“Conspiracies have generally been set on foot by the great, or the friends of the prince; and of these, as many have been prompted to it by an excess of benefits as by an excess of wrongs.”—Machiavelli

In case you didn’t feel enough like you’re living in that comic book version of Earth where the Justice League was replaced by the Crime Syndicate of America and evil always wins, Jeffrey Epstein killed himself Saturday.

Bill Barr was upset. He was appalled, in fact. So appalled that the Attorney General—who the Alliance for Justice notes “is highly skeptical of independent investigations,” having already hamstrung the Iran-Contra and Mueller investigations—appointed an independent investigator to look into how the American most likely to die in custody somehow got free of his suicide watch restrictions long enough to hang himself. A person who implicated dozens if not hundreds of powerful men in his child-trafficking ring, not the least of which was his former pal, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. No one is believing it.

Not even Trump, who broke free of his handlers to retweet this.

Let me unpack this for you:

  1. The president retweeted a conspiracy theorist who accused his 2016 opponent of arranging murders.
  2. Said conspiracy theorist used a hashtag—#trumpbodycount—that accused the president himself of arranging murders.
  3. The supposed murder itself was against Epstein, who was convicted of child trafficking and arranging such encounters for his elite friends in 2007.
  4. Epstein had injuries from a suicide (or maybe murder) attempt last month while in custody, and was placed on suicide watch.
  5. That suicide watch was mysteriously lifted at roughly the same time his case was unsealed, implicating powerful people in the rape of teenagers.
  6. The death occurred in a system headed by Barr, whom Trump appointed to end inquiries into his wrongdoing.
  7. In 2016, right before the election, Epstein and Trump were named in a horrifying child rape case by a woman using the pseudonym of Katie Johnson, who then mysteriously dropped the suit.
  8. The unsealed files revealed that a victim of Epstein’s, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, was recruited by him at Trump’s estate, Mar-a-Lago.
  9. Barr worked at Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm that represented Epstein in 2008, which Barr testified would mandate his recusal from such cases.
  10. But Barr then un-recused himself from Epstein’s case, but not from the investigation of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s 2007 sweetheart deal for Epstein, which another K&E attorney negotiated with Acosta, leading to Acosta’s resignation in July.
  11. Barr’s father Donald Barr hired Epstein in the late 1970s to teach at his school, the Dalton School.
  12. While at Dalton, the younger Barr introduced Epstein to Donald Trump, who, prior to the Trump Airlines bankruptcy, sold him an airplane that later became known as the “Lolita Express.”

Actually, that last part’s untrue. I made it up. It sounded good, right? I even hyperlinked the nickname of Epstein‘s sex plane to make it more real. All I wanted to do is give you a connection that you might remember, regardless of its veracity. Which makes it fit with everything in the tweet the president of the United States just retweeted, all of which is false.

Everything about this photo is galling, down to the logo on his shirt.

Admit it. Some part of your brain wants Epstein’s suicide to be a homicide. You likely hate Trump or Clinton or even just billionaire pedophiles enough to want to see Epstein go out screaming for help and then choking in terror. I know I do. I’m not proud of it. But I also know this will make prosecuting Epstein’s clients much harder, and that makes me angry too.

One of many difficult to read pages in the Katie Johnson lawsuit.

Especially if one of those people is Epstein’s former pal, Donald J. Trump. I use his middle initial because that’s what I read over and over in the Johnson suit, where phrases like “sex slave” and “underage sex parties” get closely associated with the name “Donald J. Trump.” If I ever think, maybe I should start respecting this guy, I remember that phrasing.

That’s not the only reason. Trump is the vector of all the most loathsome conspiracies of the last two decades. Obama’s birth certificate? Check. The supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism? Definitely. 9/11 trutherism? Regrettably so. Climate change not real? Of course. Hurricane Maria’s death toll faked? Afraid so. Millions voting illegally? Yup. Windmills causing cancer? Man, that’s even hard to type, but yes. Anything the Alex Joneses of the world spout, Trump will echo full bore.

