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Trump aides see incompetence, not conspiracy, in Epstein's death

Michael Wilner and Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Trump administration officials suspect a portrait of incompetence, rather than conspiracy, will emerge from a series of federal investigations underway 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 Bill 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."

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