News Brief: Epstein's Death, Democrats' Gun Plans, Hong Kong Protests

Aug 12, 2019
Originally published on August 12, 2019 6:12 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges, was found dead inside a Manhattan jail cell Saturday from an apparent suicide.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's not yet clear why Epstein wasn't being monitored more closely. Just a few weeks ago, he was found unconscious in his jail cell with marks on his neck, suggesting a possible suicide attempt. The day before Epstein's death, thousands of court documents from a civil suit were released, detailing how he lured girls as young as 14 years old into a sex trafficking ring that he operated from 2002 to 2005.

GREENE: All right, let's learn more about what happened here from NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department and has been reporting on it. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So give us the latest. What do we know about how Epstein ended up dead while in custody?

LUCAS: Well, there still aren't a lot of answers to the questions that we have, really. We do know, as you mentioned, that Epstein was found at about 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. His death has raised so many questions in part because, as you mentioned earlier, in July, Epstein had been put on suicide watch after this apparent suicide attempt.

Now, a source tells me that he was taken off of that suicide watch in late July. He was only on it for a couple of days. He was put instead into a cell, along with a cellmate, and prison staff was to check on him every 30 minutes. I'm told that, in the hours leading up to his death, the cellmate was not there, and Epstein was not being checked on. The cellmate had been transferred out. No one had been brought back in to replace him so that there was someone in the cell at all times with Epstein; that's what should have happened on the protocol, I'm told. So still a lot of questions on that.

Now, the New York City's chief medical examiner said yesterday that her office had conducted an autopsy, but they said that they hadn't reached a determination as to the cause of death, pending further information.

GREENE: But tell me about the hours and days leading up to his death because a lot was happening in the case, right?

LUCAS: Well, I mean, this case has generated an enormous amount of publicity and media attention in the U.S. here and over the world. On Friday, though, a big thing happened, and that's these hundreds and hundreds of court documents related to Epstein were made public; that's by court order. These were related to a defamation case, to a lawsuit that was brought by one of the women who says that she was sexually abused and trafficked by Epstein. Some of the court records were sworn depositions. You had a whole host of documents that were in there.

But there are new allegations of how Epstein brought underage girls into this alleged sex trafficking ring. There are also new allegations against other prominent men who allegedly had sex with girls through Epstein. They include former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. They both, though, have denied the allegations.

GREENE: OK, so this goes forward now. I mean, you have the Justice Department inspector general who's going to be looking into this. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that this death raised serious questions. But then you have, I mean, just these allegations. I mean, Epstein accused of sex crimes against minors. I'm just thinking about the alleged victims here and their search for some kind of justice. But what options are still left for them?

LUCAS: Well, you have the - the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York has said that his investigation will continue. The case into Epstein is done, but one of the charges was conspiracy, sex trafficking conspiracy, so that investigation will go forward. There's the possibility of conspirators being prosecuted in that case, and then there's also the possibility of civil cases that victims can bring, and they can pursue that avenue as well.

GREENE: NPR's Ryan Lucas covering the story for us. Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right, the Iowa State Fair traditionally has been kind of a more easygoing campaign event for presidential candidates

MARTIN: Right. You know this, David. I mean, you go there. You see candidates chowing down on deep-fried foods, taking a lot of selfies with voters. This weekend, though, the whole thing had a different kind of tone. Days after the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, many of the Democratic candidates just set aside all the fun and games and released their plans for reducing gun violence.

GREENE: All right, NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow spent the weekend with the candidates in Iowa and at the fair and joins us. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: OK, so what are the Democratic candidates saying in terms of what their plans would be, if elected, to confront gun violence in America?

DETROW: A lot of consensus on policies like universal, expanded background checks. Senator Elizabeth Warren rolled out a new plan this weekend proposing raising taxes on guns and ammunition and also holding firearms manufacturers and CEOs liable for gun violence. Former Vice President Joe Biden wrote an op-ed in The New York Times this morning arguing for a new assault weapon ban and talking about how that was a key part of that 1994 crime bill that he's really been on the defensive over so far.

A lot of candidates are like Senator Kamala Harris as well; they say executive action would be a big part of their approach, given the decades of congressional gridlock on this.

GREENE: But what I've heard from the candidates - and you tell me because you were so much closer - is that this conversation has not just been about guns.

DETROW: Yeah.

GREENE: I mean, after Dayton, after El Paso, it seems like a much broader conversation.

DETROW: Absolutely. And that's so striking because, as important as gun control is for Democrats, it's really taken a back seat. And a big focus is on the rise in white nationalism, the kind that allegedly sparked the El Paso shooting. The candidates are all saying that President Trump's words and actions have emboldened white nationalism. I interviewed Kamala Harris on her campaign bus, and I asked her how, as president, she would fix this.

