Melinda and Bill Gates at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 30, 2009.

What did Melinda Gates know—and when did she know it?

Is Melinda Gates trying to get ahead of uncomfortable revelations about her husband’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein?

When I read the news last week that Bill and Melinda Gates were divorcing after 27 years of marriage, my first reaction was empathy. The pandemic has been hard on all couples, I thought, even the ones who happened to have been quarantining in a 66,000-square-foot compound with 18.75 bathrooms called Xanadu 2.0. Melinda told The New York Times in October 2020 that being stuck working from home with her husband, after years of frenetic traveling, “was a piece that I think we hadn’t really individually prepared for quite as much.” This was somewhat relatable. No matter the size of your home, there is such a thing as too much togetherness. 

But then there were questions. Foremost among them: Why now? After all, thanks in part to the efforts of the Gates Foundation, which has donated more than $1.75 billion to Covid-19 research, 130 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine. As we approach herd immunity, we are slowly emerging from our pandemic hidey holes. Businesses are reopening. People are talking about wearing jeans again. Couldn’t the world’s biggest philanthropists just carry on living separate lives, united by their passion for giving back? We already know that Melinda is pretty laissez faire when it comes to her marriage, allowing Bill to vacation every year with his ex-girlfriend. The couple owns a far-flung real estate portfolio with at least seven properties totaling $170 million. Melinda could take up residence at Xanadu 2.0 while Bill could stay in their $12.5 million home in Palm Desert, California, from whence he signed the divorce papers. Or they could resume traveling around the world, perhaps staying at the Four Seasons, which they own a large stake in through Bill’s firm Cascade Investment LLC. 

A few days after the divorce announcement, we started to get a possible answer to the timing question. The Daily Beast broke the news that Melinda was reportedly “furious” after her husband took her to meet with Jeffrey Epstein at his Upper East Side mansion back in September 2013. The anger is understandable given that one of Melinda’s top priorities at the Gates Foundation is to invest in gender equality and women’s empowerment—and Jeffrey Epstein at the time was a registered sex offender. The Wall Street Journal followed up this week, reporting that Melinda met with divorce lawyers in 2019 after the New York Times published a story detailing the extent of her husband’s relationship with Epstein. The Times reported that Gates sent an effusive email to his colleagues upon meeting Epstein, describing his lifestyle as “very different and kind of intriguing although it would not work for me.” The Gates PR machine then went into full-on spin mode, telling the Times that Gates “was referring only to the unique décor of the Epstein residence.” Ah, yes, the unique décor

I remember reading that Times article in 2019 and shaking my head. Did I think it was creepy that Bill Gates was hanging out with Jeffrey Epstein? Yes. Did I think that Bill Gates was raping girls who Epstein had trafficked? No, I did not. 

Given his wealth, power and involvement in scientific pursuits, Bill Gates has been a magnet for truly wacko conspiracy theories, such as the idea that he wants to use vaccine shots as a vehicle to insert trackable microchips into people’s bodies. Believers in QAnon, the umbrella conspiracy theory that holds that there exists a secret child trafficking ring run by Satan-worshipping Democrats—including President Biden, Hillary Clinton and George Soros–have been having a field day with the divorce announcement, speculating in chat forums that Bill Gates is either about to be arrested or that the breakup is intended to somehow cover up for the fact that both Gateses are dead (don’t ask). I can now see how these types of bonkers narratives had the unusual effect of pushing my mind toward the exact opposite explanation, which is that Bill Gates is a brilliant but oblivious man who, like so many others, unwittingly got swept up in Epstein’s net. 

But now I’m not so sure. Is it possible that Bill Gates’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein went beyond fundraising for philanthropic projects? It is. And the thing that makes me think it is possible is the extent to which Gates downplayed his links to Epstein, both to the press and, apparently, to his wife. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal tied to a Netflix documentary about Gates, he denied having any sort of relationship with the pedophile financier, saying “I met him. I didn’t have any business relationship or friendship with him. I didn’t go to New Mexico or Florida or Palm Beach or any of that.” This turned out to be a big lie: Not only had the two men met many times over the years, but the Times report revealed that Gates flew on Epstein’s Gulfstream plane, known as “the Lolita Express” from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey to Palm Beach in 2013. The New Yorker also reported that Gates made a $2 million donation to the MIT Media Lab in 2014, a donation that was said to be directed by Epstein. 

