Michael Wolff Takes Us Inside Epstein’s Media Strategizing
In his latest book, muckraker Michael Wolff portrays, in fly-on-the-wall fashion, the media strategizing and training of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was about to face new charges. The depiction is disturbing in that, for such a despicable situation, it shows some pretty standard crisis thinking.
Epstein (pictured in mug shot) pleaded guilty to procuring a child for prostitution in 2008 and went to prison. New sex charges were brought against him in New York in July 2019, but he died in jail the next month, officially via suicide. In his new collection of essays, Too Famous, Wolff includes a long one on “The Last Days of Jeffrey Epstein.”
Wolff shows Epstein meeting in early 2019 in his Manhattan mansion with advisors Reid Weingarten, the lawyer, and Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister. Sometime media executive Steve Bannon was on the phone from Washington, D.C.
Bannon seems the most realistic in terms of confronting the situation. “So where is the comms piece on this?” he asks. He is informed (it will sound familiar to any litigation-communications advisor) that there has been no media strategy for fear of bringing more unwanted attention, alienating judges and being seen as attacking victims (which, in private, they do a fair amount of).
Bannon is shocked at the lack of a media plan. At the same time, he’s skeptical about getting a sympathetic hearing from reporters. Weingarten admits it would be hard to “humanize” Epstein. When the lawyer says a month of preparation is required, Bannon replies that it would take a year. Epstein suggests starting with “surrogates” — known in the trade as “third-party endorsers” — but that doesn’t get very far.
Two weeks later, Bannon is in the New York manse to media train Epstein. An unnamed lawyer objects to recording the session. “This is just the most basic media training we can offer,” Bannon says, pressing the point that Epstein needs to study his performance like football players study game films.
“This is like preparing for a deposition except this is preparing for the court of public opinion,” he says. Another purpose is to “figure out the basic positioning” and show that Epstein isn’t “a monster.”
So where is the comms piece on this?
— Steve Bannon
Bannon wins and the camera rolls. He barrages Epstein with tough questions, including about his work as a financial advisor (“Do you work for Third World dictators?”). The trainer chides the trainee for actually answering the questions, which is bad advice, though it’s not wrong to point out, as Bannon does, that a crew can tape for hours and use only minutes — and not necessarily in a good light.
He’s also right that Epstein, in his answers, tried to be funny, but it comes off as creepy. Still, Bannon praises him for seeming natural and “not threatening.”
The next scene takes place in May 2019 in Epstein’s Paris apartment. According to Wolff, the financier was so toxic by then that no U.S. public relations firm would touch him. He was meeting with an unnamed London agency, whose senior rep suggests laying out one-year and five-year plans, which would involve setting up a “war room.”
“I think — thirty to sixty days, we build a book,” the rep says. “Here is our narrative, absolutely consistent, factual, on the merits, easily accessible on every question and on every allegation.”
In the end, Epstein doesn’t hire the firm. Three months later he was dead.
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