time to take a closer look at what he himself is up to.
This is relevant, because there are what the media like to call "questions" swirling around Epstein's suicide. Epstein had reportedly attempted suicide several weeks earlier, and was supposed to be on suicide watch and in a cell with another inmate to prevent more suicide attempts. But for some reason, guards hadn't checked on Epstein for several hours and his cellmate had been removed.
There are many valid reasons to resist the siren call of paranoia beckoning one towards the island of conspiracy theories. The likeliest explanation for Epstein's suicide is merely the incompetence and negligence of prison authorities, which is an ongoing problem at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the federal jail in Manhattan where Epstein was being held. His death is emblematic of the systematic failures in a prison bureaucracy that lead to hundreds of prison suicides a year. The many layers of officialdom between the White House and the prison authorities who left Epstein in a situation where he could kill himself would require a conspiracy involving numerous people, making the risk of disclosure sky-high.
Still, the inescapable fact is that Trump is a sexual predator and, at least at one time, was a good friend of Epstein's. No one who has followed Trump's career believes he would hesitate to order underlings to commit brutal acts to cover up for his corrupt or criminal behavior.
Trump has been accused of sexual assault, including rape, by at least 17 women, and has been recorded bragging about his sexual predation. Special counsel Robert Mueller's report painted a picture of Trump as a man with a bottomless appetite for obstructing justice. We know that Trump has engaged in payoffs in order to keep stories of his extramarital affairs out of the news. One of the women he paid off, porn actress Stormy Daniels, also claims she was physically threatened by someone on Trump's behalf. We also know that Attorney General William Barr, who runs the agency tasked with running federal prisons, has already engaged in a high-profile cover-up of Trump's likely crimes.
Keeping those conspiracy theories at bay was already hard enough. Then Trump tweeted out a false accusation against a political adversary, which is his go-to move when he's trying to deflect attention from his own guilt.
In the wake of Epstein's suicide, there's been a lot of justified hand-wringing about the growth of conspiracy theories in American politics, and about the way that conspiracy theories erode the public trust necessary to keep our democracy functioning. Charlie Warzel of the New York Times lamented that in an age of social media and "hyperpartisanship," we have a "deeply poisoned information ecosystem" where many Americans live in "a parallel reality unrooted in fact." Trump never met a conspiracy theory he didn't want to amplify, and his tendency to lie and promote conspiracy theories has been an instrumental part of the shift Warzel bemoans.
What is less examined, however, is how Trump's own corrupt behavior contributes to the air of paranoia gripping the country. It's almost beyond dispute that Trump has engaged in a number of conspiracies and cover-ups, some of them likely criminal. It's easy to believe new conspiracy theories about our supposedly elected leader, since so many of the old ones are true.
As Joseph Heller and Kurt Cobain observed, "Just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you."
It's tempting for "responsible" journalists simply to ignore Trump acting in a manner that almost begs us to believe conspiracy theories about him. It may feel like the only way to keep from sliding into the vortex of paranoia.
But ignoring Trump's tweets, out of an abundance of conspiracy-theory caution, is also problematic. We can't know whether Trump is acting out of a guilty conscience. But whatever the reason for his behavior, it's a serious problem that the president of the United States casually retweets lunatics and tosses off false accusations of murder. As David Frum of the Atlantic pointed out, if any other president had done such a thing, it "would have convulsed the United States and the world."
Even if journalists and politicians have learned to shrug off Trump's rantings as hot air streaming out of a credibility-free buffoon, there are still a lot of people in this country who take the president very seriously. Some of them become inspired to shoot up shopping centers or send mail bombs to former presidents or bash in the skull of some kid at a baseball game because he didn't remove his hat during the national anthem.
Outrage is exhausting, but it's necessary. The country is falling apart and people are dying. After Trump was elected — not even three years ago, though it feels like an eternity — there were a million op-eds about not allowing ourselves to normalize his brand of reality-TV evil. That message is even more important now than it was then.