At the heart of any good conspiracy theory is a twisted kernel of truth. Could it be that there is, in fact, an elite illuminati-like pedophile ring running the world–except that, instead of being controlled by prominent Democrats, the cabal transcends any particular political ideology? If that turns out to be the case, then is it even remotely possible that Bill Gates, in collaboration perhaps with two other powerful Bills—Barr and Clinton—may have conspired to have Jeffrey Epstein murdered in jail, so that their involvement is kept secret? When my brain goes down these (admittedly speculative) rabbit holes, I start to feel like I’m getting swallowed up in the Matrix, until I remember that it’s one thing to be running around spouting nonsense about Pizzagate and frazzledrip, and quite another to see evidence of an actual conspiracy unfolding before your eyes. Because something here really does not make sense. 

We need answers as to why Bill Gates, the fourth-richest man on earth who runs the biggest charitable organization in history, needed Epstein’s “help” with philanthropy, even after his wife expressed serious reservations about interacting with him. We need to understand why the Gates Foundation’s former science adviser, a man named Boris Nikolic, was named executor of Epstein’s estate before he died. We need to know how Melanie Walker, a longtime adviser to Epstein, came to be part of Gates’s inner circle. Then there’s the question of Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer, who, according to Vanity Fair, palled around with Epstein in Palm Beach and Manhattan and was accused by Alan Dershowitz of having sex with one of Epstein’s underage victims. We need to understand why Bill Gates brushed off all these intersections between his orbit and Epstein’s, not to mention why he suddenly stepped down from the boards of Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway last year

And before we let Melinda Gates off the hook, we need to understand what she knew and when she knew it. Any evidence of complicity should disqualify her from being an advocate for women and girls. 

Hopefully soon, we will get some answers. Last summer, Epstein co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested at a 156-acre property in New Hampshire and on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan announced that the trial will begin after Thanksgiving. It was originally slated to commence in July, but her lawyers argued that they needed more time to prepare after a new sex-trafficking charge was filed this year that alone carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. If anyone knows where the bodies are buried, it is Ghislaine Maxwell. Indeed, she may already be cooperating with investigators in exchange for leniency. 

Suddenly, the carefully coordinated Gates divorce announcement makes more sense as a calculated PR move on the part of Melinda to get ahead of the Epstein narrative and distance herself from its stench. If you are trying to run a foundation that advocates for women and girls around the world, being tied to a global child sex-trafficking ring is not exactly great for the brand. 

There’s no question that the $50 billion Gates Foundation, in its 21 years of existence, has done a lot of good work. Because of their work, the incidence of polio around the world has declined by 99 percent. They have prevented 1.5 billion cases of malaria and donated billions to fighting HIV and AIDS. And of course, the coronavirus. But we cannot ignore the fact that the Foundation has also helped launder Bill Gates’s reputation, transforming him from a ruthless Robber Baron 2.0 who built his success by crushing the competition (and foisting a sub-optimal product on consumers), into a champion of public health, an expert on climate change, a thought leader for the Davos set. As Anand Giridharadas put it in his book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” the only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.

We as a society need to question whether relying on the voluntary largesse of an ascendant billionaire class is the best way to solve the world’s problems. Why should the takers, the hoarders of the world’s wealth, be presumed to be experts on giving? The Gates divorce reminds us that it might be more effective, more conducive to a thriving democracy, to simply raise their taxes.

Rachel Dodes is a journalist focused on entertainment, politics and the intersection of the two. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, the New York Times, BuzzFeed and the Wall Street Journal. She also co-hosts a podcast called “Nope,” in which she shuts down the most abominable news of the week, every week. Follow her on Twitter @racheld.