KAMALA HARRIS: These are acts and expressions that are born out of hate, which under this administration has received new fuel. And part of the role and the power of the president of the United States is to use her microphone in a way that is about elevating public discourse and in - is a way that - in a way that is about lifting people up, not beating them down. That's not what we've seen in this president.

GREENE: Scott, I mean, dealing with such weighty subjects. But this fair and being in Iowa is also an opportunity for Kamala Harris and others to distinguish themselves - right? - and kind of to show their fun side at moments...

DETROW: Yeah.

GREENE: ...As a potential president. Like, how did they strike that balance?

DETROW: You know, a lot of the conversation about gun violence and white nationalism happened at a forum that had been set up elsewhere in Iowa at the last minute, after this violence. But at the fair, there still was a lot of room for the retail politics and the approaches to the fair. You know, there were different styles on display. Harris, Warren, Biden had this big presence, a ton of supporters and media. A lot of the other candidates got to do a lot more one-on-one retailing and get a chance to actually enjoy the fair like normal people - ride the rides, even.

One striking thing about Biden - early in this trip, he looked very strong. He gave a powerful speech about Trump and white nationalism, had a big reception at the fair. But over the weekend, he had several verbal slip-ups, including mistakenly saying the Parkland shooting happened when he was vice president, and that opened the door to some questions about his performance.

GREENE: Did you get time to enjoy the fair? Do you like eating that...

DETROW: I had the maple-glazed pork belly on a stick and the bacon-wrapped corn dog, and both were excellent.

GREENE: OK. So the answer is yes.

DETROW: Yes (laughter).

GREENE: You did get a little time to enjoy the fair. NPR's Scott Detrow on the campaign trail. Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. We're going to now go to Hong Kong, where authorities are saying they are suspending all flights at this time.

MARTIN: Right, this comes as pro-democracy protesters - they've been out demonstrating on the streets for 10 straight weeks now. And this transpired again this past weekend. Police were clashing with protesters in several downtown districts, and things got violent. Because of the demonstrations at the airport in Hong Kong, officials have now canceled all flights, as David noted.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Anthony Kuhn observed these events as they played out over the weekend and joins us now from Hong Kong. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, David

GREENE: Let's start with the situation at the airport. What do we know about the suspended flights and what this could mean?

KUHN: Well, this is one of the busiest airports in Asia. Police said there are now about 5,000 protesters there. And now because flights have been canceled, protesters are worried that the police may try to flush them out by force. And it's not clear whether this was a government strategy or not, but it certainly inconveniences a lot of people. And it could have - could be part of a strategy to, you know, pin it on the protesters and make it make it seem like they're disrupting people's lives.

GREENE: So how violent were these clashes over the weekend? I mean, you were out there. Take me to the streets. And what did it feel like as you were watching this?

KUHN: Well, what happens in these sort of hit-and-run, guerrilla-style protests is the protesters get out there and they barricade the streets. They throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police. Then the police come in firing tear gas and rubber bullets. They beat protesters with batons. They arrest some of them. They clear the streets, and then they reopen them to traffic. And then the remaining protesters move on to the next district, and this repeated itself over and over again in many downtown areas, about four of them yesterday. So it just keeps on going, very fast and fluid.

GREENE: So the police response you're describing, I mean, it sounds like, I mean, potentially police brutality. How are people handling that question?

KUHN: A lot of people here sure see it that way. They feel that the police did a lot of unnecessary beating, firing of rubber bullets and tear gas at close range. They even fired tear gas into the subway, where it's hard for those gases to disperse.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

KUHN: There were also allegations that undercover cops dressed as protesters were stirring up violence, which riot police then moved in to quell. Now, the police say they're just, you know, responding to threats to their safety, they used minimum force to disperse the protesters. There have been scores of injuries we hear about over the weekend. There have not been fatalities. But people perceive this as brutality, and this fueled a big turnout of protesters at the airport.

GREENE: Can you just talk broadly about where this is all headed, the role of mainland China, what these protesters want? I mean, what are we expecting in the days and weeks ahead?

KUHN: Well, let me say something about the role of the mainland. I was in this neighborhood yesterday called the North Point, and a lot of people who live there are pro-Beijing. They're immigrants from mainland China. And there've been a lot of fights there, and they seem to be spoiling for a fight and warning that, if the protesters came, they would - you know, they'd let them have it.

But the police managed to keep them apart. They blocked off the streets, and there were no big fights. But the perception is, is that these are gangs in Hong Kong to do Beijing's bidding. And as far as, you know, where things are headed, the police could do mass arrests; that would shut things down. Beijing could send in the military; that would shut things down. But neither of these looks like they're about to happen. So it looks like this could grind on for quite a long time. And what is the new normal is, in fact, very difficult for people to live a normal life in.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Hong Kong about the recent protests there. Anthony, thanks so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.

KUHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.