July 9, 2019

There are lots of gross and prurient aspects to the lurid case unfolding around Jeffrey Epstein, a mysterious, well-connected, and evidently very wealthy self-professed financier, convicted sex offender, and alleged sexual abuser and trafficker of young girls, but there are also lots of basic questions. For one: Where did Epstein get all his money?

Until Epstein flew former President Bill Clinton to Africa with Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker in 2002, few people paid him any heed. Then a 2002 profile of Epstein in New York laid out his origin story: Born and raised in Coney Island, Brooklyn; attended but did not graduate from Cooper Union and NYU; was recruited to Bear Stearns while teaching high school calculus and physics at the tony Dalton School; worked his way up to partner; left Bear Stearns under mysterious circumstances in 1981; founded his own wealth management company in which he would take on only billionaire clients who agreed to hand him total control of their money; yada yada yada multiple mansions, a fleet of private jets, his own island, and powerful friends.

In 2003, a Vanity Fair profile by Vicky Ward tore a few holes in that story, and in 2015, Ward wrote in The Daily Beast that in her extensive reporting on Epstein "no one I spoke to believed" that "the hidden source of his wealth" was "managing the money of billionaires and taking a commission." Some of Epstein's friends "speculated that retailer Les Wexner was the real source of Epstein's wealth," Ward wrote, but while the billionaire founder of Victoria's Secret is Epstein's only known client — or former client — Wexner wouldn't comment on the idea.

A decade ago, Epstein's lawyers said his wealth was in the nine-figure range, but "today, so little is known about Epstein's current business or clients that the only things that can be valued with any certainty are his properties," including the $77 million Manhattan mansion federal agents raided over the weekend and his properties in New Mexico, Paris, Palm Beach, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where his "black box" of a company is now incorporated, Bloomberg News reports. There's even mystery about the Manhattan mansion: The only New York property record on the 1990s transfer of the mansion from Wexner to Epstein was filed in 2011, with a transfer price of $0, Bloomberg says. "Epstein signed for both sides of the transaction." Peter Weber

3:21 p.m.

It's the end of a very caffeinated era.

When former President Donald Trump occupied the Oval Office, he quite literally had a button on his desk that ordered a Diet Coke to the room whenever it was pressed. But as a glimpse at President Biden's desk just hours after his inauguration shows, the soda-summoning button is gone.

While it may have sounded just too weird to be true, Trump's Diet Coke obsession and his button to match were absolutely real. No word on if Biden will install some kind of ice cream-ordering alternative. Kathryn Krawczyk

2:13 p.m.

Facebook's oversight board has taken on a major case, as it's set to review the company's decision to boot the president of the United States from its platform.

Facebook announced Thursday it has referred its decision to indefinitely suspend former President Donald Trump's account to the Facebook independent Oversight Board, which has accepted the case.

"We believe our decision was necessary and right," Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communications, said. "Given its significance, we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld. While we await the board's decision, Mr. Trump's access will remain suspended indefinitely."

Facebook suspended Trump's account in the wake of the deadly riot at the Capitol building by his supporters, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying the "risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great" as he attempted to "undermine the peaceful and lawful transfer of power." Facebook said the suspension would continue "indefinitely" and "at least" until he was out of office.

The oversight board pledged to offer a "thorough and independent assessment" of the case and provide "policy recommendations from the board on suspensions when the user is a political leader." Facebook noted that whatever decision the board reaches will be binding and can't be overruled by the company's executives. A decision will come within 90 days.

Twitter also took action against Trump over the Capitol riot by permanently banning his account. But NBC News' Dylan Byers notes that referring the case to the oversight board allows Facebook to "outsource" this final decision. Brendan Morrow

2:05 p.m.

The evenly split Senate is having a hard time agreeing who's in charge.

Georgia's two new Democratic senators were sworn in Wednesday, giving Republicans and Democrats 50 senators each, with Vice President Kamala Harris as a Democratic tiebreaker. The two parties are now working out a power-sharing agreement, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) commitment to the filibuster is standing in the way.

McConnell on Thursday formally acknowledged Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the chamber's new majority leader. But as he has been for days, McConnell again implored Democrats to preserve the filibuster that lets a senator extend debate and block a timely vote on a bill if there aren't 60 votes to stop it. Democrats "have no plans to gut the filibuster further, but argue it would be a mistake to take one of their tools off the table just as they're about to govern," Politico reports; More progressive senators do want to remove the option completely.

If his filibuster demands aren't met, McConnell has threatened to block the Senate power-sharing agreement that would put Democrats in charge of the body's committees. But Democrats already seem confident in their newfound power, with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) telling Politico that "Chuck Schumer is the majority leader and he should be treated like majority leader." Giving in to McConnell "would be exactly the wrong way to begin,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) echoed.

Other Democrats shared their resistance to McConnell's demands in tweets. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:01 p.m.

