January 4, 2024 - 12:00pm

No one wants to be associated with Jeffrey Epstein these days. For many years, famous men were happy to attend his parties, accept flights on his private plane and visit his luxurious island. Their names appear in the first tranche of documents released overnight by a New York court, confirming just how well-connected Epstein was before his disgrace. Few of them, however, noticed anything amiss — or if they did, they kept their misgivings to themselves. 

Bill Clinton’s spokesman says the former president knew nothing about the financier’s crimes and cut ties with him more than a decade ago. Donald Trump, who was often photographed with Epstein in the 1990s, says he was “not a fan” and distanced himself years ago. Other former associates insist they were entirely unaware of the sex trafficking operation that resulted in the conviction of his former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, two years ago.

Maxwell’s behaviour, which involved identifying and grooming teenage girls for Epstein, is indefensible. Her trial attracted huge publicity, raising questions about how a woman frequently described as a “socialite” could have ended up as her ex-partner’s pimp. But the focus on Maxwell served to deflect attention away from equally pressing questions, such as whether the couple benefited from a culture of silence. 

Epstein was often surrounded by teenage girls who flew with him on his private plane, something that hardly counts as normal behaviour. During Maxwell’s trial, Epstein’s former housekeeper described having to pick up and wash sex toys at his mansion in Palm Beach. The newly-released documents confirm that Epstein and Maxwell inhabited a highly sexualised atmosphere, which isn’t in itself new. But the sheer volume of the material, and the detailed versions of allegations already in the public domain, is startling. 

So is the previously unheard claim that one of Epstein’s guests, the magician David Copperfield, saw enough to raise his suspicions. According to one of Epstein’s victims, Johanna Sjoberg, Copperfield was at a dinner party at the financier’s house where another young girl was present. He asked Sjoberg “if I was aware that girls were being paid to find other girls”. There is no suggestion that the magician was involved in any wrongdoing but it would be surprising, to say the least, if he was the only one of Epstein’s associates who ever wondered about the set-up.

Indeed, Sjoberg’s testimony paints a picture of so licentious an atmosphere at Epstein’s house in Manhattan that no one blinked when Prince Andrew allegedly put his hand on her breast. The Prince has always denied the claim that another young woman, Virginia Giuffre, was forced to have sex with him but settled a civil case brought by her two years ago. The new documents go a great deal further, claiming that a girl identified only as Jane Doe 3 was told to have sex with Andrew “in an orgy with numerous other under-aged girls” on Epstein’s private island. She was allegedly told by Epstein to “give the Prince whatever he demanded”. 

The Epstein case is a scandal, and not just because he and Maxwell got away with abusing girls for so long. It suggests the continuing existence of a culture of impunity, in which it is more convenient to look the other way than challenge a charming man with apparently endless resources. The woman who facilitated Epstein’s offences is quite rightly in prison, but the penalty for unquestioningly accepting his largesse is evidently little more than a few days’ embarrassment.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.