Trump really likes unfounded murder theories, especially those involving his opponents. He said Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK and Joe Scarborough killed an intern and some nameless person killed Antonin Scalia. And of course he most dedicatedly proclaims those about the Clintons. He fanned the flames with this quote: “It’s the one thing with her, whether it’s Whitewater or whether it’s Vince or whether it’s Benghazi. It’s always a mess with Hillary.” Whitewater and Benghazi were investigations of varying validity, but Vince Foster’s supposed murder is just a right-wing fantasy. Similarly with Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, where a lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration worked with Fox News to spread the theory that Clinton’s team colluded with Wikileaks.

I chose the word “vector” explicitly. Conspiracies work like viruses. They find a host, make them an incubator, and impel that host to share it with others. The connection between the reprobates Epstein and Barr is an easy link to draw, but it’s probably not a truthful link. The fact that Barr worked at Kirkland & Ellis does not make him a murderer. It also doesn’t clear him of murder. It’s just a fact. But if you want Barr to go down in flames with Epstein, it’s a fact you might use to bring that outcome about.

Big conspiracies like murdering Epstein are unlikely to work, at least for long. The bigger the conspiracy, the harder it is to keep it bottled up. Say you decide to commit a crime, and you tell no one. Let’s say you have a 5% chance of revealing the crime, whether accidentally or not. Well, then you have only a 5% chance to be caught. Now let’s say you bring on a friend to help with the crime, and you both individually have a 5% chance of revealing it. Now you have nearly a 10% (5% + (95% of 5%)) chance of being caught. Now you bring on eight more co-conspirators. Now you have more than a 40% chance of one of you revealing the act. Ten more co-conspirators gets you to about 65%, and that’s only until only one of you reveals it. Any number of you might after that, raising your chances of a full-blown reveal quite a bit.

“For a conspiracy of even only a few thousand actors, intrinsic failure would arise within decades,” physicist David Robert Grimes writes. “For hundreds of thousands, such failure would be assured within less than half a decade. It’s also important to note that this analysis deals solely with intrinsic failure, or the odds of a conspiracy being exposed intentionally or accidentally by actors involved—extrinsic analysis by non-participants would also increase the odds of detection, rendering such Byzantine cover-ups far more likely to fail.”

That’s why I’m sure the moon landing is real. Because a moon landing would require a whole lot more than 20 people to fake. I feel good about JFK. And I’ve seen for myself that the earth is spherical, so don’t get me started on that.

Machiavelli had this one on lockdown. In his treatise Discourses on Livy, he devotes an entire chapter to the game theory behind conspiracies—not the kind that gets people to freak out about fluoride, but the kind that gets autocrats killed. Machiavelli wrote:

There are two risks, then, in communicating a plot to any one individual: the first, lest he should denounce you voluntarily; the second, lest he should denounce you, being himself arrested on suspicion, or from some indications, and being convicted and forced to it by the torture. But there are means of escaping both these dangers: the first, by denial and by alleging personal hatred to have prompted the accusation; and the other, by denying the charge, and alleging that your accuser was constrained by the force of torture to tell lies. But the most prudent course is not to communicate the plot to any one, and to act in accordance with the above-cited examples; and if you cannot avoid drawing some one into your confidence, then to let it be not more than one, for in that case the danger is much less than if you confide in many.

Spoiler: It didn’t work out.

Machiavelli understood that the conspiracy game is a sequential game. A sequential game is one where participants take turns, possibly having learned from a previous player’s turn what they did and adapting thereafter. That conspiracies come in sequences is what makes a conspiracist likely to fall prey to a conspiracy. Machiavelli notes the story of the emperor Commodus, whom you probably know from Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal in Gladiator.

The Emperor Commodus had amongst his nearest friends and intimates Letus and Electus, two captains of the Prætorian soldiers; he also had Marcia as his favorite concubine. As these three had on several occasions reproved him for the excesses with which he had stained his own dignity and that of the Empire, he resolved to have them killed, and wrote a list of the names of Marcia, Letus, and Electus, and of some other persons, whom he wanted killed the following night. Having placed this list under his pillow, he went to the bath; a favorite child of his, who was playing in the chamber and on the bed, found this list, and on going out with it in his hand was met by Marcia, who took the list from the child. Having read it, she immediately sent for Letus and Electus, and when these three had thus become aware of the danger that threatened them, they resolved to forestall the Emperor, and without losing any time they killed Commodus the following night.

