President Trump’s return to the White House podium on Tuesday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic took an unusual detour when he offered warm words for Ghislaine Maxwell, who is facing federal charges of helping Jeffrey Epstein recruit, groom and sexually abuse girls.
Mr. Trump’s comment about Ms. Maxwell, who was arrested in New Hampshire this month and is being held without bail in a federal jail in Brooklyn, came in response to a reporter’s question about whether he expected her to go public with the names of powerful men who have been accused in lawsuits of taking part in the sex-trafficking ring that Mr. Epstein allegedly ran.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Trump said. “I haven’t really been following it too much. I just wish her well, frankly.”
“I’ve met her numerous times over the years, especially since I lived in Palm Beach, and I guess they lived in Palm Beach,” the president continued, referring to the Florida town where his Mar-a-Lago resort is and where Mr. Epstein had a home. “But I wish her well, whatever it is.”
Ms. Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The remarks renewed attention on Mr. Trump’s ties to Mr. Epstein, who was arrested almost exactly a year before Ms. Maxwell, Mr. Epstein’s longtime companion. Mr. Epstein was charged in a federal indictment with sexually exploiting and abusing dozens of girls and women at his mansion in Manhattan and elsewhere, including at his Palm Beach estate.
A month after his arrest, Mr. Epstein, 66, hanged himself in his cell at the federal jail in Manhattan where he was awaiting trial. Federal prosecutors said after his death that they would continue to investigate his associates.
After Mr. Epstein’s arrest, Mr. Trump sought to distance himself from the disgraced financier, who had avoided federal sex-crime charges under a widely criticized plea deal in 2008 that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser state charges of soliciting prostitution. (A furor over the plea deal ultimately caused Mr. Trump’s labor secretary, who negotiated it, to resign.)
Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House last July, said he knew Mr. Epstein “like everybody in Palm Beach knew him.”
But, the president added: “I had a falling-out with him. I haven’t spoken to him in 15 years. I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you.” The circumstances of the rupture in their relationship have never been made clear.
Mr. Trump’s comments last year were a reversal from the opinion he expressed in 2002, when he told New York magazine that Mr. Epstein was a “terrific guy” whom he had known for 15 years.
“He’s a lot of fun to be with,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Mr. Epstein was never a dues-paying Mar-a-Lago member, but Mr. Trump treated him like a close friend and the two men were photographed together at the club in the 1990s and early 2000s — Mr. Trump always wearing a tie, Mr. Epstein never wearing one. They also attended many of the same dinner parties in Manhattan.
George Houraney, a Florida businessman, described one episode in the two men’s yearslong relationship to The New York Times last year.
It was 1992, and Mr. Houraney had flown two dozen or so women in for what was supposed to be a “calendar girl” competition at Mar-a-Lago. The only guests, it turned out, were Mr. Trump and Mr. Epstein.
Mr. Houraney, who at the time had just teamed up with Mr. Trump to host events at his casinos, was taken aback.
“I said, ‘Donald, this is supposed to be a party with V.I.P.s,’” he recalled. “‘You’re telling me it’s you and Epstein?’”
Last year, about a week after Mr. Trump sought to disavow his ties to Mr. Epstein, a video surfaced that captured the men enjoying themselves together at Mar-a-Lago in the company of dozens of N.F.L. cheerleaders.
At the event shown in the footage, which also happened in 1992, Mr. Trump and Mr. Epstein can be seen watching and commenting to each other about women.
Mr. Trump, who was 46 at the time and dressed in a suit and a pink tie, appears to be in jovial spirits, laughing and warmly welcoming guests, including Mr. Epstein.
Mr. Trump seems to be in his element. He moves from the dance floor to the sidelines and back. At one point, he points out a woman to Mr. Epstein and leans in to tell him, “She’s hot.”
At another point, Mr. Epstein doubles over laughing at something Mr. Trump whispers in his ear.