In the latest news story that's improbably not a 30 Rock episode description, Jenna Maroney actress Jane Krakowski has denied secretly dating the MyPillow guy for nine months.

A report from the Daily Mail on Thursday claimed controversial MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has recently made headlines for his false election fraud claims in support of former President Donald Trump, had a "secret nine month romance" with Krakowski until the "passionate" relationship ended last summer.

Lindell, the report claimed, supposedly "wooed the actress for close to a year, showering her with gifts and flowers." An anonymous source told the outlet, "She said she had known him for about eight years and that they had been friends but then they started a relationship about a year ago." The source also claimed, "They would fight and Jane would throw all of the gifts that he had given her away. Then they would make up and there would be more gifts again." The alleged romance reportedly baffled Krakowski's friends just as much as it did social media on Thursday when the article was published.

Both Krakowski and Lindell are denying the report — and claiming they never even met at all. "I've never met the man," Krakowski told the Daily Mail, while Lindell went a step further, saying, "I have never even heard of Jane Krakowski???"

Still, should NBC ever decide to reboot 30 Rock, we've got some good news for Tina Fey: the Daily Mail has already provided the first script. Brendan Morrow

12:43 p.m.

Congress' new Democratic majority is ready to press forward with impeachment charges against former President Donald Trump.

Last week, a bipartisan House majority voted to impeach Trump for inciting insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month. Trump has since left office with the inauguration of President Biden, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday she doesn't believe that's any reason to drop Trump's charges.

Pelosi said she wasn't convinced by arguments that an impeachment trial could further stoke partisan division. "I don't think it's very unifying to say, 'Oh, let's just forget it and move on.' That's not how you unify," she explained. Pelosi then said it's Congress' "responsibility" to "protect and defend the Constitution," because you can't just "say to a president, 'Do whatever you want in the last months of your administration.'"

Pelosi wouldn't give a specific timeframe for when the House impeachment managers would bring the articles to the Senate. Initially there was a delay because the Senate went on a recess, but it returned Tuesday and has since sworn in three new Democratic senators. Kathryn Krawczyk

Opinion
11:47 a.m.

When walking around the neighborhoods and grocery stores in Philadelphia, virtually everyone I see is wearing a mask. That's great news — we should all be happy to endure a little discomfort to fight the pandemic. Unfortunately, nearly all the masks are simple cloth varieties. While these are better than nothing, there are better masks available. President Biden and his administration should be pointing this out, and doing what they can to get those masks into the hands of the American people.

There have been multiple studies on whether masks work to slow the spread of coronavirus, and the general consensus is that they do — but the better the mask, the more they help. Cloth masks are good, 3-ply surgical masks are better, and medical-grade N95 or N100 respirators are better still. Yet so far public health authorities, and Biden himself, have typically just recommended the use of masks in general without any quality distinctions.

The CDC website is confusing on this point. It recommends that people do not use medical-grade N95s, as apparently there is still a global shortage and they should be reserved for medical workers. But it also recommends against surgical masks, which are widely available, for the same reason, and does not mention KN95s, which are probably only a bit worse than normal N95s. (Alas, there are reportedly a slew of counterfeit or low-quality masks out there.)

The Biden administration could upgrade its pandemic-fighting strategy by clearly explaining what kinds of masks are good and appropriate for normal citizens. It could further certify which manufacturers are trustworthy, so people aren't tricked by sleazy ripoff artists on Amazon. Best of all, as part of Biden's invocation of the Defense Production Act, he could send every household in the United States a free weekly supply of the best masks that can be produced (as Taiwan is doing). I would wager that within a month or two, every American could be using KN95s at least, and the spread of coronavirus would be slowed markedly, saving many thousands of lives. Ryan Cooper

11:25 a.m.

Eli Lilly's antibody drug bamlanivimab was found to "significantly" reduce the risk of contracting symptomatic COVID-19 in nursing homes, the company has announced.

Eli Lilly said Thursday a phase 3 trial showed that nursing home residents who preventively received bamlanivimab rather than a placebo had an up to 80 percent lower risk of contracting symptomatic COVID-19. Additionally, the company said bamlanivimab reduced the risk by 57 percent for both residents and staff, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"We are exceptionally pleased with these positive results, which showed bamlanivimab was able to help prevent COVID-19, substantially reducing symptomatic disease among nursing home residents, some of the most vulnerable members of our society," Eli Lilly chief scientific officer Daniel Skovronsky said.

Skovronsky further explained in an interview with the Journal that the company's antibody treatment is "not an alternative for a vaccine," but "for people who haven't been vaccinated, and there's an outbreak in their facility — this could be a last resort." In Eli Lilly's announcement, Skovronsky said that after the Food and Drug Administration previously provided an emergency use authorization for bamlanivimab, the company hopes to work "with regulators to explore expanding the emergency use authorization to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities." Brendan Morrow

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