Under his pillow! Dude, you are lucky to have been played by Joaquin Phoenix, especially before the whole beard thing.

Anyway, if Barr wanted to kill Epstein against his will, in the light of his highly publicized unsealed files, he would need quite a large conspiracy. He would need people on the inside of an agency he only recently inherited, and in a jurisdiction quite hostile to the president as of late. He would need cameras to go out conveniently, which the internet wanted so much to believe. Barr is a lackey of the first degree, but it takes a lot to transition that guy into a murderer, and even more to transform the system into one. If there’s a there there, the truth will out.

Yeah, I’m okay that this is where Jeffrey Epstein died.

That said, it’s very tempting to believe it’s impossible for Epstein to have committed suicide. For this to work, the Metropolitan Correctional Center staff would have to give Epstein the tools to do himself in. This seems highly unlikely, given what prisoners who’ve been there say about the place. Just listen to a prisoner talking to the New York Post:

There’s no way that man could have killed himself. I’ve done too much time in those units. It’s an impossibility. Between the floor and the ceiling is like eight or nine feet. There’s no way for you to connect to anything. You have sheets, but they’re paper level, not strong enough. He was 200 pounds — it would never happen. When you’re on suicide watch, they put you in this white smock, a straight jacket. They know a person cannot be injurious to themselves. The clothing they give you is a jump-in uniform. Everything is a dark brown color. Could he have done it from the bed? No sir. There’s a steel frame, but you can’t move it. There’s no light fixture. There’s no bars. They don’t give you enough in there that could successfully create an instrument of death. You want to write a letter, they give you rubber pens and maybe once a week a piece of paper. Nothing hard or made of metal. And there’s a cop at the door about every nine minutes, whether you’re on suicide watch or not. There’s up to 80 people there. They could put two in a cell. It’s one or two, but I’ll never believe this guy had a cellmate. He was too blown up.

This is testimony I believe. And I also believe it when he says this:

Some of the guards are on a major power trip. They know guys there are suffering. They know something the rest of the world hasn’t seen, that a place like this exists in this country, and they get off on it. If the guards see that the guy is breaking, they’re going to help you break.

So do I believe that Barr ordered Epstein killed at the president’s bequest? No, I do not. Do I believe that it’s incredibly suspicious that the suicide watch was lifted after a suicide attempt by the most dangerous person in America to the president of the United States? I absolutely do. Do I believe that the MCC staff might’ve made it so hard on Epstein that he followed through with what he tried to do already? One hundred percent.

Killing Jeffrey Epstein would be a massive conspiracy. It’s hard to grok how big that would have to be. But just walking away and letting him die? Easy. And delightfully convenient for some rich and powerful people, including the president. That’s a conspiracy I can believe in. I’ll bet you do too.

Only Donald J. Trump makes this possible. He’s the one who said, ”I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” That’s a man who’s capable of ordering a hit on a witness. Not everyone comes across that way. It’s not easy to imagine, say, Mayor Pete Buttigieg spreading conspiracies willy-nilly only to be tripped up by them himself. He’s an honest fellow. But think back on what you recall of Emperor Commodus from history, or at least Gladiator. You don’t have any trouble imagining that guy being central to a scandalous conspiracy. And as far as I know, he hadn’t lied over ten thousand times in a couple of years. Donald Trump has. If lies and conspiracy take this new Commodus down, I‘m down with that. Conspiracy begets conspiracy. Machiavelli again:

“There is, then, no greater misfortune for a prince than that a conspiracy should be formed against him; for it either causes his death, or it dishonors him. If the conspiracy succeeds, he dies; if it be discovered, and he punishes the conspirators with death, it will always be believed that it was an invention of the prince to satisfy his cruelty and avarice with the blood and possessions of those whom he had put to death.”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

This is the 41st installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, and the environment. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.