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Trump aides see incompetence, not conspiracy, in Epstein death

Trump administration officials suspect a portrait of incompetence, rather than conspiracy, will emerge from a series of federal investigations under way into the Bureau of Prisons’ handling of Jeffrey Epstein’s death at a Manhattan jailhouse.

Speaking with McClatchy, White House officials expressed relief that Attorney General William Barr moved swiftly to open an inquiry into the death of the accused sex trafficker.

Epstein was found in his prison cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Saturday morning. The city’s chief medical examiner presumes he died by suicide, but is waiting for “additional information” to conclusively rule on the cause of death.

The incident has united Democrats and Republicans in calling for an examination of the Bureau of Prisons, where union members are already defending themselves against blame for Epstein’s death and claiming that Trump’s hiring freeze has created “dangerous conditions” in the nation’s penitentiaries.

Barr temporarily reassigned the warden at the prison where Epstein died to the bureau’s Northeast regional office on Tuesday, a Justice Department spokesman said, and also placed on administrative leave two members of the prison staff assigned to Epstein’s unit “pending the outcome of the investigations.”

Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee reached rare agreement this week, demanding that the bureau provide an accounting for Epstein’s death and warning that it “demonstrates severe miscarriages of or deficiencies in inmate protocol and has allowed the deceased to ultimately evade facing justice.”

Two administration officials said that a sense of bewilderment gripped the president’s aides when the news first broke.

“The question was, how did this happen? We thought that he was on suicide watch,” one official said. “If I could characterize the reaction within the building, it’s a desire to figure out what exactly happened here.”

Some White House aides had lingering questions. They recalled an incident weeks before his death that resulted in bruising on his neck and was never conclusively attributed to a suicide attempt or an assault.

The slow trickle of details from the case leaking out is fueling conspiracy theorists, “much to their delight,” one administration official said. “These are things that only a professional investigation will uncover.”

Among those entertaining conspiracy theories is the president himself. Only hours after news of Epstein’s death emerged, and before federal fact-finding had begun in earnest, Trump had retweeted a fringe theory linking former President Bill Clinton to the event.

Asked by reporters in New Jersey on Tuesday whether he really believed the conspiracy theory had merit, Trump replied: “I have no idea.” But he nevertheless questioned whether the former president had visited Epstein at his private island retreat.

“That’s the question,” Trump said, highlighting Clinton’s relationship with Epstein and records of his travel on Epstein’s private jet. Trump has also been photographed with Epstein at events.

Another confidante of the president told Fox News he was confounded by the prison’s failure to protect Epstein’s life.

“What happened here, to me, is mind-boggling,” Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, told Fox News. “This argument over whether he was on suicide watch or not is like silly because if he wasn’t on suicide watch, he should have been on watch. The guy was a high-risk prisoner, wasn’t he? I mean he’s a guy that they’re probably 50 very important people that have a motive to kill him.”

Lawmakers continued to urge for increased scrutiny of the 2008 deal between Epstein and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida and avoid more serious federal charges.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged Barr on Tuesday to rip up the 2008 plea deal, arguing that it should not shield the four named co-conspirators, and “any potential co-conspirators” from facing federal charges.

“I ask you to confirm that the Department of Justice no longer considers” the agreement “binding” against any of the named or unnamed co-conspirators, Sasse said in the letter.

His letter follows requests by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, who has pressed for an inspector general probe of the Justice Department’s handling of Epstein’s plea deal. She said Barr’s request for an inspector general investigation into Epstein’s death was inadequate.

“Our priority should be securing justice for Epstein’s victims, and that means the obscene 2008 non-prosecution deal should be vacated and not apply to co-conspirators, while ensuring nothing like it is ever repeated,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Congress must not focus only on Epstein’s death, and ignore the Justice Department’s larger, outrageous mishandling of this entire case. That would just appease conspiracy theorists like Trump, at the expense of Epstein’s victims.”

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Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
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