Never Go Full Trump: The Lena Epstein Story

The Washington Post/The Washington Post

Yesterday I discussed this bizarre incident where a “Jews for Jesus” faux rabbi did some kind of invocation or prayer at an event Vice President Mike Pence held for Rep. Mike Bishop and candidate Lena Epstein. Making it particularly offensive is that the ‘rabbi’ Loren Jacobs was asked to say a prayer on behalf of the eleven Jews murdered at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I tried to explain some of it in this post last night. Suffice it to say that most Jews have a viscerally negative reaction to this group, which they correctly see as a stalking horse for evangelical groups trying to convert Jews to Christianity. Which brings us to the question: who the hell invited this guy?

I’ve been digging into this minor mystery. And boy, it’s a really weird story. And by that I mean not just the ‘rabbi’ but the whole campaign of Lena Epstein which appears to be an unfolding train wreck that I didn’t know about but really needed to.

Let’s start at the beginning. The “Jews for Jesus” rabbi gave a benediction about Pittsburgh and instead of naming the victims named Republican candidates to vote for. Critically, he invoked Jesus, which is not something actual rabbis do. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that – if you’re Christian.) Last night it was revealed that Jacobs was actually defrocked years ago by the national “Jews for Jesus” group, making him actually a fake fake rabbi. So who invited this guy? The White House put out word that Jacobs had been invited by Epstein. She immediately followed with a statement confirming this, though in a roundabout way that made it a little fuzzy about whether she knew who Jacobs was, his religious beliefs or why she would have invited him. She didn’t name Jacobs or his religious affiliation.

What I learned when I dug into the story is that this is a fascinating race and well … a bizarre one. Epstein is in the process being semi-ostracized by the local Jewish community and stumbling fairly badly as a candidate because she’s such a hardcore Trumper in a district and a community that is not at all friendly to Trump.

And this was happening long before the Pence event.

So who is Lena Epstein? She is a twice-over heiress, the scion of an extremely wealthy Detroit area family which owns a major regional oil distributor and supplier of industrial lubricants to Chrysler, Vesco Oil. She and her sister Lilly now run the company.

The family is or was made up of moderate Democrats – and she was herself one until at least her mid-twenties. She was actually a Kerry campaign volunteer in 2004. They’re also big machers in the local Jewish community. In many ways, Epstein is a kind of regional Jared Kushner type. In fact, they both graduated in the same class from Harvard. But some time around 2011 and 2012 she shifted to the right and got heavily involved in Republican politics. Indeed, I found some evidence that she was originally radicalized by Dinesh D’Souza. (No really. I’m not kidding about this.) In 2012 she got on the ill-fated Santorum for President bandwagon and was hosting gala events for him like this one.

So going back six or seven years, Epstein has been a Republican activist. In 2016 she got on the Trump bandwagon early and became his state co-chair in Michigan – a gig she hoped to parlay into a major appointment when Trump became President. No one was a more stalwart loyalist. When candidate Trump was on the ropes over the Access Hollywood tape, Epstein told the Detroit Free Press: “Such comments are rude and inconsiderate. Thankfully, Mr Trump has apologized for those remarks. Still, rude remarks from 2005 aren’t as hurtful or obscene as ignoring the pleas for help from America’s embassy in Benghazi.”

When a job from Trump didn’t pan out, Epstein decided to run for Senate against Senator Debbie Stabenow. But then Dave Trott, congressman in the 11th district retired. Michigan’s 11th district has a small Republican lean (Cook R+4). And she jumped from the Senate race into the race for the House. But over the last year her high profile as a candidate and increasingly over-the-top embrace of Trumpism has became an increasing spectacle and horror to the local community.

Here you have the daughter of one of Michigan’s wealthiest Jewish families, Harvard-educated and a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat until at least her mid-twenties pulling off a well-funded extreme makeover into a hard-bitten avatar of red state values who likes nothing better than get in her pickup and take a couple long guns down to the range for an afternoon of shootin’.

It all leads to fanfic photoshoots like this.

Facebook/Lena Epstein

Or awkward campaign videos like this in which she welcomed Kid Rock into the Senate race (he never actually got in) a short time before she herself got out.

More recently, Epstein has tried to grab hold of national GOP storylines, grievance spasms and talking points and pull a part of them into the 11th district. During the height of the family separation controversy, Epstein came forward to say she too had been targeted the feral Democratic mobs allegedly terrorizing Republicans across the country because of her “political views.” In June she sent out a press release announcing that “a fundraiser being held for me at Franklin Hills Country Club, where my family has been members for generations, had been canceled. Upon hearing this, I was upset, but did not want to make the issue public. The situation escalated when it was published on social media, and picked up by a news outlet. After seeing what’s been happening across the country to Republicans like Sarah Sanders and Pam Bondi, I wanted the opportunity to share what happened to me.”

But there’s also been a more sinister side to Epstein’s evolution: like her times hanging out with guitar-strumming anti-Semite Ted Nugent.

Epstein has also played up her relationship with white nationalist leader Steve Bannon.

Then there was the time shortly after the Charlottesville white supremacist rally last year that state Democrats found Epstein liking tweets by various white nationalists and alt-right figures included David Duke! Epstein claimed her Twitter account had been hacked to add the white nationalist and neo-Nazi likes. She provided a screen capture of password change confirmation as proof.

For all these reasons, long before the incident at the Mike Pence event, Epstein’s antics had left the district’s Jewish community some mix of aghast, horrified and embarrassed by Epstein’s campaign. Community sources describe the generally liberal Jewish community in her district as trying their best to ostracize her though somewhat limited by her family’s influence and prominence in the community. One source who’s known Epstein for years described the community’s reaction to her campaign as one of “relative abhorrence.”

Just this morning, the senior Rabbi at Temple Beth El, Epstein’s Reform congregation denounced the incident on a public Facebook post.

Notably, Miller does not mention Epstein or her role in the story, despite at least her claim that she invited him to the event. But as one observer notes, since the Epstein family are major donors to the Temple and local Jewish community organizations, this is probably as far as he could go. A call to Epstein’s campaign was not returned.

This visual has no direct relation to the election in Michigan’s 11th district but is presented as a visual representation of Epstein’s campaign.

So what is the deal with Epstein? Is she a nice Jewish girl from suburban Detroit who is actually a secret or well … not so secret alt-righter or a congregant at a Reform Temple who’s secretly part of “Jews for Jesus”?

Having read up on the coverage of her campaign and spoken to sources who know the local community and Epstein herself well this still remains something of a mystery to me. The image of Epstein I gleaned from all these sources is one of a candidate who mixes naïveté, indifference and entitlement, makes snap decisions based on the friend of the moment and then doubles and triples down on the snap decisions. (In other words, she’s a bit like Trump.) Some sources with knowledge of the situation tell me they think Jacobs started showing up at Epstein events, told her she was awesome and became her new best friend without her really realizing who he was. That led to the invite to the Pence event. Others don’t find that credible. They think somehow Epstein convinced herself this made political or ethical sense much as she did when she courted Ted Nugent and Steve Bannon and liked tweets by David Duke.

When I tried to contact Loren Jacobs, his representative Jennifer Golstein told me Jacobs was not doing interviews at this time.

My hunch is that there’s more to this story. And I suspect we’ll learn more of it soon.

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