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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It's easier to turn power into money than it is to turn money into power. That said, if you want power, and even if you want money, it helps a lot if people think you're a billionaire.

Driving the news: Jeffrey Epstein, whose pedophilia is now back in the public eye, was almost invariably described as a billionaire even when there was no evidence that he was worth anywhere near that much money.

  • Epstein's conspicuous displays of wealth included owning the largest private residence in New York (9 East 71st, which was originally purchased by one of his clients, Les Wexner) and a $10 million charitable foundation called Gratitude America (which seems to have been funded by another client, Leon Black). They also included private jets and a private island in the Caribbean.
  • Epstein's mysterious yet ultra-opulent lifestyle served two purposes. It helped to seduce both men and women — and it gave him an aura of impunity. By creating a bubble of spectacular privilege, he successfully persuaded everybody — not only his friends, but the underage girls he was accused of having sex with — that he was untouchable. Even after the bubble burst, he got away with an astonishingly light punishment for his crimes.

Epstein is far from being the first fake billionaire. Malaysian fraudster Jho Low similarly attempted to buy himself impunity, with some success: He remains at large.

  • The power of Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos fame, resided almost entirely in the fact that people thought she was a billionaire.
  • Most intriguingly, press baron Robert Maxwell stole $600 million from his newspapers' pension plans in order to keep his empire together. His daughter Ghislaine went on to become Epstein's closest confidante (and co-defendant).

The bottom line: Some people want to be wealthy; criminals, by contrast, often find it more useful to be perceivedto be wealthy. The genuinely rich tend to care about preserving and growing their wealth. Really big spenders are disproportionately likely to be frauds.

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Elijah Nouvelage, Alex Wong/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence. Trump believes the vice president can solve all his problems by simply refusing to certify the Electoral College results. It's a simple test of loyalty: Trump or the U.S. Constitution.

"The end is coming, Donald."

The male voice in the TV ad boomed through the White House residence during "Fox & Friends" commercial breaks. Over and over and over. "The end is coming, Donald. ... On Jan. 6, Mike Pence will put the nail in your political coffin."

Big Tech's post-riot reckoning

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The Capitol insurrection means the anti-tech talk in Washington is more likely to lead to action, since it's ever clearer that the attack was planned, at least in part, on social media.

Why it matters: The big platforms may have hoped they'd move to D.C.'s back burner, with the Hill focused on the Biden agenda and the pandemic out of control. But now, there'll be no escaping harsh scrutiny.

31 mins ago - Technology

Why domestic terrorists are so hard to police online

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Domestic terrorism has proven to be more difficult for Big Tech companies to police online than foreign terrorism.

The big picture: That's largely because the politics are harder. There's more unity around the need to go after foreign extremists than domestic ones — and less danger of overreaching and provoking a backlash.