Jeffrey Epstein is dead. His victims will never have their day in court, at least not with this defendant. It is critical that the Justice Department conduct a thorough investigation into the circumstances of his death. But how it is handled is also critical to the integrity of DOJ. That is why Attorney General William Barr needs to recuse himself.
Epstein was charged in July by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York with sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. They claimed he exploited and abused dozens of minors, with victims as young as 14, and was so focused on keeping his pipeline of victims flowing that he resorted to paying some of them a fee to recruit more girls.
Six months before that, at his confirmation hearing, Barr was asked if he would investigate the handling of a decade-old Florida plea deal that let Epstein escape responsibility for his conduct. He said he thought his former law firm was involved in the case so he might have to recuse. Although Barr did ultimately recuse from an investigation into the Florida case, he did not from SDNY’s case.
This is concerning. In addition to the law-firm conflict, Alex Acosta, who served in Donald Trump’s Cabinet with Barr, was the U.S. Attorney in Miami when Epstein received his travesty of a plea deal. And Barr’s father was the headmaster of an elite New York City school that hired college dropout Epstein to teach math and physics. Do these circumstances amount to a conflict of interest requiring mandatory recusal? Barr, apparently after consulting with career ethics officials at DOJ, concluded they did not. But the appearance of impropriety, particularly given the President’s past relationship with Epstein and concerns that Barr had acted as the President’s lawyer rather than the people’s with regard to the Russia investigation, should have dictated that he recuse from the SDNY case.
Barr’s tenure as Attorney General has left a large segment of the country with questions, not just about DOJ but also about where his personal loyalties lie. Given his misleading summary of the Mueller report, no matter how objective his leadership is in this matter, there will be doubts about the outcome. Conspiracy theories, including those retweeted by the President, will continue to circulate, and we will have one more situation that erodes the already ebbing faith that people are willing to place in the institution Barr leads.
And yet if the past is prologue, he will not recuse. When it emerged during his confirmation process that he had sent an unsolicited memo to DOJ and the White House arguing that it cannot be obstruction of justice when a President does “facially-lawful” acts that involve an exercise of his constitutional authority, like firing an appointee, many people, myself included, suggested he take himself out of the running to replace Jeff Sessions. He did not.
It is often said that DOJ’s integrity is like a reservoir, slow to fill but easily emptied by a small leak. The reservoir is leaking. The day after news of Epstein’s apparent suicide broke, a tweet from the partisan podcast Mueller, She Wrote articulated the worst case: “Whether you believe there are nefarious forces within the DoJ that assisted with or turned a blind eye to the Epstein death, the bigger point is no one trusts the department of justice. No one.” We are in a dangerous place if people no longer trust that the Justice Department is doing justice.
“Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered,” Barr said in a statement. “In addition to the FBI’s investigation, I have consulted with the Inspector General who is opening an investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Epstein’s death.” But as Attorney General, Barr would still be the ultimate authority over the investigation.
How did a high-profile, high-risk prisoner have access to items he could use to hang himself? What procedures were and weren’t followed? These questions must be answered. If Barr cares about DOJ’s reputation, he should step aside and let career people conduct and oversee the investigation. If he does this, and if the investigation is exhaustive with results promptly made public, it would be a step in the long process of restoring faith in our justice system. All of us — especially Epstein’s victims, who have already been subjected to unthinkable trauma — are entitled to no less.